Thursday, December 31, 2009

Do start-ups have HR?

Recently, I've been talking with lots of entrepreneurs and start-up founders here in the New York area. A main goal was to dig - to discover what HR 'stage' they are in, what their challenges are, and learn about their HR strategy. I found, and what I'm now feeling is the norm, there were no HR plans. No thoughts about HR. No concerns. Yikes.

This is worse than I thought. I could have guessed most biz plans didn't include a dedicated HR hire until 50+ employees. Am I right? It's one of those functions that doesn't shout look at these bottom line deliverables. It might be difficult to demonstrate the ROI? It's just easier not to think about HR.

Who does the hiring, I asked. Who picks and administers benefits and insurance and that stuff? The CEO responds "me, and it takes loads of time." Just for items like this, I wonder why seeing HR more strategically isn't obvious. Does compensation planning, training (as a benefit and as a legal protection), facilitating communication/employee relations, or putting the minimal legal employment compliance in place help put the justification for HR over the edge?

Well, I said it. 'HR at startups'. It should not be a stranger to the sharp, forward thinking start-up.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Taking Time to Enjoy the Team

I've been off the map recently because we have been BUSY. In addition to Board Meetings and big client projects, we had our Holiday Party and our 2010 Strategy Meeting. Both important and time consuming events - and both events that have kept me deep in the engagement state of mind.

Our Holiday Party was rejuvenating. We did employee trivia - can you guess what past odd jobs and unique experiences your co-workers have had? We had some drinks, grabbed some silly props, and took some company pictures. Of course, we exchanged secret Santa gifts and shared a fancy dinner - complete with heartfelt employee toasts.

Our Holiday Dinner reminded us that we need to do more hanging out together as a group. We enjoy it and it makes work even more fun.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009


Ok, I'm officially interested in 'engagement' - as a topic, as a field, and as a start-up game changer.

I recently tweeted some Gallup results noting that almost three quarters of employees today don't consider themselves 'actively engaged' in their work. Look at four of your employees and pick the three that aren't actively engaged. If your start-up only has 3 folks, I'm not sure what to do.

No matter what 'actively engaged' means or if this stat really applies to your work environment (of course it doesn't right?) this is some serious business to think about. It is something to be concerned about. Think of the lost productivity, the negativity, the turnover, ahhh... This is something to act on.

Your employees might not be engaged if....

They are overwhelmed with work, they are in an environment with poor communication and uncertainty, the business direction and strategy is not relevant to them, they don't feel safe learning new skills or trying new things, they don't understand the big picture, they don't trust their leaders, or their leaders refuse to embrace reality.

Do any of those sound familiar? What is happening, or not happening, due to lack of engagement? What active steps do you do to keep people engaged?

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Always be open to interns

Invest your time, be open minded, search for, and nurse interns. Interns can bring you high quality work, can be free, might be your next full timer, and can offer a breath of fresh air, inspiration and creativity.

Open minded is a key word - maybe you didn't think you needed a business development intern, or a graphic designer. If they are willing to work and they are sharp, bring them in. Invest some time talking at schools, hosting events, and posting internship opportunities.

Interns benefit from this arrangement too. They build their resume, gain real experience (probably diverse and meaningful experience), and position themselves for a job with you!

Warning: Be sure they get something from the experience - ask them if they are (or what would make them) having a good experience. More importantly, make sure you don't spend too much time telling them what to do. Time sucking interns are like the plague! Pick a few isolated projects you can let them run with. Give them free reign and have regular check-in and feedback sessions. If they bring more trouble than value cut them loose.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Engage Your Team

Picture three bricklayers building a church. Each picks up a brick, spreads mortar on it, and sets in place.

A little boy sees them working and ask each bricklayer what they are doing.

The first bricklayer replies, "I'm putting one brick on top of another. Isn't it obvious?"

The second says "I'm building a wall for the west side of the church."

The third bricklayer says "I'm creating a cathedral. It will stand for centuries and inspire people to do great deeds."

Which of the bricklayers is looking at his watch waiting for quitting time? Which one knows only about her task? Which one is truly engaged, focused on the outcome - motivated to make the church as good as it can be?

It's a simple story. But one that shows how powerful true engagement can be. It demonstrates why it's worthwhile for you to care about engaging employees, and why you should be investing time in employees - and helping them see and be part of the end goal. Unfortunately, I did not make this analogy up myself. I've borrowed it from the Art of Engagement by Jim Haudan. I've just started reading but I'm excited to dig in more. Stay tuned.

Which bricklayer would you want on your team? What do you do now to get the right type of bricklayer?

Friday, November 6, 2009

To Review or not to Review

I love hearing opinions about performance reviews. It's usually complaints that the review process is not meaningful, it doesn't reflect performance, and is even damaging. Start-ups often decide to dismiss annual reviews altogether. 'Performance reviews are old school and lame, instead we just give regular feedback,' I can hear them say.

This New York Times interview with Yahoo's chief executive Carol Bartz, titled 'Imagining a World of No Annual Reviews" enforces this mindset - and reminded me that I love listening to this debate.

Carol says:
When the puppy pees on the carpet, you say something right then because you don’t say six months later, “Remember that day, January 12th, when you peed on the carpet? If I had my way I wouldn’t do annual reviews, if I felt that everybody would be more honest about positive and negative feedback along the way. I think the annual review process is so antiquated.

Wait a minute Carol - you are the chief executive, why don't you have your way? The main reason you don't is that managers do not give regular feedback. They probably give more feedback to their dog than to their staff. They do not have meaningful conversations with employees to learn work challenges, areas they are interested, frustration points, nor to discuss good and bad performance areas. Now I know there are some superb managers, but generally the feedback just doesn't happen, managers aren't trained well, or they don't care. Actually, its these same things (magnified) as to why they hate annual reviews. Managers don't want to give real thought to giving constructive feedback or deal with what they perceive as an awkward interaction.

You know... if meaningful feedback actually did happen regularly, an 'official review' wouldn't bother anyone, would it? It would be a normal meeting for them. It wouldn't be awkward, there would be no surprises. It wouldn't be a big deal.

Don't get me wrong. I fundamentally agree with Carol. But since we don't give regular feedback and employees want it, we need to do something else. What? You want me to repeat that? Yes, employees actually want feedback, and even ask for it. People want to think they spend all their time doing something valuable - they actually do want legitimate praise and to hear/discuss real ways to improve.

So here's what I believe: If you are a start-up with a strong review system, stay with it. If you do nothing, then you need to start with at least one 'formal' review (at the end of the year) and preferably another one mid-year. This review doesn't have to have 1-5 scales, objectives set at beginning of the year, or any other traditional or formal elements. It should just be a time that forces everyone to get some feedback, to collect employee's wants and issues, to discuss position or department or company performance and goals, and maybe to discuss pay increases? I like starting with requesting employees to write up their accomplishments, challenges, what they want to work on short/long term, and what they have/have not enjoyed about their position or project. Employees give their one-page write up to their lead, who reflects, adds real stuff to it, and sits down to discuss. It's a start. Maybe an annual process that is used, and thoughtfully considered, will help create a real regular feedback environment?

What do you do? Does it work? Do you hate reviews? Do you get helpful feedback throughout the year?

Monday, October 26, 2009

Science called - it asked for better communication

I read a cool article in the Autumn 2009 strategy+business magazine about what recent neuroscience research tells us about the social nature of high-performing workplaces. Communicating better and reducing uncertainty is a necessity for increasing productivity and retaining staff.

One of the studies, that unfortunately applies to too many work environments, discusses how uncertainty has the ability to block work from getting done and encourages bad decisions. When something is certain, or familiar, "neural connections in our basal ganglia have 'hardwired' the situation and the responses to it. This makes it easy to do what someone knows how to do, even to focus on more than one thing. Like driving and talking on the phone."

Enter uncertainty ... Will we get funding? Are we hiring/firing? What is everyone else working on? Will the new project need me? Uncertainty registers in the part of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex, as an error, a gap or tension - something that must be corrected. Just a wee bit of uncertainty can be exciting. It can produce adrenaline and make us be more creative, prod us to think outside of the box and deliver more. Tip the scale a bit and get too much uncertainty and you have some real problems. "Not knowing what will happen next can be profoundly debilitating because it requires extra neural energy. This diminishes memory, undermines performance, and disengages people from the present. When perceived uncertainty gets out of hand, people panic and make bad decisions."

Doing poor work is one thing. But disengaging is another thing altogether. It's frightening to think your star performers are looking to 'correct' uncertainty by looking for new jobs that seem to be more stable.

I think in the vast majority of situations, people can handle more complexity than they are given credit for. They can handle knowing the problems and the variables behind them. Good leaders understand the importance of communicating regularly and meaningfully. Creating the perception of certainty builds confident and dedicated teams.

For example, sharing business plans, breaking down complex projects into discrete steps, sharing rationales for change, maps/plans of an organization’s structure, specifics about restructuring, and articulating how decisions are made help people feel more confident and build trust. 'Transparent practices are the foundation on which the perception of certainty rests.'

There you go. If you want your team effectively multi-tasking, concentrating, and not looking for other jobs, doesn't it make sense to communicate more?

Monday, October 19, 2009

Recruiting Interns

A friend of mine has a cool start-up that is really gaining traction. She wrote:
"I thought of you yesterday, Matt. I'm dealing with hiring interns (it's been a nightmare so far!). I hired an intern who worked one day and then asked me if he could use me as a reference on his resume. Ugh. Remind me again why you love this process so much! : ). You're freaky!"

Here were some of my thoughts:

  • Don't sacrifice on quality, but give on everything else. Look for an impressive, creative, or a cool past job experience. Compromise on work assignments, hours, days they work, tools you can get them, exposure to cool projects, whatever .... Give them free reign, a "professional playground." Make sure you give a real resume building experience and make that appealing to applicants. This will likely mean that you can't rely on them to deliver for your next deadline (or format that boring report) but they'll bring value.
  • Pay something. If you can avoid making the internship unpaid, do it. Pay $5/hour stipend, train fair, buy lunch... Anything you offer makes a big difference over the other completely unpaid opportunities out there.
  • Write a fun, creative, different, but realistic posting - this is a lengthy topic by itself, but spend some time. Explain your company, what you are looking for, the perks, and make it fun! Free posting spots should be able to give you what you want. I like (its free). Another good place to start an intern search is, of course,
  • Add fun screening questions that applicants must answer in order to get a response. This helps cut through the spam-of-crap applicants and can give a real glimpse of personality, drive, and quality. For example, Tell me a joke? Which of our current clients do you like most and why? What was a favorite viral video in the last year and why? Simple questions relating to the work are good too! What resource would you use for arranging travel from SF to NY? What are some common tasks of a PR company? State you are busy and will only respond to applicants that answer all of your questions. Very few candidates will respond to individual questions and the ones that do will really want the job.
This is certainly not an exhaustive list, but I've found these steps helpful. What are good recruiting tips you have used? How have your internship experiences worked out?

Monday, October 5, 2009

The Dark Phase

I recently wrote about Mark Jung's presentation about the phases of a start-up. While not technically a part of the '5 phases' and referring more to an individual (i.e. the founder), Mark also talked about a 'Dark Phase'.

During the Dark Phase you ask yourself if you still believe in yourself and the company? What does failure mean? How are you coping with failure? You wonder how the carnage could have been prevented? (I love that Mark used the word carnage). You reflect on the amount of responsibility or blame you should take? What do you do now?

There are no answers. They are tests.

I think 'Dark Phase' is a great term. It's comforting. Everyone has setbacks and failures. Everyone hits entire periods of darkness. Knowing that it's normal and expected helps. It's how you respond that matters.

Monday, September 28, 2009

The Phases of a Startup

I once had a phone interview with an applicant that had seen more than his share of start-ups. He heard me talk about our team and was able to accurately describe the open office layout and our office communication style (mostly yelling across the room). He heard where we were with manufacturing our product and with our funding rounds and was able to translate these things into an understanding of the roles of our team, the processes we did and did not have, and where we would need to beef up in our next hiring round. He just seemed to get what start-ups are all about.

I thought about this as I talked with other start-ups. And I began to see more and more commonalities between each of them. They have ups and downs, growths and layoffs, and stages of development. It's official {I'm noting the date and time}, I am now interested in the phases of a start-up.

There are plenty of folks out there describing start-up phases - there are 4 phases here and 3 here and this one is good. However, awhile back Mark Jung, former IGN CEO (Now Vudu CEO) did a presentation at Stanford Technology Ventures Program outlining phases that I find valid and particular pertinent to an HR practitioner at a start-up.

The 5 Phases are:
  1. Start-up and inception
  2. Growth
  3. Unfortunate setback
  4. Rejuvenation/Rebirth
  5. Transition
I think it's possible to look closely at these stages and use them as a guide. When you see the 'growth' period ahead, you know it's time to put basic workplace policies in place and initiate your hiring plan. How do you best divide up functions and roles as new people come aboard? It would be nice to be prepared for the 'unfortunate setback' and, as best is possible, proactively address employee concerns and problems.

I like this list Mark Jung! Thanks. I wonder if there are characteristics of each phase or indications of a transition to the next phase? How many of these characteristics are common across start-ups? How much can we learn about each phase?

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Respond to Job Seekers

With this tanker economy, there's been no shortage of articles and anecdotes about the shabby treatment doled out to job seekers - like here in Terry Frost's blog and this NY Times piece.

There is increased, and valid, criticism about the lack of communication with job seekers, even final stage candidates. I know it can be absolutely overwhelming to find and navigate a candidate through interviewing and onboarding. Responding to every applicant that floods your email on top of that seems undoable. Especially, at a startup where there is more to do than fits in a day - usually without a dedicated HR rep. As we open a new position here at my company I want to do better.

Here are a few strategies I suggest to help:

#1 Add some additional tasks to the job posting, and make it clear you'll only respond to applicants who respond to your additional requests. For example, ask applicants to name their favorite product in your line and why. Perhaps it's just asking them for the last book they read and loved? These additional, and non-traditional, requests can give you clear insight into an applicant's personality. More importantly, they serve as an immediate screening tool to gauge genuine interest. Seekers spamming their resume widely and blindly stand out like a sore thumb - as not being specifically 'into' your opportunity.

You can also use the posting to notify applicants that it might be as long as a week or two before they hear from you while you receive and screen folks.

#2 Be strategic in your posting location. For many positions, craigslist or careerbuilder will bring a barrage of nongermane candidates. Start instead by posting on focused job boards, hopefully yielding more qualified applicants, and fewer of them. For example, if you are looking for a QA Manager, start with devBistro or QAjobs. I also like to narrow down the field with industry specific sites, like CenterNetworks. Startuply should produce applicants more likely to be prepared for a start-up. Most of these niche job boards are free or extremely affordable (read $10).

#3 Develop an applicant triage. Keep the process moving along.

* The 'No' Pile: For those that are clearly don't fit your specifications, log them in a 'no' folder right away. I once had someone with only 1 year gravedigging experience apply for an embedded Linux developer spot. Schedule 30 minutes on your calendar to shoot these people a nice template email informing them it wasn't a match this time.

* The 'Maybe' Pile: If you don't move them to the 'no' pile with a quick hiring panel pow-wow then shoot them a template email asking them to hang on until 'x' date a couple weeks out. Tell them you have numerous candidates and your hiring team needs time to receive all applications and get together to review them.

* The 'Ohh looks good' Pile: Communicate regularly and personally with these folks and let them know where you are in the process. In fact, get to know them and how they react to the real challenges your team faces in the process. If there are too many in this group to correspond with easily, you need to transition more of them to the 'maybe' or 'no' pile. When someone drops from consideration, do your best to tell them why.

There are free open source Applicant Tracking Systems out there. OpenCATS might do the trick by helping you store applicant info and see where you are in the communication process. You can use a spreadsheet or even manila folders.

We can do this. Leaving job seekers in the lurch is not only unprofessional, but it severs a potentially powerful network of future friends, contributors, partners, and customers. I've built relationships with rejected candidates, one who later referred a perfect match for an open position and another who turned into a major customer. If someone applies to your company, it's likely they have related interests and connections you don't want to lose. Communicating with applicants is representative of your company as a whole - it's basic branding, and its basic courtesy.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Fast Growth Factors

Companies with the fastest revenue growth (we're talking 1,007% over the past two years) list key HR functions as their top two most important factors for success. Oh yeah!

Measuring HR's value is difficult, so it's very nice to have some 'hard' evidence. Well, yes I know, it is a fairly small survey and it's from Canada :-), but nonetheless yesterday's newswire release dished out some sweet candy for HR, especially HR fast growth start-ups.

The survey identified The Profit Hot 50. "These firms are young, tech-savvy and hungry - and hold lessons for entrepreneurial firms of all ages". The leaders identified the top most important factors in their fast growth. We'd expect to see the importance of the business generating capital, the need for industry experience, and having strategic sales.

But give it up for the top two factors on their list <drum roll please>:

1.) Retaining good staff

2.) Recruiting good staff

It makes sense, right? Yeah! It's very nice to see examples of real success backing up what I already view as key. Use this 1,007% growth to help others see the value, to guide investments of time and money, and to prioritize in retaining and recruiting!

Monday, September 7, 2009

Come With A Solution

My first real job was at a small boutique HR consulting firm here in New York. By many accounts, I was thrown into the deep end and I love being forced to learn a lot quickly.

One pearl of wisdom I learned at this time has helped me in my professional career a great deal - and I feel it has particular relevance at a start-up. It's a simple concept: Come with a solution.

Employees should be expected to take initiative. They should be given responsibility, they should work on meaningful projects, and have tools and mentors at their disposal. Naturally, questions, dilemmas and problems are par for the course - but every employee should think through possible outcomes and present them, along with a proposed solution.

If your team isn't doing this, ask them to. It will help you quickly navigate the tons of decisions that need to be made and more importantly it will empower employees and help them grow professionally.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Think of your Salary Structure Now

I saw a recent article talking about the key compensation issues facing small private companies.
Revenues, market capitalization and net income for companies going public are at their highest levels in years. Now more than ever when preparing for a public offering, companies need to ensure their compensation programs are consistent with public-company standards.
It made me think of HR's role in shaping a start-up that is primed for a public offering, starting with basic salary planning.

Many start-ups shoot from the hip when they bring in someone new. They rush to fill an immediate need and pay varies widely as salaries are based on what's needed to recruit. Stand back and it looks sloppy. It's not ready for prime time. What's needed to be more together?

Well, I'm glad you asked. To start with, you should have basic job specifications (even when employees do multiple jobs), salary ranges, and a plan for bonus and increases.

Once you've detailed the job, you need a market-competitive salary range. Use info from similar companies, craigslist,, professional salary surveys, etc... There is lots of free information out there. Consider your location (New York pays more than North Carolina), the amount of equity offered, the whole benefits package, your competition and desired retention rates. Some companies have a strategy to pay a bit under market and are comfortable with more turnover and increased recruiting efforts.

Without discussing employees who regularly performs multiple roles, are senior or junior players, or other strategic factors - here is a sample salary range. I propose once you nail down your midpoint target, you go 20%-30% on each side to complete the range. There are more complexities here, I know. For example, there might be a situation where you go a bit above or below the range. Maybe there is more than one range per position/function.

Certainly, I'm not saying you can't still be creative and flexible when compensating. But if your exit plan has the possibility of going public, you need to consider a proper pay foundation. You don't have to publicize this info, but you need to use it to drive your decisions and have it in place when you are building your organization.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

New Hire Orientation Goes Beyond the Employee

Everyday I go to the same coffee shop. Its right around the corner from our place. I go before work, the family grabs sandwiches or desserts for outings, and we take the kids on weekends. It's one of the few nice food stops in our neighborhood, its near the subway, its great. I know the owners and all the people that work there.

So, it was funny to see a new employee there. Funny ... as in interesting. I saw this employee (lets call her Wanda) needing to demonstrate an aura of authority. She should know what muffins were the best, or if the bagels were fresh. I watched her recommend the carrot walnut muffin, 'it's my favorite,' she said. What about blueberry cream cheese or zucchini chocolate!?! Come on!

Perhaps I am going a little overboard here? Maybe I'm projecting - I once was a waiter in an Italian restaurant. On my first day I, without yet tasting any of the food for myself, told some patrons my favorite entree - penne alla vodka. A new employee steps into a role - they need to play the part of employee. They need information to do their job, get oriented and welcome - but orientation should also consider current employees and customers.

At the coffee shop, as a customer I would have loved to see the new person shadowing a current employee - with introductions to regulars when possible. I would be confident my order made it to the kitchen and feel I was 'still' part of the community - one of the gang. Maybe Wanda could have been given some canned responses, like "I hear the Apple Walnut is a big seller." It's like she knows what she is talking about without the feeling that she is making it up. Give Wanda some tools for day one with the customer in mind.

I know food service, retail, accounting departments and software engineering groups all have very different on-boarding needs. I guess I know where I lack in a lot of the common on-boarding expectations - I get busy and pass off new employees, hoping the hiring manager will take up the slack. But I see more now how important orientation is beyond just the employee. Success will depend on not only how the employee fits in and learns the tools needed to do the job - but also how these needs relate to other employees and customers.

Come to think of it, I haven't seen Wanda back.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Independent of Known Need

Recently, a former IBM employee told me about part of the interview process when he was working there. He said each job applicant had an interview form, and at the bottom of the form was the question "would you hire the candidate independent of the known need?"

I love this question. It should make you think more critically about the organization and about every potential employee you meet.

Most companies don't have the luxury (financially and organizationally) to hire a bright, skilled candidate if they don't match the job opening. If you are looking for a embedded Linux engineer, why would you hire an electrical engineer? But wouldn't it be nice to grab talent when you see it!

Recruiting unemployed hotshots is a 'hot' strategy in this poopy economy. However, the small and mid-size companies I've worked with haven't had the luxury to hire folks that weren't already in the 'plan' (not even with a good economy). Start-ups often don't have the right 'plan' - you just don't know exactly who you will need and when.

I think this is where the HR function needs to add value. Independent of immediate need, how can we utilize top talent? Can we reorganize organizational inefficiencies and do things differently? Can we pull work in-house from contractors or other outsourced services? We certainly want to stay away from unnecessary cash burns, but why is this candidate appealing if we weren't looking for them originally? If we can't hire, maybe it's a contracting deal, tapping into their expertise for a small client specific project. You create a connection to them and keep them learning about the company.

Our intern program has flourished independent of known need. When we weren't looking for interns, we came across a competent go-getter with just the right technical match for most of our current projects. Even when he went back to school he contributed directly and significantly - and has come back to work with us every break since then. When we began looking for Java developer interns, we found a sharp electrical engineer. We weren't thinking of the great new hardware she could develop or resources she could provide. Thinking independent of known need has helped us.

I guess this isn't brain surgery - don't we all go through these steps when we meet a talented person? But I really liked hearing about "Independent of Known Need." It's helped me look at every applicant in a new light.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Developing a Customer Service Strategy

I hate Continental Airlines. Hate is strong word (often reserved for HR), but I'm using it - I hate them.

I have had horrible experiences at check-in gate, at the boarding gate, on the phone reservation line. 'Did I pay for these tickets, or were they free?' I search to find a possible reason for these bad experiences. 'Have I done something wrong?'

I imagine good people work at Continental - skilled and perhaps even passionate people. I just haven't met any of them yet.

I don't really want to relive it, but I feel I can't hate without a little explanation. In short, my family (including a 2-year old and an 11-month old) was left standing at the check-in counter because, despite having boarding passes in hand, they couldn't find actual seats for us on the plane. Instead of changing diapers, getting food, and prepping for the flight, we stood, jumped and sang trying to keep the lil ones pleased - and we stressed. They finally released us to "take our chances" and off we went through security and to the gate. The gate reps told us we could board the plane but that we would all have to sit apart. I would have LOVED that, but I'm guessing the baby, the 2-year old, and those sitting next them wouldn't like it so much.

In another incident, my wife called Continental to change dates for tickets we purchased to Mexico, during what turned out to be the height of the swine flu. With two little ones we had to change our travel plans. Luckily, Continental announced a policy of permitting travel date changes at no cost during 'swine flu season.' Calling to make these changes wasn't so nice. It started calmly - we gave our names, flight info, passengers, favorite colors, bankcard passwords, everything. Then we learned of hefty change charges, different date windows than announced, and we have to deal with a mean representative. My wife was defeated, I was mad, there was yelling, and eventually I hung up on them. When I called back we started from square one. It was all a battle.

We hear a lot about customer service - the customer is always right.

This has been hitting me harder and harder recently - it's one of the most basic and important keys to business success.

Most everyone knows of Zappos customer service. Customer service reps are empowered to do what's right to make the situation better. Customers love this. Customer word of mouth is exactly how Zappos grew. Selling shoes online (at the time they started) was not a comfortable or familiar process, and customer word of mouth was the successful growth strategy.

I called Wells Fargo recently, and was given the chance to talk to a real person who patiently helped me resolve all my problems. I tweeted about my positive experience, and then someone tweeted back with a "thanks!" Wow. There is intelligent life out there, I thought. Someone is listening. The grocery delivery service FreshDirect very promptly responded to an email about a deliver that spilled. They told me to tell them what items could be credited towards my next order. These were great experiences. I tell people about them. I want to continue doing business with these people. It isn't that hard.

At our small start-up, I know I can think even more about providing the highest quality customer service with every customer interaction (internal and external). Making it a strategic issue makes a difference. Externally, I could follow up with customers about the location of an anticipated order. For internal customers, maybe it's having dinner delivered when an employee leaves work early to pick up a sick kid. I'm sure making customer service a primary strategy gets repeat customers, making customers feel like VIPs - in turn getting customers that are happy. I wonder if Continental focused just a tad on helping me use their services I paid for if I would be taking a Jet Blue flight tomorrow?

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Long term, Employee Empowerment Yeilds 10,000 Times the Return

I recently reviewed the Pursuit of Something Better. One of two powerful concepts I took from the book was this:

#1) (Relentlessly) Focusing on the employee is a valid business strategy to positively effect the bottom line.

I haven't been able to escape this idea. A friend gave me The Last Lecture book by Randy Pausch. Randy recalled a story of seeing employee empowerment in action - and it having a huge impact translatable into dollars. I'll paraphrase ...

As a twelve year old, Randy needed the perfect gift to thank his parents for allowing he and his sister to roam Disney World on their own. They identified a ceramic salt and pepper shaker for $10, featuring bears hanging from a tree, and then left gift shop. Skipping down Main Street to the next ride, Randy says the shakers shattered on the ground when they slipped from his hand.

Upon the advice an adult guest in the park, Randy and his sister took the salt and pepper shakers back to the gift shop. "It was my fault, I dropped it," Randy admitted. The employees in the store listened, and smiled ... and said it was their fault they hadn't wrapped it well enough!

Randy and his sister were high on Disney. They would return to Disney World often and talk about Disney for the rest of their lives (and here I am talking about Disney). Randy's parents' appreciation went further. In their volunteer work, they would take dozens of kids to Disney World - over a 20 year period. Spending more than $100,000.

It's a simple illustration. One that likely wouldn't impress financial analysts. But also, on the other hand, one that doesn't factor in the cost of PR or likely word of mouth sales. Oh, only if it were always so easy to see the ROI in an HR cost. Especially when it's $10 associated with empowering employees that turns into $100,000 in revenue!

Would the Disney gift shop employees be empowered today to replace the salt and pepper shakers? Are your employees empowered to do the equivalent?

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Pursuit of Something Better Book Review

I got a hold of a book called 'The Pursuit of Something Better' and was asked for my thoughts. This is a book about company culture - so I was excited. The book focuses on US Cellular, and how CEO Jack Rooney used the concept of the 'Dynamic Organization' to transform the company and maximize business potential.

I was annoyed early on. Employees gathered for 'the highlight of the year' with 'excited anticipation' triggering 'another round of celebration.'
'The people in this room must be among the happiest, most fulfilled workers in the country'. There was 'heart' and 'soul' and 'changing inside.'

Really? This is just too much.

The book focuses on CEO Jack Rooney's creation of a 'Dynamic Organization'. I stopped looking for what the Dynamic Organization is or why it's unique - and then I started to enjoy the book more. Perhaps it's semantics or pessimism, but I felt leadership, sound business principles and discipline were being displaced by this fancy 'Dynamic Organization' phrase.

I suppose it would be more positive to focus on the great changes that did seem to happen, eventually, when Jack Rooney made changes at US Cellular. There are some real life approaches I think many of us can apply to our workplaces. Management was caring and regularly gathering info from diverse groups of employees through significant and regular surveys, focus groups, town hall meetings and email hotlines. There was a focus on training. They made paying better a priority - which I imagine initiates a higher caliber applicant and improved retention. Cancerous issues in the organization were also addressed - things like firing those who steal from the company. There was discipline, facilities upgrades, empowering staff, clearly laying out strategy and sticking to it.

Overall, I took away two strategies, both not entirely conventional, that I think can be powerfully considered in our businesses:
  • #1) (Relentlessly) Focusing on the employee is a valid business strategy to positively effect the bottom line.
Before Jack Rooney changed the focus at US Cellular, Customer Service Reps in the call centers were judged almost exclusively on how close they came to efficiency. The traditional time-on-the-call metric meant if they got rid of a caller quicker they were doing better than if they resolved the customer's issue. A better approach was seen in empowering the employee to resolve problems, paying them more, and improving the work facilities. This trickled down to the customer, made them happier, customer retention and referrals went up, and the company made more money.
  • #2.) Cultural fit is even more important than performance.
At the new US Cellular, an employee resistant to the company culture (to the values and direction of leadership) is committing a serious crime, worthy of termination. On the other hand, and employee who fits but fails to perform is forgiven (and trained). You'd do better to fall short of a goal than to reach it unethically, or by taking advantage of a customer, or by treating customers, associates or even competitors with disrespect.

I think many of us do this already. We know the importance of cultural fit. We have different members of our team interview new hires. But do we make cultural fit a primary strategy? Are we willing to fire top performers if they don't fit the culture and values?

We can call all this a 'Dynamic Organization' but it isn't a secret program or puzzle to deconstruct. It's sound business. A lot of the successfully strategies, like empowering call center workers to please the customer, and prizing fit, reminds me of what Zappos does so well.

Metrics might not have that direct connection to the bottom line we so often like, such as sales per associate, or cost of benefit per employee. Perhaps the best recipe is a bit more indirect. Maybe leading indicators can be more about measuring and driving to keep employees thrilled, or to act ethically, or to reward the right attitudes?

In the end, authors Dave Esler and Myra Kruger left me thinking about some valuable ideas in The Pursuit of Something Better. Among them, do you have the right metrics in place? Can doing the right thing bring you financial success? Are you willing to stick to your guns when your plan is unpopular?

Monday, July 13, 2009

Turnover vs. Performance Management

Just about everyone at one time or the other recommends turnover as one of HR's most valuable metrics. This is something I've looked at in many different ways, but coming from a small start up I just don't know if its valuable at all.

I'm reading a book now, called 'The Pursuit of Something Better' (more to come). In several cases, employees were 'forced into early retirement' or otherwise encouraged to resign because it wasn't working out.

Haven't most of us seen this in one way or the other? An employee resigns because they get feedback their performance is sub-par or they get a less than desirable pay increase. Maybe they are told more frankly to leave or get fired. These cases skew what we assume when we see turnover rate.

I know the ways we calculate turnover can vary and can be valuable in some cases, but for me and for right now it doesn't seem to offer value.

Friday, July 3, 2009

SpringStage - Up With Entrepreneurial Resources

Doing some reading before my last post, I learned of a great new community for start ups called Spring Stage. Launched earlier this year, founders David Cohen and Alexander Muse are building a network and 'a visible resource' to be in tune with the local entrepreneurship and start up scene.

Very cool. Entrepreneurs need more resources.

I thought about applying to be part of the community, but I can't help but think New York is entrepreneur saturated. We are blessed with the NYC Tech Meetup community (with over 10,000 members) and loads of other entrepreneurial networking and showcase groups and events - something just about every night.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Employee Handbook for a Startup? - uuugh!

I read a posting on the North Carolina start up blog, posted by Marc Dewalle. Marc was discussing if startups need an employee handbook. He also, with this topic, naturally started talking about "HR weenies," which you have to love - further proof that just about Everyone Hates HR.

Anyways, read the post and comments - it's a great intro to this topic. I think it's fair to say most startups dislike and put off handbooks and policies as long as possible. I tried to leave a comment on Marc's blog, but alas, I couldn't for a number of technical reasons ('javascript' this and 'server' that). Instead of tossing my thoughts, I decided to post it myself. It feels like I am stealing my own work a bit.
Hey Marc, Good post and discussion. A handbook is an inevitable and necessary evil of business growth. However, as Lee mentioned (and as you pointed out with the need for vacation policy) there is value to some properly designed guidelines. Yes 'HR weenies' can mess up the party. Those schooled in the traditional HR functions are too often tied up in routine and standard or "best practice". If suddenly your cool startup has a policy for a start time, a progressive discipline policy or a detailed cell phone policy - then someone messed up the party.

But I think its needlessly negligent to have nothing in place. You want your startup to have the right foundation and to have some structure to refer to (to encourage vacation in some cases like yours Marc, or to set 'general' expectations that you can point to when an employee is abusing them). Employees have questions (Holidays, vacation time, even if reviews will happen) - give them some help.

Perhaps most importantly, employee guidelines reduce your legal liabilities. You don't have to do a 3 hour orientation yawn-fest or have a heavy bound book for employees to shove to the back of their file cabinet. But, depending on your culture, you can address some key practices (or typical concerns), you can list the federal laws your company stands behind (like non-discrimination and harassment), and you can demonstrate that employees are expected to adhere to federal and local laws. This addresses concerns Lee brought up in his comments, and it doesn't have to move you into the 'small business category' or into inflexible and stifling workplace. Boom... a LOT more protection than you had and a tool to lean on if you need to deal with an employee gone bad.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Early Stage Start-Ups Hate HR

Who hates HR more than start-ups? I think people are drawn to start-ups for the opportunity to work on and 'own' something cool, the fun atmosphere, free food and drink in the office, and flexibility. They are drawn by the lack of HR - perhaps unconsciously (but usually consciously).

It's very nice not having a big handbook, a predetermined and specific list of boring tasks, and processes and forms, process and forms, and process and forms .... for taking vacation, logging work hours, completing a project, and getting an email account. You get the idea.

Entrepreneurs acknowledge the need for balance. They want to be fun and flexible but organized and effective. They realize often a delicate and organic process has grown to handle the selection of a new staff member, or the monitoring of vacation days. A misstep (like the wrong hire or someone taking advantage of vacation) and it's like a house of cards falling to the ground.

I've been talking to more and more local start-ups and look forward to digging in deeper. I want to learn more specifically where they are with HR - what they have in place, what they want, what they need, and what they see as challenges. You wanna talk?

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Overheard #1: Setting Precedent

Last week, I overheard two ladies chatting on the subway. They were talking about a manager who didn't allow someone to leave a bit early from work to care for their kid, or something like that. One of the ladies said, "Managers have to do that .... they can't let people get away with anything. Then they will just be taken advantage of."

My first thought was 'Wow, these employees really think that? They don't find it unreasonable a co-worker couldn't leave early?' My second thought was 'Really? Can't managers exercise discretion from time to time? Can't they have some wiggle room to make exceptions without selling the farm? If a co-worker leaves early, do you really feel it's only fair if everyone gets to?'

I think the answer lies in holding people accountable for results. If they don't deliver results then it might mean leaving early is a problem (even 'on time' for that matter). The answer also lies in having flexibility across the board. On occasion this might be to take care of a child, or it might be to beat the traffic out of town for a vacation.

Setting a precedent should be for kindness, respect, flexibility and treating people like mature adults. Setting a precedent for a rule seems like you are focusing on the wrong area. The workplace shouldn't be like a nursery school - everyone shouldn't get the same snack or read the same book.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

A Proposed Performance Review

So it's just about that time ... I'd say most companies should have 'reviews' in June and in December-ish. How can you hate HR if there is no performance reviews? For real here, I know we don't like them and it's more and more trendy to prove how they don't offer any value. But I know you don't mean it (read sarcastically). And, I recently posted some reasons why we should have them so I thought it would be responsible to follow up with a thought about actually pulling it off.

When I was growing up, I'd had what I think are some strong and fairly unique thoughts for a young guy about how I'd like to raise my kids. I didn't particularly value being dragged to church (ok ... 'disliked'), but did think there was some value in the regular time set aside to be ... spiritual and part of something bigger. I schemed to take my kids to church every couple weeks, but also to meditation sessions, to serve at the soup kitchen, Synagogue, Lutheran mass, piano recitals, anything I could think of - just a regular time with yourself, family, a larger community, and a good message.

Why can't we do something like this with reviews as well? Maybe they won't be as dreaded and we can actually get something from them? Why don't we change the format every other year (or twice a year or whatever)?

I mentioned Rypple in a previous post, an online way to get anonymous feedback from all those around you. How about a self-evaluation, 360 degree feedback, Manager report, a 5 point rating based on company goals, manager and employer essay, etc....

Certainly, explaining each of these processes to employees is a big downside, and probably impracticable at a large company. But, certainly with a small and agile group, I think this could be made to be really fun. And isn't the same old boring process, that isn't able to capture all the aspects of unique individuals and their contributions, one reason for the criticism?

For a small start-up that hasn't done reviews before, or for a group that has a particular resistance to the forms and formality of traditional systems, why not start with a simple Intro to reviews:

STEP ONE: By X date, write your own "highlights" and present it to your Lead.

This review should be no longer than one page and should include the following:

  • Some bullets of how you have been spending your time
  • Accomplishment/s you are proud of
  • Challenges
  • What you want to do short term / long term
  • What you have enjoyed and not enjoyed about your position or the company
  • Other (pay, projects, leadership, work environment, whatevers...)

STEP TWO: Your Lead will look at your review, will agree and/or disagree with you and add some notes.

STEP THREE: Your Lead will share the review with the All Seeing Sage (this A.S.S. might be the CEO, Site Lead, HR, or other appropriate person) for input, and then will schedule a follow up 1:1 sit down meeting.

* Among other things, you will look at your highlights, your Lead's notes - You might discuss how you can best perform on the job, how you will be going about it, and what help you need from your Lead?

STEP FOUR: Trends across departments and key points shared with CEO and Leads where appropriate. (i.e. everyone hates working with Margo).

See, that wasn't so hard.

A goal should be to have these reviews and meetings twice a year. Move to having them quarterly. Work at making them more frequent and less weird. Make them normal and productive communication vehicles - an edge you have over your competitor. Find ways to use them as a tool to actually improve performance.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Everyone Hates Performance Reviews

Why are we so bad at Performance Reviews?

I think a big reason is we hate them. So many of us see them as a time-wasting, burdensome process, full of inaccurate measures of performance - which often result in demotivating staff. At least this is what I often hear.

I've heard start-ups just shouldn't do them. They take away the zest, the common drive start-up employees already have, and... the laissez faire, independent, hard work ethic attitude. Reviews are part of 'the system', 'the man', another useless process which is exactly why your employee left their last job.

Well wow ... there it is out in the open. I do admit - a review free, no BS, garden of Eden work environment sounds pretty sweet. We can just work hard, talk to each other everyday about performance and tasks, and give high-fives and recognition at-will (read with sarcasm).

The problem is you don't communicate as well as you think you do. Employees need more.

A recent New York Times article on reviews focused on the inability of reviews to improve company performance. While ditching reviews because off a weak link to improved performance is reasonable, I'd argue we should do reviews for other reasons.
  • Employees are NOT motivated by money alone. Often, they are not even primarily motivated by money. They want to be engaged and to contribute to something bigger.
  • Employees want to hear you know what they are working on. They like being acknowledged. I mean, come on - even if you everyone knows the website was released and looks sharp (for example), wouldn't you want your boss to sit down and SAY you did great, you met the deadline, you faced some technological challenges and went out of the box to solve them? Perhaps you even get it in writing?
  • Employees want feedback about their job. They want accurate feedback. (Of course, I can't find the link now, but I saw a study showing a majority of employees feel they do not get accurate feedback about their work performance - and that accurate feedback is top factor in job retention).
  • It is a good idea to be forced to set goals and to hand out acknowledgments and kudos.
  • Employees have good stuff to say that you don't know about. Despite how much you think you are approachable and 'talk with your team everyday', there generally isn't a good time to talk about the TPS reports, the co-worker they are having difficulty working with, or how they wish they could be doing a different job.
  • We need more specific times to force you and employees to ruminate over performance. Just thinking about the year, thinking about what your subordinate (or your boss) might say, thinking about what you want, and what you want to say 'thank you' for (or what you should say 'thank you' for) is a good process.
  • You don't want to encourage the whole year being open to salary scrutiny. It's nice to have a designated time allotted to discuss increases and adjustments. Create that time.
  • Of course, reviews serve a very real world purpose of documentation - justifying a promotion or termination of one employee over an other. You never care about these until it is too late - so take care of your legal obligations.
I realize I said 'forced' a couple times. Force you to set goals, force you to communicate. I think we imagine we get to these points throughout the year. But, too often we don't - and it's nice to have a date and structure pushing things along. Reviews are not going away. There is always new discussion and new tools. New reasons to not do them, and new ways to do them - 360 reviews, 5 point ratings, forced distribution, self-evaluation, whatever.... Rypple is taking a new social media type approach - friends, colleagues, and customers give frequent, direct, anonymous feedback. We don't need traditional systems, nor do we need to keep it them the same each year.

I guess in short, if you are doing 'boring' reviews you need to improve them. If you don't do them, you need to start.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Constructing the Salary Offer

I realize there is not a lot of hiring going on right now, and candidates are likely settling for less than than they would. But, I imagine job offers will always be lower than many candidates hoped for. Seasoned executive recruiter Mark Warren understands this well. In a blog post from earlier this month, he helps recruiters prepare candidates to be realistic about an employer's offer.

Mark explains that candidate's need to know the thought process employers go through when making on an offer. He explains the employer's evaluation is processed using the following criteria in order of importance.
  • (40%) Internal restrictions such as budget requirements, department parity issues, established pay bands
  • (30%) The market value of the candidate as perceived by the employer, not the candidate
  • (20%) The candidate's current compensation and compensation history
  • (10%) The candidate's compensation needs
Nice! I think he's pretty spot on, but I'm not sure how many employers know they are going through this process. I don't think there is much salary planning at all in many start ups. I think this break down helps employers understand what they are doing. Perhaps this process and percentages can be used proactively to establish salary ranges and job offers? To plan (gasp).

Certainly, this reminds me to add salary strategy to start up's list of areas where HR can help. It's a lot harder to fix these issues than it is to do some prior planning. Do you understand each position, the market range for that position in your area (industry and geography) - just roughly, that is (there is a lot of subjectivity here). More importantly, do you know if you pay above or below market? Is this part of your strategy? Do salary increases fit into the plan? Does salary mix with equity or other incentives offered?

Friday, May 22, 2009

Do-ocracy vs. Talk-ocracy

'Let's make note of that and start making plans at our next meeting' .... 'Yes Bob, that does need to be corrected - I will get approval from the Managers of each department and make that change.'

This is a 'Talk-ocracy' in action - and it's time we move to a 'Do-ocracy.' I'm reminded that the start-up environment has different rules than many companies - it is a place where a 'Do-ocracy' can thrive. Still, I imagine the minion at the bureaucracy entrenched megacorp could stand out (in a good way) by a little more doing.

This concept first came up in our office when we were looking at the patterns of successful communities (specifically open source online communities). Members of productive, healthy and growing communities DO. There needn't be over-monitoring, limiting and editing. And importantly, when specific areas or projects are delegated to people, it usually makes the projects uninteresting. Instead, people are engaged, and responsibility is given to those who actually do the work. They are fully empowered by the rest of us to get it done. The 'do'-er makes the rules. Not by appointment, but because real world action was created by them. They become active, they are contributors, they are leaders.

Talking about ideas for too long becomes demotivating. Not being engaged and not being able to choose what is important sucks.

I know this may seem unrealistic. With an open source project some projects never get worked on - no one 'does' them. We can't operate a company like that. But we can change our attitude, change how we assign work, how we let people lead, and the way we do work.

We enjoy calling people out in our office. Asking someone if their ideas is a 'do-ocracy' and 'talk-ocracy' is a quick way to call someone's bluff - 'are you just talking or is this really important"?

This week, before I finished making a note about improving something, it was fixed. I need a little more doing. How are you do-ing?

Friday, May 8, 2009

Team building on a shoestring

ok. Frankly, I think this is kind of a cheesy topic. Yes, even for me. In fact, I often don't like planning team building things, or talking about them. I guess I get the sense that people don't think they will be fun - I have to convince them to participate.

But, I do it. I plan activities, block time on calendars and I pretend it will be fun. And ..... it is. These are the types of things making small groups know each other better - they create common things to make fun of later on, they bring software engineers next to accountants. People remember these activities, they mention it to their friends and family, and it builds a unique culture.

Without giving it too much thought, here are some things we have done here.

Trivia: Pull unique facts, past jobs, and awards from employee resumes. Ask employees to send you 2 things others don't know about them. Get essential facts about your business (#1 customer service complaint, top account, whatever). Or even asking what Rose's home town was Golden Girls or what drink B.A. Baracus was scared of. End a Town Hall meeting with Trivia, with the winner getting a huge bag of Swedish fish candy, gift certificate, or $200!

Join a bike ride: - A small team of employees, friends and family volunteered as marshals for the New York City Century Ride. We got to the ride for free, help guide people along the route, and bike through the hear of New York. It was fantastic.

Tent building:
Divide your employees into teams of 4-6 or so (hopefully people that don't work often together). Half the team is blind folded, no talking allowed, and assembles the tent. The others instruct without touching. Make sure you blindfold a couple of managers - it would be nice to have those normally giving directions to see what it feels like. First team done wins. This can take 30 minutes, can be frustrating, but is memorable. You don't even have to follow up with a discussion about 'what you learned' and 'how did it feel to be blind folded and not get enough information' - that might not be so fun. Pack up the tents nicely and return them when you are done.

Gong: Hang a gong (or bell or something loud and significant) and ring it when something big happens in the office. A milestone. Let the employee who helped make it happen explain to the others the reason for the gong.

Bathroom decorating contest: We had very bland, all white little bathroom stalls. No personality. If you want to have a sweet start-up in SoHo, bland and boring isn't going to do. Divide into teams (i.e. men vs woman, engineer vs sales), set a budget of $50 and a deadline of Friday. Invite your customers to come down and judge the winner. This likely wasn't down with a $50 budget, but look what you can do!

Nerf darts: Do you consider your workplace fun if you don't throw nerf darts across the room?

Volunteer: Go to a soup kitchen and help prep food. It might sound unpleasant, but we went and it was awesome. We were tired and busy but mixing hundreds of pounds of raw beef with your hands next to your boss in a hair net is fun. We also really felt like we were doing something good, and that we should do it more often.

Slide show: You'd better be taking pictures of Holiday parties, days in the office, after work events, et al - put them in slide show and show them before your a meeting or company Anniversary party.

Gallery Tour: In New York you can go check out loads of art galleries for free. Take a morning with the team, browse the galleries, get some creative juices flowing, talk with co-workers.

Do a, cliche, Adventure ropes course (looks like New York City Department of Parks and Rec has a program) or make your own in the parking lot. Have a dessert potluck. Every other week have an employee lead a meeting on a topic of their choosing (how to write a java Hello World, make sushi, understand a complex part of your product). Organize a during work Call of Duty II capture the flag game video game session.

Every once in awhile do something. It doesn't have to cost anything (or much) and can make work fun, help you communicate better with your co-workers, and all that retention, recognition, refresh, productivity type stuff. What do you do?

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

List of various lists for no particular reason in no particular order

When I started to dig deeper, to learn more about HR (and startups and technology). I came across Steve Boese's blog about the Intersection of HR and Technology - and his list of HR Who's Who to follow on Twitter. This was such a helpful list I saved it - #1. I know others would find it helpful. What else did I want to have handy - to refer to, to share?

I then started gathering lists of lists ... they even started to stray from a common theme (except they were lists). Here is my list of lists:

#1 Your First 100 Twitter Follow

The first 100 to follow for HR was so essential, I thought the Law equivalent would be helpful.

#2 The Law equivalent of getting started Twitter feeds

Job Seekers, Career blogs, Management, Leadership and Personal Development .... oh my.

#3 50 People on twitter job seekers should follow

#4 Top English-language Career Blogs

#5 Top 100 Management and Leadership Blogs

HR lists aren't always the most exciting, but I like these:

#6 50 Common Interview Questions and Answers - very cool.

#7 HR listservs (recruiting)

#8 Workforce Management's Hot List, with the top HR providers, produces and services

#9 Top 100 Human Resources Companies
#10 Highest paid HR executives listed in Securities and Exchange Commission filings.

#11 HR's Most Influential 2008

Now it's out in the open - I've become a bit of a lover of lists. Lists for lists sake. They not only say just one cool thing about an interesting topic, but a list of cool things.

#12 Top 10 ways career top 10 lists are like porn

#13 101 ways to annoy your coworkers

#14 100 free ebooks for business students and entrepreneurs

#15 Free online college courses - Holy learning batman

#16 64 Things every geek should know

#17 20 ways to discover new music

#18 100 conversation topics (intended for e-learning professionals but I think they are interesting for all)

#19 The List of Lists, the blog of Top Tens (wow .... the mother load, from beer, to birds and birding, to Chicago and green cleaning products)

#20 100 Ways to Succeed #157: Excellence = People first, second, third, and so on ..... ok, this is not a list but Tom Peters does not hate HR and I just had to include it.

All these lists mean something to me. I love them, and want to save them. And share them. I hope I don't hear from you with a list of ways I've wasted your time ...

Friday, April 24, 2009

My Go at ROWE

I've danced around ROWE (Results Only Work Environment) in the past (like my posts productive unproductivity and meetings that suck) because I really like the concept. ROWE is a radical, commonsense rethinking of how we work and live. In a ROWE, people focus on results and only results - not where you are sitting or how busy you look. ROWE companies claim to enjoy staggering increases in engagement and productivity. It's also a great way to attract new employees (especially the coveted Gen Y workers) and retain your top folks.

The approach is most notably credited with some significant changes at Best Buy HQ (where I believe ROWE was born) - this included average productivity increases of 35% and, in at least one department, improvement in employee retention by 27% with a 50% increase in cost reductions over two years. Ashley Acker, is excellent at explaining why it doesn't matter where/if employees are at work and how to get there.

You can find other companies giving something like this a go. Netflix salaried employee's have no specific vacation allotment, Motley Fool employees can take as many vacation or sick days as they want, Semco has a 7-day comp policy of sorts, and Ernst & Young has completely flexible holidays.

Awhile back the New York Times discussed how IBM is pulling this off;

"IBM doesn't mandate how many hours you work in a day or work week. And second, they don't mandate which days of the week you decide to work. Third, they don't mandate where you get the work done - at home, Starbucks, or in one of the "e-mobility centers" around the world.

Instead, for the past few years, employees at all levels have made informal arrangements with their direct supervisors, guided mainly by their ability to get their work done on time. Many people post their vacation plans on electronic calendars that colleagues can view online, and they leave word about how they can be reached in a pinch."

As awesome as all this sounds, the comments from employees participating in these programs aren't all glowing. Crazy, right? These plans sound so sweet it's surprising you don't hear people praising them left and right. Are they not all they are cracked up to be? In fact, it begs the BIG question: If it works so well, why isn't everyone doing it?

Clearly for many environments it doesn't make sense (retail, manufacturing, etc...). But for the others, I think it's too big a step, even if it might sound like a good idea. I've seen more studies than you can count showing napping at work is a great idea and awakens productivity, but generally we aren't ready to make the pro-napping step. We don't have enough of a handle of our business (and job) goals to feel ok about employees going on a Tuesday morning hike.

ROWE doesn't quite work, and we don't have confidence it can work for us, because we aren't doing HR and business well enough. We don't have good job descriptions, we don't always understand what outcome we want, we don't measure/or know how to measure success, there are no consequences (or follow up), and we don't communicate. You need to have excellent management and engaged employees for it to work.

The idea of ROWE isn't going away. It's a hugely powerful idea, with some workable real applications. It can work if we all (read 'employees, managers, executives') get way better at what we are supposed to be doing - knowing what success is, being accountable for it, being passionate about it, and communicating.

What do you think? Do you want this at your company? Why would it work? Are you doing something like it and it's working? Failing?

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Productive unproductivity

I think you should strive to have a company culture where it's ok when people leave work early. Right? It's also ok when they browse the email or the latest lolcat at work. It must be ok to do. I want it to be ok. Then why do I need to convince myself?

We should enjoy coming to work, we should be passionate about what we do, and we should produce results (regardless of coming in later than normal because its parent's day at school ... or because we're looking at non-work emails). Hey, this is idea of ROWE (Results Only Work Environment) and the idea is beautiful - it feels real nice.

In fact, whether you like it or not, I think you have to embrace some aspect of the ROWE concept. A primary reason to do so is this article from the New York Times, by Lisa Belkin. It seems we don't actually do that much work at work.

The article points to a Microsoft study - stating Americans spend 45 hours a week at work, but describe 16 of those hours as “unproductive.”

America Online and found workers actually work a total of three days a week, wasting the other two.

And Steve Pavlina (a “personal development expert”) keeps incremental logs of how he spends each working day and finds we actually work only about 1.5 hours a day. “The average full-time worker doesn’t even start doing real work until 11:00 a.m.,” he writes, “and begins to wind down around 3:30 p.m.” We all try to cover it up, but now we've seen it in writing. It must be true.

But wait .... good news! Just today I saw this New York Times piece. 'Workers who spend as much as 20% of their office time leisure browsing actually get more work done than workers who don’t'. Yes! So perhaps those folks browsing all day are your best workers?

And 'the longer you work, the less efficient you are', says Bob Kustka, the founder of Fusion Factor, a productivity and time-management consulting. Maybe realizing a work-life balance will bring a boost in productivity.

So, there you have it .... the moral of the story (though no easy task) is to get over when and how people work and focus more on the outcome.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Be nice to wifey

I had a couple days away with the wifey and it made me remember how important it is to keep her happy. Rather ... it reminded me of how smart it is for excellent employers to keep their employee's significant others happy. It will help to retain your best folks, and keep them focused and happy!

It was my wife, several years ago, that encouraged me to quit my job at a boutique HR consulting firm. She could tell even better than I, that my work-life balance was heavily tipped to the work side - and that work wasn't always so good. Even though I had worked hard to get the job, and generally speaking liked it, wifey sees a different perspective, she is persuasive, and she has a great deal of power. It wasn't difficult for her to convince me that I wasn't as happy as I could be, and that I wasn't utilizing all my potential.

In a following job (which the wifey helped convince me to do a 1+hour commute), I saw the head of HR send nice packages to the homes of employees. Not only did the employee enjoy it, but so did their spouse and family. It's the spouse, you realize, who suffers when your employee works late ... and has to listen to complaints about this meeting or that project not going just right. Imagine how nice when they also get to partake in a special meal delivery, or gift basket, acknowledging an important anniversary or achievement. In addition to enjoying themselves, they see their loved one's hard work appreciated.

This goes a long way. Whether they admit it or not, it's often the wife, or the husband, or the family calling the shots. They influence your employee - to leave, to by unhappy, to feel unappreciated ..... OR to support them, and foster a satisfied, productive employee.

I can't recall where, but I recently read some advice to 'interview' the spouse when bringing in a new executive for your start-up. Do you get the idea she'll be supportive? Will she quickly get fed up with the long commute? Perhaps she is as infectiously excited about the new business as well?

However you do it, try to go out of your way a bit for the wifey.