employee engagement

How to avoid becoming your company’s biggest liability

Originally published on March 3, 2014 as a Guest Column in The Globe and Mail


I was on LinkedIn recently when a news update popped up. In the story, a CFO asks the CEO: “What happens if we invest in developing our people and then they leave the company?” The CEO answers, “What happens if we don’t, and they stay?”

This vignette resonated with me: When I was a 20-something entrepreneur, I was that CFO. It’s not that I didn’t value my employees, but I was always cynical about investing in people who were likely to leave the company before our investment in their training and development had paid off. Now, as a 40-something entrepreneur and CEO, I’m happy to say that I have turned the corner.

Over the past few years, I have worked on culture, values and team-building than on any other part of our business, and it’s had incredible impact. Yes, the environment has changed. But I know the level of our employees’ participation, engagement and satisfaction have all changed, too – and our clients are the ultimate beneficiaries.

This is one of those ‘hindsight is 20/20’ or ‘if I knew then what I know now’ situations. As entrepreneurs, we come by our (lack of) strategic people skills honestly. When we start out, there’s only ‘me’ or ‘you.’ We founders do everything on our own, with no one to rely on but ourselves, which is the reason why it’s natural to put the ‘me’ ahead of the ‘team.’

But as the business grows, it’s important to recognize that it will take more than just you to get things done. It’s a big step to acknowledge that you’re not going to be good at everything. It’s an even bigger step to realize that if you don’t broaden your perspective, and understand the areas where you need support, you could become your company’s biggest liability.

Recently, I took it upon myself to ensure that this wouldn’t happen to me. I completed a straightforward behavioural assessment that involved 10 minutes of reacting to words that best (or least) described me. Going in, I was reluctant and dubious, wondering how such a brief test could summarize a lifetime. To my surprise (and perhaps chagrin), the assessment hit the nail on the head. The results declared me to be assertive, competitive, direct, driving and forceful. Not bad for a leader and entrepreneur. But not necessarily good for someone who should be participating in HR leadership and detail management.

What an entrepreneurial wake-up call. There were actually some things that others could do better than me. Imagine my shock! The bottom-line is that this tool – this awakening – has set in play a process that will help me focus on the strengths I bring to the business, and help me attract and build a team that complements not only my skills, but those of each other’s.

Want to make improvements in your own company? Here are the three key areas that will make or break your business: attract, retain and perform.

To attract the best people, successful organizations must have a brand that speaks to talented prospects who align with the company’s goals and values. To compete for talent today, companies must satisfy workers’ desire for a complete experience, not just a job.

With select employees now in place, winning companies turn their attention to ensuring these people stay. To retain great people you have to deliver on the brand promise you made at the hiring stage. Organizations must get to know their employees as individuals. Know what each worker needs to succeed, and give them the tools and the environment to be the best they can be.

The final and perhaps most significant opportunity is perform. Are your employees the best in the business? Are they constantly coming up with new ideas on how to do their jobs better and move the organization forward? Your leadership, shared goal-setting, and ability to promote the right behaviour are the biggest single influence on your organization’s ability to perform.

Through a culture of continuous innovation, leadership development, team effectiveness and employee engagement, organizations can measurably boost alignment and performance. But it all starts with you.

So nudge your ego aside, and make room for some company at the top of your company.

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The 5 Types Of Employees That Are Destroying Your Business

Elaine Pofeldt, originally published on The American Express Open Forum Blog on October 31, 2011

Innovation Insights

Some people are easy to avoid hiring because they give glaring hints that they’re unprofessional by doing things like treating your receptionist rudely or showing up an hour late to the interview.

But many experienced entrepreneurs find that there are other folks, who, while polished, can eventually undermine a company culture. Some of these folks provide subtle signs that many bosses miss during the interview process. Others may essentially be good employees, but react poorly to changing circumstances at a company.

Here are five types of employees that can undermine your company—and what you can do to stop them.

1. The entitled crowd

These employees expect the company to function in a paternalistic way, taking care of their every need. They expect constant ego boosts, 9-to-5 hand-holding and compensation that far exceeds their contributions. Sometimes, they may just be inexperienced workers who lack the maturity to realize that a promotion isn’t due to them within three weeks of starting work (or at all if they don’t earn it)—and you may be able to help them adjust their expectations. But mid level folks and above who show these tendencies could be harder to reform.

Amy L. Crawford, owner of Crawford Consulting Group, an HR advisory firm in Davie, Fla., recalls the situation of one mid-career employee she encountered. This worker expected her employer to pay her for a day when she couldn’t make it to work because of a flight delay on a personal trip.

The constant demands of entitled employees can wear you out. If you want to avoid hiring the entitled type, ask interviewees questions about how they handled past work situations where they were given little direction, says Crawford. Those whose answers suggest a lack of resourcefulness may not be able to function well in an entrepreneurial company that can’t provide them with round-the-clock support and nurturing.

2. The finger pointers

In these employees’ minds, it’s always someone else’s fault when things go awry. There are no gray areas, in which they, too, may have had partial responsibility for a problem. As a result, it will be hard for you, as a boss, to get them to get involved in preventing a snafu from happening again.

To sniff these folks out, ask prospective hires to tell you about a time when they had a conflict with another coworker and how they resolved it, advises Crawford. An interviewee who tells a story about a conflict with another employee “who always did things wrong” may be prone to blaming others.

3. The double-talkers

Simply passing a criminal background check doesn’t mean someone is honest. David Cohen, an owner of Cyril’s Bakery, a supplier of frozen bakery products to the food service and retail industries, recalls an employee who went to such lengths to cover up mistakes that he constantly told “lies on top of lies”–creating endless confusion and stress.

One way to spot folks who are less than forthright is to speak directly with an interviewee’s past bosses, rather than a hand-picked list of references, to confirm that the information on their resumes has not been distorted, says Crawford, who has advised Cyril’s Bakery. Another strategy: During job interviews, ask several questions about how applicants have handled or would handle particular situations likely to come up in your business—and pay attention to whether they answer in an inconsistent way.

Some companies find it helpful to use personality tests such as the ProfileXT assessment or the DiSC Personality Test to get a better picture of interviewees, Crawford says.

4. The change resisters

If normally supportive employees are resisting innovation at your company or seem to be privately convening behind closed doors to gripe, it may indicate that they are worried about what’s ahead. You may need to improve the flow of communication with them to put to rest any fears they have about what a change means for them in order to put the behavior to rest.

“There’s a fear factor whenever we try something new, whenever there’s change in a company and change in a position,” says entrepreneur Ken Tencer, co-author of The 90% Rule and CEO of Spyderworks, a branding and innovation firm in Toronto and New York. “Oftentimes, owners can overlook that.”

You can help your team get back on track by talking openly with employees and providing any training they need to adapt to the changes taking place, he says.

Tencer adds, “As entrepreneurs, we take a lot of risk and have our own fear factors.” It’s essential to realize that your employees may have similar ones when encountering new situations, he says.

5. The boss who can’t let go

You probably don’t want to hear that you may be your company’s own worst enemy. But if your company has grown rapidly, you may lack the skills you need to run it now. If your investors are signaling that you need to step into a different role and bring in an experienced CEO to run the place, listen carefully to what they’re saying.

“I think that’s pretty hard,” says Tencer. Your investors may not be right, but if it turns out they are—and you continue to hang on to your role—you may prevent yourself from harvesting the full value of your business when it’s time to cash out.

Elaine Pofeldt is an independent journalist specializing in entrepreneurship whose work has appeared in TheAtlantic.com, BNET, Crain’s New York Business, CBS Moneywatch, Good Housekeeping, Inc., Working Mother and many other publications. A former senior editor of Fortune Small Business magazine and editor of its website, she does editorial consulting for online and print publications.

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Secret to succession: ‘You’ve got to let go’

Originally published as a Special to Globe and Mail Update,  Monday, October 4, 2010

Experts say one of the biggest crises facing businesses is the imminent succession wave, as thousands of baby-boomer entrepreneurs prepare to retire and pass their companies on to other people.

The risk is real. Whether you’re planning to transfer your business to your children, to your employees, or to strangers, there are huge pitfalls. How do you, the owner, let go? How should you structure the share transfer? And how do you manage transition in a way that will minimize disruption to employees and customers?

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