Pre-Conference Networking Sessions

Last week, we had our first of four fun, networking sessions intended to lead us into the 2020 CaribHRForum Virtual Conference.

The game of Human Bingo was a perfect fit for the Remo.co live platform we are fond of here at CaribHRForum. There were prizes and surprises as we learned about each other by asking a number of tricky, Caribbean questions.

Given that Build My Regional Network is one of the goals we want people to accomplish as a result of attending, this was the perfect start.

The next session (this Friday) is only for members of CaribHRForum Community and Conference Speakers, but the third and fourth will be open to much larger audiences. To make sure you don’t miss out, register for the conference here and we’ll keep you updated.

The excitement is building…

The Easiest Way to Start Your Digital Transformation

What’s an easy step to begin your company’s digital transformation? This may sound simplistic: Start by collecting your customers’ contact information.

Why is this a powerful place to begin?

Think of what it’s like to meet someone for the first time and quickly develop a romantic interest. In order to develop a multi-faceted relationship in which you could get to know each other, you need contact information. It’s a signal that you want to go further than the immediate moment, in order to learn more about his/her life and vice versa.

After all, who wants to date someone who is one-dimensional? And who wants to do business with companies that can only do one thing?

The best organizations understand the need to go much further: instead, they re-invent themselves using the idea that companies offer several categories or dimensions of offerings.

Four Dimensions

1. a product – a tangible or digital object.

2. a service – an act performed on the customer’s behalf.

3. a relationship – a partnership for mutual gain.

4. a transformation – a learning experience which improves the customers’ intrinsic capabilities.

For example, a company that sells exercise equipment (a kind of product) could add offerings such as:

– assistance in helping customers set up their home gyms safely and efficiently (a service)

– two months of participation in a weight-loss boot camp with a group of similar people (a relationship)

– a training programme that teaches them how to vary their exercise regime with age (a transformation)

These three additional dimensions can be used to convert a single, momentary transaction into an ongoing source of revenue. It may seem paradoxical, but a company which thinks about these dimensions is more likely to ask for contact information. Why is that? Like serious dating, knowing how to reach the customer is the way for them to build a mutually beneficial, multi-faceted relationship.

However, here’s the baffling reality: most companies don’t even ask for this information. Instead, they focus on whoever happens to walk in next,

If your organization isn’t executing this important function, perhaps one of the reasons below might apply.

1. The Overall Mission is Lacking

Asking for contact information from a stranger is a delicate matter. It’s somewhat intrusive, and a customer service representative (CSR) in your company who can foresee a possible rejection is likely to skip this step. Why?

More often than not, they simply don’t appreciate the importance. After all, the person who wants the data is far away in your marketing department. The CSR doesn’t report to them and has probably never been given the big-picture point of view.

Consequently, when the customer asks, “What do you want my contact information for?” they are met with a blank look. Your CSR’s have not been prepared with an answer.

2. The Means Aren’t Provided

A company that provides its staff with only a clipboard, paper and pencil to collect contact information has done the bare minimum. However, it creates a problem for someone who must enter the data at a later date. Furthermore, they send a signal to the customer that the effort isn’t a serious one.

Instead, your organization should set up a landing page on its website, and supply its staff with a tablet or smartphone to be used on the spot. This solves many problems at once and allows the customer to receive a response in real-time.

3. A Focus on Mass Marketing

In most companies, the marketing department hasn’t made the transition to thinking about its customers as the single best source of future business. Instead, your company may still see advertising to the public as the primary channel. However, if it were to make the switch, then finding more about customers’ specific, future needs would be a critical objective.

Reconsider the case of the gym equipment store. If the managers have a hard time imagining services, relationships and transformations to offer, then it could simply ask its past customers: “Thanks for shopping with us. We are interested to know what you might want next in your journey towards a fitter version of yourself. Please answer a few questions to help us meet your needs.”

As ordinary as these ideas may sound, I can’t think of three local companies who use them. Even those who have my information don’t contact me as a prior customer: I find out about their offerings from the newspapers, television or internet.

I imagine that they are wasting millions, reinventing one campaign after another, chasing after the same members of the public each time. The solution to this dilemma? Collect contact information from their customers and use it to develop deeper relationships. This approach may kick-start the digital transformation that keeps them alive.

The Shock of Low Standards

There are a few moments in your employees’ careers when they go into a shock. However, it’s not because too much is demanded of them…in fact, it’s the very opposite.

In prior columns, I shared what sometimes happens when a recent college graduate joins the full-time workforce. Coming from an education system with extreme demands and standards, they encounter a rude surprise: individual efforts to excel are attacked by one’s peers. At the same time, their management rewards vague, dubious achievements.

Unfortunately, most newcomers fall right into place, frittering away whatever fresh energy they once had. They become like everyone else: comfort becomes the paramount goal. In fact, some firms set “making employees comfortable” as an all-important concern.

Not surprisingly, this is the very opposite of the way people relate to each other in high-performing organizations.

For example, military boot-camp is designed to expose raw recruits to an environment of impossibly high standards as quickly as possible. This immersion is intended to surprise them – to provide a shock. When it’s done well, it isn’t sadistic or destructive. The best rise up to meet the challenge, while others are excluded.

I’m sure at some point in history, a well-intended general experimented with a more “comfortable” path to basic military training…only to see it rejected. Why? A battlefield is no place to discover that your colleagues are more interested in saving their skins than bravely following the mission.

The truth is, society doesn’t admire someone who “seeks my own comfort above all else.” However, this is a low standard that many companies promote during the onboarding stage. But that’s not the only instance where the battle is lost. Here are three additional episodes in employees’ careers which could be carefully crafted to show excellence.

1) Their First Meeting

Sharon, a new employee, bustles into her first meeting to ensure she’s not late. As she opens the door with moments to spare, there’s no-one else in the room. Five minutes later, the second person arrives. The meeting eventually starts 15 minutes late with several missing, including the convenor. The top executive, whose presence is required to make decisions, stumbles in even much later still talking on his phone, without apology.

This everyday scenario teaches Sharon to surrender her college standard of arriving ten minutes before others to sit in the front row. Instead, she’s encouraged to join a sloppy, mediocre majority.

2) Their First Project

After a few months on the project, Jerome is confused. He can’t define the mission and the last two status meetings have been cancelled. While he continues working on his deliverables, his manager has never asked for an update.

With extra energy and bandwidth, he turns his efforts to a startup – a side-hustle he has launched with friends. That feels more real for some reason, even though not a single penny has been earned.

3) Their First Promotion

Fred was just promoted to the executive suite. While HR makes sure that all frontline employees have their annual performance reviews, their advice is ignored at this level.

He discovers that the Managing Director has been too busy (for several years) to schedule feedback discussions. She seems happier giving out random, public “Big-Ups” to low-level staff than having substantial, confronting conversations with her direct reports.

As such, he has no idea how to improve his performance. Consequently, when a headhunter calls, he jumps at the opportunity to move to a different organization which, he hopes, has higher standards.

No Excuses

Perhaps you are reading this article, arguing that “My company is not an army.” True, but what would it be like to find and emulate the best-run organizations in your industry? Maybe you would discover a common thread in all high-performing service clubs, sports teams, NGO’s, statutory bodies, corporations and even bible-study groups.

Consider that there may be something in human nature that instinctively seeks comfort in relationships with others, rather than accountability…and that it destroys performance.

As such, your book-club which skillfully causes (or “forces”) its members to read the assigned books is one that thrives, where others fail. This core ingredient – accountability – is the secret sauce that wards off the drift towards mediocrity. When you fail to repeatedly burnish it brightly, the worst will always happen.

The alternative is to craft high standards around key events which offer their own shock and surprise. While you’ll definitely lose those who are committed to their personal comfort, each one who remains has the opportunity to push others to excellence.

Why is Email the Hardest Thing You Must Do Each Day?

What makes email the number one hated activity in corporate life? It may have little to do with the nuisance it has become, and everything to do with incomplete decisions we need to make daily.

Studies have shown that email consumes some 20% of each employee’s day. At the same time, 33% would rather clean a toilet than go through all their email. Why the aversion to a technology that’s supposed to help? Why do so many wish it would just go away?

It all comes down to friction.

Email delivers frictionless communication at scale. Today, there’s no need to use a typewriter, secretary, printer, phone or conference room to send a simple message to upwards of millions of people. As such, electronic messaging will never go away, even if it’s being slightly reshaped by apps like WhatsApp and Slack.

Its permanence and ubiquity mean that we must forever tolerate universal irritants like spam and irrelevant CC’s, but these aren’t the main reasons for all the hate. Instead, the problem we face is that of decision overwhelm.

To explain, let’s set aside messages from the non-essential newsletters, updates and birthday reminders you receive. By contrast, critical emails are ones you can’t delete with impunity: they require you to pause and think before answering.

The problem is that such messages come into our Inboxes at all times of the day, even while we are sleeping. We can’t control when people send them, so they arrive mixed in with the stuff that’s not essential. This makes it hard to focus.

However, you do have control over the following three actions. Mastering each of them can be transformational to the quality of your decision-making.

Action Mode #1 – Arbitrary Skimming and Scanning – Stop

While there are a few companies which require employees to scan their Inboxes every few minutes (thereby ruining their productivity) a clear best practice has emerged. In summary, it states one should never randomly “check” email i.e. skim. Instead, it should be a consciously scheduled activity.

What about emergencies? Savvy organizations train their staff to use other methods such as phone calls or texts for urgent communications.

The fact is, the habit of scanning email leaves you at the mercy of other people’s agendas. You end up playing electronic ping-pong, being your least effective.

The solution is to learn how to use the following two action modes for managing your incoming email.

Action Mode #2 – Light Triage – Start

Instead of skimming, you should create a handful of opportunities each day to organize incoming messages. In these triage sessions, you are rapidly dispatching messages to parts of your system (other than your Inbox) so that they can be dealt with later.

In this mode, you only offer short replies, if any at all. This isn’t the time for making decisions about the content of email messages. It’s the time for deciding which ones require actual thought and later consideration, then putting them in position, ready for the hard thinking they call for.

Action Mode #3 – Heavy Lifting – Start

These are longer periods of time devoted to making difficult decisions related to specific email messages. They need to be pre-scheduled and heavily guarded against distractions or external intrusions so that you can make quality commitments and deliver clear communications.

In essence, you are batching the hardest work you’ll do each day into a single time-slot reserved for your very best performance.

Unfortunately, most of us jump between these three Action Modes randomly when we open our Inboxes, frittering away precious time, attention and energy.

The result? You fail to realize that the kind of intensity needed for Action #2 (quick, short decisions) is different from that of Action #3 (deep thinking and major commitments.) As such, you rarely put yourself in the right mindset to do your hardest, best work. Instead, you try to squeeze email between other commitments.

Ultimately, you create problems for yourself and others. At the volumes of email typical of a manager, you never catch up, so others form a poor impression of your ability to stay on top of what (they think) is a simple chore.

The answer is to use your calendar to block separate times for Mode #2 and Mode #3 email. It’s the only way to manage the volume of decisions your job requires.

In this context, you must be continuously improving your email management as a means for making effective decisions. Do so and you’ll continue to be a competent professional who uses his/her core tools effectively.

Stop Mailing In Your Participation

Have you ever been part of a project or organization in which a colleague is giving only a minimal effort? This behaviour, which some call “mailing it in”, may be killing your team’s success.

For several years in the 1990’s, I participated in a programme in which I was trained to teach 50-150 person seminars. The head trainer was the most effective instructor, consistently receiving the best scores, but new trainees like me had a tricky challenge trying to figure out exactly what made him outstanding.

One of his traits was an uncanny skill: he could lead each event as if it were his last, giving attendees a fresh experience each time. As a high performer who took each seminar to a different level, he found new ways to make things compelling even when they were, on the surface, mundane.

While I couldn’t replicate his ability, it was fascinating to observe someone who never once “mailed it in.” The phrase refers to the human tendency to do the minimum possible to get by, thereby providing only a weak substitute. According to Wiktionary, the term means “to fulfill a responsibility with a minimum, rather than appropriate, level of effort”, aka “phoning it in”.

In my column a month ago about governance and leadership, I mentioned that many organization’s board members are mailing it in. I wrote: “In some of our (client’s) strategic planning retreats, they either decline to attend, fail to show up, arrive late, leave early, or spend the entire caucus distracted by email.” Or Zoom. Or a live football match on YouTube…a real episode.

But what’s the big deal? Why should you care? After all, mailing it in has been a part of Jamaican history ever since Columbus met and tried to enslave the Tainos. Their response was probably typical of all oppressed people: to pretend to be doing as much as possible while actually doing the minimum.

Here are a few reasons to highlight this tendency that may help address it in your organization.

1. An Insidious Form of Corruption

We Jamaicans often treat corruption as if it’s a novel coronavirus – a once in a lifetime event that arrives out of the blue all of a sudden, shocking us all. Consider that, in your company, corruption starts with something tiny: when someone mails it in.

In other words, whenever staff members offer up “a minimum, rather than appropriate, level of effort” they are doing more than being lazy. In fact, they are undermining the very mission of the enterprise.

Strangely enough, they could be well-intentioned. The truth is, we are imperfect, which means that sometimes we miss the mark entirely. Some departments or boards do so for years at a time, eventually doing great damage to the very cause they are trying to uphold.

However, the important part that’s missing is a tool of accountability: consistent and transparent feedback, especially in those moments when you are mailing it in. In other words, when you don’t have someone who is willing to let you know when you are merely putting in a half-effort, you are likely to slide into a micro-corruption which masses into a mission-killing culture.

To illustrate: for every Usain Bolt there is another person with equal talent. The only difference is often a lack of accountability: continuous, corrective conversations between the performer and his/her coach. Without such direct help at unexpected times, it’s hard to achieve much.

In firms with such dysfunctional cultures, pointing fingers is a wasted effort. The sad fact is, whenever a group of individuals don’t practice holding each other to a high standard on a regular basis, mailing it in becomes the inescapable, mediocre norm.

2. Lack of Role Models

Unfortunately, when this corruption leaks in at the highest level it’s a different kettle of fish. Why? We Jamaicans tend to pay a lot of attention to hierarchies.

For example, a board that fails in its basic duties (i.e. to have AGM’s, regular meetings, challenging conversations, high performing members) sends a signal to the company: it tolerates corruption.

Over time, anyone who attempts to raise the bar in any part of the organization can be thwarted. They will learn or be told that they are being unfair, or unreasonable. And if they look for support at a higher level, they find the same corruption.

At that point, staff members quit. Either they start a job-hunt or worse: they remain in the job and lapse into mailing it in. They join the club.

Sometimes, a knowledge of these two costs is enough to spur a transformation. Use them to show your organization the places where it’s killing its own success by collectively mailing it in.

Should Your Board Interfere with Company Strategy?

There’s a whole school of thought which
states that boards should leave strategic thinking to executives. Instead,
board members should only provide oversight. Does this point of view have
merit?

The COVID pandemic has thrown companies’
strategies in disarray, whether they are NGO’s, public or private sector
organizations. Suddenly, reliable bedrock beliefs have been suspended as
evidence pours in that a new normal is being born.

Too many boards are caught off-guard.
Believing that strategic concerns are the purview of executives, they have
taken a hands-off approach to recent events. For some time, many have never
been regular attendees at their own board meetings. In some of our strategic
planning retreats, they either decline to attend, fail to show up, arrive late,
leave early, or spend the entire caucus distracted by email. 

In other words, pre-COVID, they stopped
providing strategic direction. Unfortunately, too many of them are public
sector bodies.

Instead, they offer to ensure that the
resulting plan is faithfully followed. They don’t want to “interfere.”

The folly of this thinking has recently
become apparent. Here’s why.

1) COVID has collapsed the future

Our approach to running strategic planning
retreats encourages companies to look 15-30 years into the future. Sometimes
over protest, we explain the pros and cons of looking too far out, vs. not far
enough. The key is to choose a “Goldilocks” planning horizon: one that’s just
right.

Pity the companies which have chosen a
horizon which is too short. Why? They’ll have to restart their planning
process.

The truth is that organizations who chose
long horizons already planned for the changes COVID has made urgent. The only
difference is that the pandemic has brought the future closer: collapsing it.
All they need to do is change the timeline.

However, a company with a too-short
strategy would miss the ball entirely. They’d have to rethink everything simply
because of a tactical error in forming their plan. This is where board members
make a difference:  they are usually the
ones pushing for longer horizons. Their absence makes this mistake more likely
to occur.

2) Fresh New Eyes Are Necessary at the Top

The pandemic has shown us what it’s like to
be completely blindsided. However, it should also predict which individuals
will rebound first.

Those who are younger and newer to the
organization have an advantage. Just observe how they adapt themselves to the
use of an app such as Zoom which has assumed a central role in most companies.

Contrast this reality with some leaders. I
once worked with the head of communications of a large company who hid a big
secret – he didn’t know how to use Powerpoint. How he got to that position
without picking up a basic tool of the trade remained a mystery.

Boards need to challenge executives to keep
developing themselves. They should also welcome fresher, younger eyes into
their ranks to prevent companies from becoming stale.

As such, boards need to properly estimate
how in touch they are. Unfortunately, many fail to include digital strategists
in the boardroom so it becomes difficult to provide proper guidance on the most
challenging issues of the day.

3) Bringing Back the Best Employees

Today, CEOs’ are looking around the office,
shaking their heads and wondering: “Why did I ever think we needed so many
people?” Now, their suspicions have been confirmed: when some employees stayed
home, and contributed little, they weren’t missed. In other words, their
absence wasn’t a problem.

Can organizations simply cherry-pick the
best employees, pay them a bit more and let go of the rest?

I predict that the new normal will force
them to do so, within the limits of the labour laws. Outsiders may complain
that they are just being greedy. However, board members may

point to the need to survive the first
worldwide disruption in business to occur in our lifetime.

They are more likely to switch to a more
digitally-savvy workforce that can manage itself without being watched.
Individual salaries may rise by so doing, but the number of total employees may
fall. Overall productivity should increase even as payroll costs are cut.

Boards should also prevent executives from
rushing to return to a pre-COVID status quo which wouldn’t be sustainable. They
should have a well-established point of view developed from seeing the inside
operations of other companies.

These are trying times, and the cozy
collegiality of the board room must give way to the committed few who are
willing to take a stand in an effort to keep companies afloat. 

Organizations need their boards to jump
into the fray wholeheartedly. They must intervene to make the best of a messy
situation and play their part in crafting a strategy that serves all concerned.

Are you concerned about changes in your employee’s compensation related to COVID-19?

Has your executive team started to signal that, due to financial pressure, it’s time to consider cuts in payroll?

As an HR manager, you may be challenged by a new demand to cut costs related to the trauma caused by the current pandemic. If you have any concerns about how to proceed in these uncertain times, don’t miss the webinar on May 20th with Peter Hall.

But that’s not all. He’ll be following up the event with his own 5 week private coaching circle on CaribHRForum Community. It will be available by application only as the group will span less than 10 people. Plus, this is a complimentary offering.

Here’s more information on the program and an application link.

Peter is a former executive in human resources at both Red Stripe/Diageo and CIBC/FirstCaribbean International Bank.

What are your executive team’s post-COVID assumptions?

Is your company being undermined by obsolete assumptions held by some of your leaders? To move forward, they must be challenged.

In our work to develop clients’ breakthrough strategies, we try to highlight such hidden assumptions. These are often unspoken, clashing ideas which undermine the corporate strategy. When the plan needs revision, the team should uncover and sort out these differences to act as one.

Unfortunately, most companies were rushed to respond to COVID-19 and created little more than a bunch of survival tactics. Now that the lockdown is being phased out, organizations must find a way to achieve their “new normal” if they hope to thrive.

However, as they do so, they need to look past the relatively simple task of putting people back in front of their desks safely. A fresh strategy is required to suit the times. One approach is to explore the foundation assumptions which are now embedded in their old business model. For example, they should date the following common, future milestones.

  • New Coronovirus Case Level-Off Day
  • Active Case Reduction Day
  • Curfew Lifting Day Employee Separation Day
  • Remaining Employee Return Day
  • Customer Re-Opening Day
  • Border Re-Opening Day
  • International Flight Resumption Day
  • End of Social Distancing Day
  • Ro Below 1.0 Day (A measure of COVID-19’s contagiousness.)

Each of these public events signals a turning point in the crisis. While they are unknowable with absolute certainty, that’s not the main challenge. The problem is that executives in your company are likely to hold different estimates for each milestone. This discrepancy could just be an interesting curiosity, except that each individual is making daily decisions based on their personal understanding.

For example, if HR believes that Employee Return Day is on June 15th, but Customer Service commits to a Customer Re-Opening Day on June 1st, there’s a big problem. The company can waste time, effort and money if the two plans aren’t synchronized.

But this list of key dates is just a start. There are a number of other assumptions which only apply to your industry, or company which need to be unearthed. Here are some of the questions I have been urging clients to ask themselves. 
Q1 – What material changes have occurred in our business? Here, I recommend you brainstorm individually and then as a team. It’s no place for group-think – the tendency for people to conform to majority thinking. Focus on concrete changes which are tangible and can be measured.
Q2 – Why does the change matter? Here you must confront aspects of your business model which can no longer work. Query what will happen if you continue the old model in this new environment.
Q3 – If the change is permanent, what were the original assumptions that must be challenged? These were embedded in the old business model, perhaps never discussed. Now, you must make them explicit.
Q4 – What are the new assumptions? Given the data you have on hand, what will you assume moving forward?

Furthermore, to make sense of your predictions, also think in terms of “confidence”. For example, if your team believes that Border Re-Opening Day will be on September 30th, apply a confidence interval to this date. You may state: “We are 50% sure that the date will fall between September 1st and October 31st.” That’s very different from being “90% sure it will fall between September 25th and October 5th. “

This additional information helps you make better decisions, introducing added flexibility where it may be needed. Of course, this is just the beginning. You should continue the regular strategic planning process I have summarized in prior articles:

1. Create a current snapshot

2. Set a target month/year that will allow a breakthrough to manifest

3. Craft measurable outcomes

4. Backcast from the future to 2020, filling the gap with necessary actions and milestones

Finally, ensure that the context of the discussion is one of exploration and innovation. The fact is, there will probably never be another moment like this in your business. Discontinuities of this magnitude rarely occur more than once in a lifetime.

Needless to say, companies that don’t revise their baseline hypotheses will be left at the starting line. In like manner, those who allow their CEO to set a bunch of flaky assumptions by himself will also run last.

Take the opportunity to make the most of this crisis by challenging the assumptions that render your old business model and strategy obsolete. Get all the members of your executive team talking to arrive at a new baseline.

Feels uncomfortable? The fact is that you are making an educated guess, then taking a bet that you are right. Regardless, your organization needs you to make such commitments so it can find success within this pandemic.