What’s the Secret of Life?

This is dating me, but one of my favorite movie dialogues is from City Slickers:


Do you know what the secret of life is? [points index finger skyward] This.


Your finger?


One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that, and the rest don’t mean sh*t.


But, what is the “one thing?”


[smiles and points his finger at Mitch] That’s what you have to find out.

As we start a new year, what is the one thing that can have the biggest impact on your business success? There are a lot of candidates:

  • I am a big proponent of knowing your True North and running your business to achieve it. If you haven’t made a strategic plan in a while that defines your organization’s potential, that may be it—at least for this year.
  • Another possibility is laser specific customer targeting along with allocating your resources accordingly. Few things can improve your return on investment in a shorter amount of time than this.
  • If you are behind the curve on technology, figuring out what needs automation and where AI data can help improve your outcomes is a huge opportunity.

But this year, given the recent trends of low employment rate, changing values of the workforce, and the differentiation factor that excellent associates can create for their employer, I am going with people. Do we hire, onboard, train, engage, develop, and promote the right people in the right ways? This is the true X-factor of every company.

When we create budgets, we think about how many more items we can sell, how many more customers might buy, how to improve customer service for greater satisfaction, and how to increase productivity. All of which are important conversations that deserve our attention. But at the end of the day, it is people that make those goals come true. People that are either engaged, connected, and adding value, or people that are checking an activity list and doing what they are told to do. Which describes your organization? Clearly, one has a better success rate than the other.

Many of us have HR systems, standards, policies, and procedures that were created years ago. They were quickly updated during Covid to build in the flexibility that allowed us to survive. But those changes weren’t engineered with the long-term workforce in mind. They were quick solutions to an out-of-control fire. Some of those experiments will stand the test of time. Many won’t.

Interestingly, the theme that keeps coming up in the work I am doing with clients is how do we find, develop, and retain quality people? Like anything else, doing something well takes thoughtful development of a model that works for the people and the company. And that doesn’t look like it used to.

If you haven’t recently reinvented the performance management system to reflect today’s workforce expectations and goals, chances are your company is also struggling with these questions. It requires an HR function (person, department, or role) and a leadership team that together can de-construct the current approach and re-construct it into a coordinated system that creates the employees you are looking for. They may be the same employees you already have. It is how we cultivate them that matters.

It requires a systemic approach, illustrated by the chart below.

  1. It starts with who is hired. Are we looking for raw talent or seasoned professionals? That will impact how we spend the budget—higher training costs or larger compensation. Are they a culture fit? People are an investment and there needs to be a strategic approach to hiring.
  2. Onboarding is no longer a day spent signing forms and getting passwords. Onboarding is essential to helping new employees understand and integrate into the culture, connect with the company’s purpose and to understand how to navigate their contributions and professional growth. The Retention Revolution by Erica Keswin says the three “Ps” of onboarding are Professional, Purposeful and Personal.
  3. Training is not an occasional thing. It happens every day as employees learn and grow through planned training, on the job training, informal and formal mentoring, and observation of leaders. Most organizations don’t have an approach that integrates all of those factors and often leaves employees to figure it out for themselves. The result? We have employees who work from job description check lists and don’t really add much value to the process. The goal of every employee should be to make their role “better” than when they began it—more productive, more effective, and more purposeful. If your employees are not doing that, it may not be because they don’t want to; they don’t know how.
  4. Recognition is a powerful motivator. In Chip and Dan Health’s book The Power of Moments, pride is one of the four key elements of powerful moments. The kind of moments that have potential to become legacy and life changing. Don’t treat recognition casually or shoot from the hip. Make it mean something. Think about what behavior you are trying to motivate it and reward it through recognition. What motivates? In the Power of Moments, according to four studies done over 5 decades when employees ranked motivational factors, only one factor was cited every time as among the top two mandates, “full appreciation of work done.”    
  5. Reward can be a part of recognition, or it can be a next step. Someone habitually recognized for good performance is likely to be promoted to more responsibilities. Rewarding usually implies something tangible—a bonus, an extra week off, or a promotion. To be clear it is not motivating to “reward” good employees with more work, and on yeah, let’s cut the bonus so they work twice as hard for the same money. Don’t do it! Unless you are training employees to leave.
  6. Leadership is a fragile thing. It requires our best every day. We can’t mess up and if we do, we had better make amends. No sweeping it under the rug. Nothing influences new hires as much as observing the behavior of leaders. What is rewarded? What (bad) behavior is overlooked for good performers? How transparent is the culture? Do leaders really care about the people, or the money? A leader’s number one job (after providing clear direction and strategy), the one thing they should spend the highest proportion of their time on, is to engage employees and earn (yes, earn) their commitment to the company’s mission and goals. It starts at the top and needs to be consistent throughout the organization.

2024 is already underway, so let’s get started making it the best year ever!

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