Look at Her Go! Achieving the Perfect Quit

Sigrid practicing. By Victor Valore
Sigrid practicing.  Photo courtesy of Victor Valore.

This is a provocative article suggesting that it’s a good thing if an employer loses good people.  To be clear, it’s not a good thing if an employer loses people who quit in disgust.  Rather, if you are cultivating an engaged work environment in which everyone is encouraged to move onward and upward, then there is a price to pay.  That price is that sometimes employees take advantage of external opportunities.

The author of the article is Drew Falkman from a firm called Modus Create, a technology services company with a soft spot for people development.  He suggests that if you are losing good people it is a sign of an engaged work environment that attracts transparently ambitious people.  Ambitious people will regard your workplace as an exceptional diving board into the pool of life.  These can be good people to work with.

What do you think? Could your new employer brand be “diving boards are us”?  The reason I ask, is that most people are only familiar with what competitive diving looks like moments after the diver has taken flight.  But in the years prior to jumping the diver will have put much effort into developing courage, strength, and skill. Would you have a better workplace if a larger fraction of your employees were constantly building towards a visible and transparent goal?  This spirit of growing and striving would be a great workplace culture for employee and employer alike.

This change of attitude on the employer’s part redefines performance excellence as an act of motion amidst a growth mindset, not a final accomplishment that presumes a fixed state.  A workplace that is always striving performs better than one in which managers treat their best staff as collectibles.

Managers are notorious for trying to hold onto their top-performers and keep them at their current level.   It’s so convenient for the manager, having excellent people who are prohibited from seeking new opportunities, locked into place just-so, delivering double the productivity.  These people practically manage themselves, and the manager doesn’t need to spend extra hours training them or replacing them when they leave.  If the manager can cultivate a team like this, perhaps the manager should get the biggest bonus.

But thinking about the whole institution and the economy in general, locking-down high performers is a recipe for stagnation.  Perhaps the millennials were right?  Maybe we should stop tolerating mediocrity and take for granted that generalized career ambition is part-and-parcel of performance and workplace engagement.

Employers are increasingly desperate for good hires into the senior ranks, and they’re blunt that they should always be free to bring in good people from other institutions.  So, as a society, the “correct” opinion is that employers and employees alike should be moving everyone upward and onward.  Therefore, career-growth exits are a good thing.

But it gets better.

Falkman suggests that former employees are valuable to your organization as well.  Former employees can speak highly of their work experience at your organization, improving the employer and customer brand.  Supportive former employees can also become committed customers, suppliers, or investors.  You can go the extra mile and organize this resource of boomerang employees, building current staff to eventually be part of an alumni pool who continue to grow, keep in touch with their peers, and make themselves available as boomerang employees.

Every now and then a contrary opinion comes along that you really need to take seriously.  This is one of the good ones.

Quitters May Be Your Most Valued Resource

209365 - What Goes Around... by Adam Wyles (=)
209365 – What Goes Around… Photo courtesy of Adam Wyles.
Do you ever get that strange feeling when someone leaves your workplace that the work friendship is finished?  It’s an odd feeling, but you need to get past it.  That’s because the relationship continues to be  important even when your former colleague is working elsewhere.

“Boomerang employees” are people who have left a workplace and then come back.  Boomerangs are an emerging trend because people are changing jobs more frequently.  It’s posing new challenges in the way we think about work.  Several of the major insights about boomerangs are reviewed in a study from September 2015, from the Workforce Institute at Kronos Incorporated and WorkplaceTrends.com.

In brief, employers are developing more mature opinions.

“Based on survey results, nearly half of HR professionals claim their organization previously had a policy against rehiring former employees – even if the employee left in good standing – but 76 percent say they are more accepting of hiring boomerang employees today than in the past. Managers agree, as nearly two-thirds said they are more accepting of hiring back former colleagues.”

A majority of managers and HR professionals give high priority to job applicants who had left in good standing.  The warm feelings go both ways, with nearly 40 percent of employees seriously considering going back to a former employer.

Brendan Browne, VP of global talent acquisition at LinkedIn, notes in an article in Business Insider that “…jumping between jobs doesn’t mean that employees today are less loyal. Rather, the concept of loyalty has simply evolved. Employees might move around more, but they also remain much more connected to former employers.”

Getting The Best Out Of Boomerang Employees

What about the nitty gritty about how we would go about this?  First, there is the business case for favoring a returning employee.  According to Browne, Boomerangs are;

already familiar with… [the organization’s] culture. There is an established employee-employer relationship that adds another layer of employee loyalty to the company, which in turn leads to increased retention. Boomerangs that have been away for a few years also have direct business value, as they bring with them new experiences, connections, points-of-view, and even potential customers.” (Emphasis added)

Molly Moseley in a blog post adds that “…you know their skills firsthand — strengths and weaknesses — so there shouldn’t be any big surprises.”  That assumes that the employer has a fresh memory or has kept the good records about the employee’s history.

There can be pitfalls, for sure.  Moseley asserts that employers must answer one question “Why did they leave in the first place?  …You must have this conversation, get a clear answer and ensure all parties have agreed on the resolution. Did they leave for higher pay, a promotion, shorter commute, better benefits? Whatever it is, are you able to amend that problem?”

Kevin Mason in an article in TLNT echoes this sentiment about knowing their reasons for quitting.  Mason also identifies a double-edged sword of employee morale.  If people were sad to see this employee leave in the first place, there can be a boost in morale when they return.  However, it’s also possible that people were happy to see them go, and their return can be bad for morale.  Mason says “It’s critical to get the pulse of your key players before bringing an employee back.”

Fostering Employee Engagement With Former Employees

How do you go about actively recruiting boomerang employees?  Browne makes a comparison to alumni engagement efforts with college and university students:

“While the idea of keeping alumni invested used to be confined to academia, it’s now a growing trend in the workforce. LinkedIn’s alumni program started out as a LinkedIn group that a few alumni employees created on their own in 2014. Today, our in-house alumni network has more than 3,300 members, which includes both current employees and alumni. That way, alumni can build relationships and feel like they are still part of the company.”

It’s notable that of all the social media button-click things we can do to cultivate this talent pool, the key concern is the underlying shift in workplace culture and opinions about employee engagement.

Joyce Maroney from the Workforce Institute says that “it’s more important than ever for organizations to create a culture that engages employees – even long after they’re gone.”  It’s the ultimate de-silo-ing of the people under your span of control.  You’re not just responsible for engaging those outside your own reporting relationship; you also need to engage those who have left the organization entirely.

This idea that a career is a series of adventures maps easily to Millennials.  Millennials change jobs more quickly (because they are younger) and are therefore more likely to be boomerang hires, according to Dan Schawbel of WorkplaceTrends.com.  And let’s not forget that if you’re a socially responsible leader, you’ll take an interest in mentoring these people regardless of whether it’s right for the corporate bottom line.  There is an onus on good managers to also be good people.

In the employee’s eye, former employers take on the status of old friends, places they have visited, and books they have enjoyed that they still keep on the shelf.  Wouldn’t it be great if we could all just stay connected, live a varied life, and seek meaningful work in which we’re encouraged to grow?  Employers will need to find people who want to put in the extra effort to cultivate this dynamic environment?  How about you?  Do you want to help build this kind of workplace?

Everything Causes Everything Else

catfight. By Dennis Carr
Catfight. Photo courtesy of Dennis Carr.
Do you need to be engaged at work to be effective?  Sure, maybe.  But maybe not.

A provocative article by Alec Levenson from 2015 argues that Employee Engagement Does Not Cause Performance.  Levenson says the notion that employee engagement causes performance “makes intuitive sense yet does not hold up empirically.”  He argues that the link between engagement and performance is correlation, not causation.  Or rather, if there is causation it is probably the reverse; better corporate performance probably causes higher employee engagement.

I think this interpretation is consistent with the idea that a thriving and growing organization will tend to be in hiring mode and have a larger number of new hires who are in a high-engagement honeymoon phase.  Thriving businesses have newer machinery and newer buildings, and employees are subjected to endless compliments from family and friends for getting a good job at a winning company.  These factors may drive engagement regardless of the work experience.

Levenson notes that the statistical models are troublesome as they can confirm causation in either direction.  It’s a real problem in statistics.  Sometimes the causation can go in both directions or in a circle.  I exercise, so I sleep well, therefore I eat well, and – behold – I have energy to exercise.  Hiring is down, so consumer confidence is down, thus consumer spending is down, and hiring drops further.

Often there is a third factor causing everything else to happen.  Two major drivers of engagement are a collaborative workplace culture and pro-social front-line managers who make positive interventions.  Yet those items can drive productivity directly and engagement directly, resulting in a spurious correlation.

Within the economics field, there is a dirty little secret that everything causes everything else.  Economies are incredibly complex, and economic models often get more accurate as you add a larger number of variables.  Usually the biggest drivers of the economy are things like oil prices, interest rates, housing starts in the US, and consumer spending in China.  When you throw those major drivers into any cause-and-effect model, you usually discover that your personal project is not such a big deal.

However, I think the debate about the direction of causation is moot.  The world is a big, hot mess of major forces driving success and failure, and every now and then someone is able to make the case that they themselves caused everything to happen.  So what should you do?  Give appropriate thanks and move on with your own contribution.

As for the statistical causation, just take your placebo.  Take vitamins, drink that one glass of red wine per day, show up, answer the phone, and go with the flow.  After all, it’s really about your personal engagement, isn’t it?  And maybe the people working next to you.  So help them out, too.  Maybe you can help build team spirit and create a little spurious correlation while you’re at it.

Leadership is the Act of Learning

Portrait Of A Female Student

Are the best leaders currently excellent?  No, they are not.  The best leaders are those who always strive to become a little bit stronger in the near future.  In a recent article in the Harvard Business Review the authors identify that Good Leaders are Good Learners.  Leaders who are in “learning mode” tend to develop stronger leadership skills than their peers.

This learning mode is exhibited through three behaviors:

  • “First, leaders set challenging learning goals in the form of ‘I need to learn how to…’”
  • “Next, they find ways to deliberately experiment with alternative strategies.”
  • “Finally, leaders who are in learning mode conduct fearless after-action reviews, determined to glean useful insights form the results of their experimentation.”

The authors identify several organizational indicators of the fixed-mindset mentality that are contrary to the idea of a “learning mode.”  Consider psychometric testing that selects the most innately qualified leaders; how useful is this information if you can’t see an upward trend?  If the rules in your business keep changing, what use do you have for a leader who was top-performing under last year’s rules?  Surely the best leaders are the one who can move upward and onward from any new starting point, regardless of how excellent their performance is currently.  You get to change the rules more often with these types of leaders.

Also consider the use of forced ranking performance appraisals and winner-take-all reward systems.  Basically, these systems use backward-looking performance indicators and anoint those at a high performance level as those worthy of recognition.  But with a learning mode mindset, those mitigating from a disadvantageous starting point might be your new heroes.  Especially if they were learning and leading along the way.

Leadership Development, Workplace Engagement, and the Learning Organization

My personal interpretation is that the “learning mode” mindset is just the leadership-development element of an engaged workplace with a learning-organization mindset.  That is, if you’re required to lead an engaged learning organization, only those with a growth mindset will excel.  And when they excel, the business will perform better.  So the leader, the culture, and organizational performance will move in synch.

Leaders cannot get fearless feedback unless they have fostered a workplace culture of high trust and two-way communication.  Leaders cannot openly name the things they need to learn unless they have sense of humility and an absence of back-stabbing amongst leaders.  Leaders cannot experiment with alternative strategies unless they have permission to fail; an onus of perfection would oblige leaders to stick to the tried-and-true.

It’s reassuring to know that a variety of broader truths are coming out of the evidence.  Engagement, learning, leadership, and change are all built on a foundation of focus, collaboration, curiosity, and trust.

Now if only we could make sure those types of people are actually put in charge, I think we would be set.  But that doesn’t always happen, does it? It’s a warning-shot to those who think they are already awesome. Excellence is in knowing your next step.

Digging the Gig – Are Temporary Workers Really Happy?

Skydiving, by Joshua M
Skydiving.  Photo courtesy of Joshua M.  This activity is only fun when voluntary.

Why don’t we all just quit our jobs and go freelance?  Good question.  There’s not a really good reason why we should not.  Gig work improves job satisfaction, opens up work opportunities that might have normally been unavailable, and appears to have few negative impacts.

There is an interesting report on the gig economy available online, entitled “Independent Work: Choice, Necessity, and the Gig Economy.”  It’s a big report, so I’ll summarize the key findings for you.

In this October 2016 report, McKinsey Global Institute finds that about 20 to 30% of the working-age population in Europe and the US engage in some form of independent work.  The report explores whether gig work is truly a voluntary arrangement, and whether the work is lucrative or satisfying.

What is the Gig Economy?

McKinsey defines independent workers as having a high degree of autonomy, payment by assignment (not hours), and a short-term relationship with their employer.  Independent work connects a large pool of workers with a large pool of customers, on a scale that can be global.   The workers and customers link up for efficient matches via the internet and cell phones.  Only 15% of independent workers are using online marketplaces, implying there is potential for significant growth.

In my opinion, if the arrangement is truly independent, gig workers are businesses and not employees. This is a complication because independent business operators tend to be dropped from formal labour market statistics.  This makes the gig economy bewildering to the human resources field.  Also, these businesses are often too small to be measured by those tracking major corporations, such as stock markets or auditing firms. That means that independent workers are also not fully understood by experts in finance and accounting.

All the cool stuff happens at the boundary between categories, and nowhere is this more true than in the gig economy.

Is Temporary Work Truly Voluntary?  Is it Satisfying Work?

In conversations about the gig economy, there is a recurring question: how is this work any different from the contingent workforce of under-paid service employees?  McKinsey overcomes this confusion by placing  independent workers into four segments:

  • Free Agents do independent work by choice and get most of their income from this work.
  • Casual Earners choose this life but their gigs are supplemental income.
  • Reluctants get their primary income from independent work but would prefer a permanent job.
  • The Financially Strapped get supplemental income from gigs and do so out of necessity.

The free agents in the top tier “report greater satisfaction with their work lives than those who do it out of necessity.”  The fact that they could choose independent work had a greater impact on job satisfaction than geography, age, income bracket, or education level.

The higher job satisfaction of free agents reflects several dimensions of their work lives including satisfaction with their choice of their type of work, creativity, opportunity, independence and empowerment, hours of work (amount and flexibility), and atmosphere.  Independent workers like their boss more, that is to say, yes they do like themselves.  Some satisfaction indicators are equal to regular employment, but there were no job dimensions where free agents were less satisfied.

Free agents perceive that they make about as much money as they would in a permanent job.

Amongst the Reluctants and Financially Strapped, temporary work does not drive low job satisfaction.  Those who do any work out of necessity report a similar level of job dissatisfaction, regardless of whether they are independent or have traditional jobs.  It’s an important distinction: people who are forced into temporary work are dissatisfied, but the main driver of dissatisfaction is the phrase “forced into,” not the word “temporary.”  It sounds about right to me, considering how strong the human spirit is in resisting coercion.  And some of the temporary-ness is circumstantial and not attributable to a specific negative entity.

While it is notable that some people are “stuck” in these precarious roles, I personally think it is open to debate whether workers would be better-off with the absence of such arrangements.  That is, the supplemental income might truly make a difference, with no adverse impact on job satisfaction.  And it is not entirely clear whether the gigs can be converted into permanent jobs.  There may be cases where the elimination of gigs would simply result in the elimination of an income stream.

Opportunities and Threats in the Gig Economy

Digital links between workers and customers can be global in reach, and since only 15% of gig workers are connected to a digital platform, things could open up and grow substantially.  For the economy on the whole McKinsey notes that a growing gig economy “…could have tangible economic benefits, such as raising labor-force participation, providing opportunities for the unemployed, or even boosting productivity.”  There is the additional advantage that some services could be provided in a more flexible manner, improving the buyer or consumer experience.

I think there is a trade-off for the common citizen, that sometimes a less secure employment situation can be mitigated by a more beneficial arrangement for that same person acting as a consumer.

McKinsey rightfully identifies that there are challenges posed by the gig economy, including needs for training, credentials, income security, and benefits.  That is, if we are shifting towards a touch-and-go economy it will be harder to ensure everyone can be a winner, or even be able to get by.  There’s an increased demand for social supports coming from all quarters, including consultants at McKinsey.

Forget About Strategy. Reality is a Mosh Pit

CROWD S U R F E R. By Keami Hepburn
CROWD S U R F E R. Photo courtesy of Keami Hepburn.

Strategy is not superior to tactics.  At best, strategy and tactics can be integrated as equals.  In this day and age it is looking increasingly unlikely that a senior leader will come up with one brilliant idea from the top of the organization and cascade it downward through the chain of command.  Rather, we live in a world where ground-level employees determine business success; information is diffused through friends and cube-mates; and the best ideas move diagonally through the organization’s subject-matter experts with minimal regard for the org chart.

A classic example of the disputed importance of strategy is the difference between Workforce Analytics and Strategic Workforce Planning.  I routinely use Workforce Analytics to help a variety of managers and professionals adapt to an unpredictable array of questions.  Workforce Analytics has a kind of “older sister” business practice called Strategic Workforce Planning which has been around for a little longer.  Strategic Workforce Planning is the practice of using analytics in the formal process or organizational re-design.  The re-design is intended to align human resources to internal and external context, a forecast about the future, and organizational strategy.  It makes perfect sense on paper.

In my opinion, there are three major frustrations with strategic alignment.  First, it makes a presumption that organizational strategy in your organization is in its prime.  If your org strategy is in its final approval stage or a complete re-write of that strategy is about to begin, then alignment to that strategy is a dubious effort.  Second, if any of the organization’s major leaders are in transition (both incoming and outgoing) their personal enthusiasm for the formal strategy could be in play.  To some extent, strategy is a debate amongst executives, and that debate can shift as the players are in flux.

Third, forecasting is a moving target.  In the middle of the Strategic Workforce Planning process there is an attempt to identify a future state and assess scenarios where a different staff composition would prepare the organization for that future.  However, society is changing so quickly and in so many ways that speculation about any likely future state has the shelf life of about a month.  Try writing down your predictions about the future on a piece of paper and then come back to it in 30 days.  With the passage of time you will either be humbled, or you will assert that it’s been doctored and you couldn’t have written something so clueless.  As such, alignment to strategy is brief, making the overall process less tangible and less relevant.

A good example of the struggles of strategic alignment is Uber.  Uber appears to have been built around a culture of rules-breaking on taxi licensing, grey-ethics exploitation of private information about a customer’s physical location, and a backroom culture of dot-com, locker-talk bravado.  With just a little bit of blowback from the public, Uber has been obliged to change senior leaders and reverse elements of the very organizational culture that made it great.  Good luck identifying what their sector will look like in two months, what this week’s executive team is going to do about it, and calibrating staff accordingly.  They might be fine in the near future, but we won’t really know until after the fact.

Consider by contrast an impactful tactical change which adapts to emerging evidence.  There is evidence that an equitable and inclusive work environment fosters better commitment and idea sharing.  There is evidence that workplace incivility has a dramatic impact on general productivity.  There is evidence that customer engagement is hyper-sensitive to employee engagement.  It is possible to develop a supposition that millennials are quitting at a higher rate, only to discover evidence that this is more nuanced and is really about career advancement at all ages.  These insights can have a dramatic impact on an organization’s opinion about what their core function should be, how managers should treat employees, and what kinds of employees and managers you should be hiring or promoting.

Then you would need to double-down and anticipate that even more disruptive evidence will continue to arrive at an even faster rate.  And if you did not adapt in this manner, you can bank on the fact that this adaptation is happening at rival organizations.  This brings us back to the possibility of even more leadership change and yet another re-vamp of organizational strategy.

If you are a manager, a human resource leader, or an analyst you might need to abandon all delusions that you can chart a clear path.  Rather, you are in the mosh pit of life, and your prime directive is to keep moving and not get hurt.  Keep your tempo, have fun, and follow the mood.  You cannot simply obey the directives of those with money or rank.  You must arrive at work fresh and rested, and play hard.  Every day.