5 great ways to manage people better

Today is #SmallBizSaturday – a worldwide day for celebrating and supporting small businesses. Here at Ariadne Associates we support small businesses throughout the year, of course, but today seems a good day to remind small business owners and managers of some of the simple things they can do to get the best from their staff.

  1. Say Thank You (and please). Basic good manners don’t disappear once you start work. If someone does something you have asked them to, say thanks. And particularly acknowledge if they’ve done it well – a great piece of customer service, solving a problem, or identifying a new way to increase sales.
  2. Remember you are dealing with people. You don’t have to be best friends with your staff (in fact you probably shouldn’t) but you should appreciate that they aren’t just automatons. Be aware, and take an interest in, the fact that Betty in accounts is worrying about her son’s A Levels; that Rajesh likes to travel to away matches so doesn’t like doing overtime at the weekend; that Paulina who works behind the counter is doing night classes because she really wants to be an engineer.
  3. Be professional. No-one wants to work for an employer who is slipshod about their pay, doesn’t bother to issue them with a contract or who ignores basic employment law. Pay the same attention to this as you do to sales, marketing, accounts etc. And get specialist advice if you’re not an expert.
  4. Be fair and consistent. This doesn’t necessarily mean do the same thing on every occasion, but it does mean that you should consider everything before making a decision. Don’t allow Phil to take extra holidays just because he’s your star salesperson and then not allow Deidre, who may have an equally good reason, but who isn’t doing so well.
  5. Don’t forget that if someone doesn’t appear to fit into your business, you were the one who recruited them. Learn from what went wrong in a bad hire before you start recruiting again.

Small businesses often can’t beat their bigger rivals in the pay and benefits they can offer. So you have to compete in other ways to attract and retain good people. Making your business a good place to work is a great (and low-cost) way to start. And if you’d like to know more about how you can do this, why not read this next?

Swallows and Amazons

You may have missed it, but the New York Times published an “exposé” of the culture and working practices at online retailer Amazon at the weekend. If you did miss it, then you can find it here. It’s caused quite a furore, with lots of condemnation of Amazon, and company founder and CEO Jeff Bezos having to issue a formal statement in response.

I don’t know anything at all about Amazon’s working conditions and culture. However I can spot emotively manipulative journalism when I see it, and the fact it’s in what is apparently America’s “newspaper of record” doesn’t make it any more palatable.

Let’s leave aside all the “they texted me on Thanksgiving Day” “I saw grown men cry daily*” “I was criticised for having poor wi-fi on holiday” stuff which may be true incidents but are simply anecdotal evidence (*As an aside, presumably women crying at work every day would not be worth reporting since, as we all know, they are over-emotional little creatures). Let’s look instead at the managerial and HR practices that are criticised.

  1. They have leadership values and (shock, horror) actually use them in management and recruitment, rather than leave them as nice words stuck behind a reception desk, where of course they should be.
  2. They encourage feedback from all sections of the workforce on performance. Other companies call this 360 degree appraisal and use it a lot.
  3. They want contributions from all members of staff and expect challenge, regardless of position
  4. They use data to inform their business decisions
  5. They work long hours
  6. They use performance rankings to dismiss staff they deem to be poor performers
  7. Poor performance is managed by performance improvement plans (which according to the article is “Amazon code for ‘you’re in danger of being fired’”. In a similar vein, the Daily Mail once informed its readers that cloud storage was “not an actual cloud”)

Points 1-4 would be considered as good practice by most HR professionals. If anything the NYT article shows that we should be alive to the ways to which even “good practices” can lead to negative consequences. 5 and 6 are both poor practices but aren’t exclusive to Amazon in any way (even if again, Amazon apparently take them to an extreme). While 7 is again a fairly normal managerial practice in most companies – not an Amazon exclusive “secret code”.

Amazon may have very poor working conditions and an aggressive, over competitive management style. So do many other companies. They may have high turnover and many disgruntled ex-employees. So do many other companies. I’m certainly not defending either the company or poor HR. But why single them out? The old journalistic adage is “follow the money”. The New York Times’s major rival as a “newspaper of record” is The Washington Post. Who owns The Washington Post? Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos.

If you’ve done 6 impossible things before Breakfast….

At the age of almost 6, I remember being woken up in the middle of the night by my parents to come downstairs and watch, on a grainy black and white TV, the first steps of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon. I felt a similar sense of excitement and history being made last week as I watched the scenes from Mission Control as we (and they) waited to find out if the Philae probe had landed on Comet 67P.

In so many respects, the Rosetta mission exemplifies what we in HR would like to see happening in every workplace -albeit on a slightly smaller scale.

It had a clear and incredibly stretching objective (I’d love to have been at the meeting where someone said “I’ve got a good idea – let’s see if we can land something the size of a washing machine on a comet 400 million km away and moving at 34000km an hour. To make it really interesting, we’ll have to send our instructions to the rocket half an hour before we need it to do them, and we’ll then have to wait another half an hour for the answer”)

Allied to this clear purpose was team working and collaboration – the effort involved not only different nationalities but scientists of different disciplines, engineers, computer programmers and mathematicians. And suppliers (such as those who built parts of the lander) were just as involved as the scientists working directly. (One other nice thing was the diversity of those involved – there were almost as many women scientists and engineers involved as there were men).

There was learning from failure – not everything went exactly right (Philae’s now famous bounce on landing being a particular example) but everything that happened was used to gain greater knowledge and to plan for the future.

There were clear and consistent values throughout – virtually everyone interviewed talked of the desire to do something new and the potential benefits of the things they were hoping to discover.

And finally, while the technology and the science were clearly important – the mission was only achieved through committed and motivated people. The scenes at the point of landing were not of the lander itself, but of the team at Mission Control anxiously waiting to find out what had happened. The expressions on their faces in the final 20 minutes, which varied from tension, nervous laughter, nonchalance (one team member appeared to take a call on his mobile with less than 10 minutes to go) to complete joy as the signal came through, emphasised how essential the people were.

The day after the landing, a trending hashtag on Twitter was #WeCanLandOnACometButWeCant…If I were of a cynical mind, I’d conclude that tweet with “Build Better Workplaces”. But I’d like to believe, in the words of a certain US politician “Yes We Can”.

My 6 Books

maverick  handy secret agentTMS cheese

A couple of weeks ago David Goddin (@Changecontinuum) wrote a blog post on the 6 books that had most influenced his approach to his coaching practice, and challenged others to do the same. After some thought, here are the books that influence my approach to HR

Maverick – Ricardo Semler

Even 20 years on, the way in which Semler transformed his traditionally run family business into one which gives shopfloor workers the chance to set their own wages, run their own production lines and take control of the way the business moved forward is still inspirational and sadly, still rare. What I particularly like about it is that Semco is primarily a manufacturing firm (not a trendy techy start up) and is based in one of the emerging economies (Brazil) – if they can do it why can’t more?

Understanding Organisations – Charles Handy

Anyone who studied for their CIPD qualification in the 1980s or 1990s will have probably used this as their “core” textbook – although it’s a fairly easy and straightforward read and not overly academic in style. It’s not a ground-breaking book in itself, but it emphasises the “human” in human resources and its influence can still be felt throughout the HR profession. It’s my first port of call if I need to refresh my memory on an aspect of HR theory.

The Secret Agent – Joseph Conrad

I’ve blogged before about Conrad and his unlikely status as an HR guru, and this is a classic case of “a novel you read as a teenager having an influence for the rest of your life”. Every character in this study of a terrorist cell in London is complex, with their own individual motivations, and their interplay and misunderstandings lead to tragic consequences – things that impact on the world of work where understanding why people are behaving in a particular way is key to resolving issues.

The Wealth of Nations/The Theory of Moral Sentiments – Adam Smith

Yes, this is two books – but both need to be read as Smith (who like Marx is often misrepresented) makes the important point that humans are both economic animals (we like to make a profit) and social animals (we have feelings for others and can understand their dilemmas and point of view). Balancing the two in business is a key skill in HR – we have to ensure that we achieve both.

Who moved my Cheese? – Spencer Johnson

Awful, patronising tripe, a heavy handed way of making the point “if you don’t adapt you die”. It’s the only management book I know to have been cited as a reason for unfair dismissal. So why is it here? Because it’s a constant reminder to me of how HR can and has been used almost as the “anti-people” department – and so it acts as a warning never to behave in that way!

The Value of Values

Originally posted December 2013

My daughter’s primary school had its OFSTED inspection a few months ago and came out of it very well. What was particularly heartening from my perspective was not only that it was hitting good academic standards but that it achieved “outstanding” comments for issues such as pupil behaviour, cooperation and respect for others. There’s nothing particularly special about the school – it’s in what could be described as “working class” district of Liverpool and draws a significant number of pupils from socially deprived inner city areas.

But what is interesting, reading the OFSTED report, is the way it’s run.

  • Its whole ethos is based on a set of values (faith based ones in this particular case, but the important point is that it has values)
  • The school is led by a headteacher who ensures that targets and objectives are based in the context of those values
  • Teachers work within the values, set stretching but achievable targets and lead by example
  • Consequently pupils enjoy school, are interested in what’s going on and promote the culture themselves
  • And finally, as a relatively small school, communication is easier and there is less chance of individuals being “missed” or isolated.

So let’s try a bit of substitution. Change the words headteacher, teachers and pupils to Managing Director (or business owner), managers and employees. Sounds to me that it’s a successful recipe for building a sustainable and profitable business, with engaged and motivated employees. And it seems that smaller businesses may be more able to do this than larger ones – something which is also the subject of my contribution to the recent book of HR blogs “Humane, Resourced”.

If you want your business to be successful, then the question isn’t “why should we bother with values” – it’s “why don’t we have – and act on them – already?”


Edit: You might also enjoy this blog from HR blogger Helen Tracey on the same theme:

Are Values Valuable?