Best strategies gather dust or don’t meet their full potential due to people-related challenges. Getting rid of problem employees does not solve the underlying issues. We need to identify such employees, communicate with them, manage their resistance to change and turn them around. How do you lay the groundwork to minimize people issues from surfacing, quickly and efficiently fix them if they do, and enjoy the fruits of predictably realized strategies using productive workforce?
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Top 5 Learning Points
- How to make resources feel like they have a contributory value in the organization
- How do you define a problem employee and do course correction?
- How do you motivate employees, so they see the reality of their expectations and continue on a path of growth- for themselves as well as the organization
- How do you ensure employees exhibit the best productivity and feel motivated to stay?
- While IT teams need to be available 24X7, how do team leaders ensure they get the best work-life balance?
- Machines produce an output; people have outcomes, so once we decide this is how we are going to treat our employees- you will start seeing the change in the outcomes of the organization.
- People want to be part of the IT organization, they want to be a part of the decision-making process, and they want the leadership to tell them where we are headed.
- When you start having that expectation of what it means to work in IT-we realize we help others solve their problems -we empower greatness in others.
- We are trying not to burn employees out but instead engage them in a way where they are excited to come home to work, and they are comfortable going home and spending time with their family.
- People are our most precious resource; we have to invest in people, empower them for greatness but then hold them accountable to deliver those results.
- There needs to be a commitment from the leadership team. Once they show commitment to all employees in the organization, they will start doing things that will amaze you.
The problem of predictive workforce begins when we expect outputs from our employee base rather than treating them as individuals who have professional aspirations and emotions. There’s a distinction to be made between a machine and a human being. Where people are your most precious resource, and you intend to empower them for greatness; you have to make the necessary investments in your people so that they have got the relevant skill set, you are doing long-term planning. Also, if you are trying to empower people for greatness, you have to hold them accountable for doing great things. Everyone needs to be an agent of innovation, and that is not hype, that is a reality, that is where the accountability comes in. Creating a culture of teamwork, appreciation, and collaboration often helps trouble workers to turn around. Then there is always the recognition of the effort that leadership takes that mends some of them too. Fair and equitable treatment nurtures positivity and allows CIOs to create growth plans that ensure harmonious working in the midst of 24-hour workdays!
Sanjog: Our guest today is Samuel Sudhakar, the Chief Information Officer, and Vice President, Information Technology Services at California State University, San Bernardino to discuss the transition of resources, “Problem To Productive Workforce.” We also have Curtis Carver, the Vice President, and Chief Information Officer, the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
In today’s day and age, many ideas are floating. We are doing digital transformation; trying to take the business to the next level. We want to meet the customer demands well. We have got great strategies around it as well. However, in many cases, people who are supposed to help realize those plans are the problem, and some of those issues are chronic. This is our challenge, but we do not seem to see much of an improvement in there.
Since you know people are integral to the growth and one of the essential elements, are the not enough investments being made, or we are unsure of the output? Sam, do we not know how to navigate and how to invest it wisely for us to get where we want to be?
Sam: Let’s focus on the word “output.” Machines produce output, people have outcomes, so that is the first distinction we need to make. Mainly most of the IT folks in the past were machine facing resources, working with machines, do programming, systems administration, network, etc. For the most part, we have expected outputs from our employee base rather than treating them as individuals who have professional aspirations and emotions. There’s a distinction between a machine and a human being. Moreover, for people who are used to facing devices, we have expected outputs from them.
We have expected outputs from our employee base rather than treating them as individuals who have professional aspirations and emotions, etc. There’s a distinction between a machine and a human being.
That is the issue at hand. The minute we change the lens to say that IT resources have their aspirations and they want to be a part of the decision-making process, they will want to buy into the vision of the organization. This is so, especially for the millennial generation. Once we decide this is how we are going to treat our employees- you will start seeing the change in the outcomes of the organization.
Sanjog: Curtis, Sam mentions the outcome and when he says that if we treat them right, things will start turning around. Would you say, this can be done in an objective and measurable manner? Alternatively, do you think this will always remain a soft approach to fixing an underlying problem which is causing us to hold back from where we want to be?
Curtis: Sam nailed it. When you look at people in your organization, different companies reach one of two different conclusions.
One, people are resources to be burned up and so that they become shops that hire people to burn them out and then hire more people, burn them out and keep going on. That does not work very well, especially if you are trying to be a transformational organization. The counter to that is where people are your most precious resource, and you intend to empower them for greatness. Then you have to make the necessary investments in your people so that they have got the relevant skill set. That is long-term planning.
Where people are your most precious resource, and you intend to empower them for greatness; you have to make the necessary investments in your people so that they have got the relevant skill set, you are doing long-term planning.
I will give you some concrete examples. Every single year we make goal statements. These are the goals that we want each of our employees to do; those goals tie back to the strategic plans, which connect with the business case for the university. These combine with the quarterly counseling sessions for some of our employees because even though we are a public university, some of our employees are on incentive plans. Moreover, then that incentive plan ties into to their performance of those specific outcomes.
The other thing is, if you are trying to empower people for greatness, you have to hold them accountable for doing great things, setting higher goals. In my organization what that means is, we only hire A-plus players. They need to have the technical skills and the soft skills, Sam was talking about -for the business facing, and they need to have emotional maturity. Moreover, I am getting old and cranky, but I only hire people smarter than me. Besides, my wife says, that should be the easiest thing I do every day. Once we get them, we want to keep those A-plus players and then compensate them.
Sanjog: Where we talk about compensation and even with the environment or the lens that you mentioned, Sam, what people problems do you still see in your organization or similar organizations to yours?
If you are trying to empower people for greatness, you have to hold them accountable for doing great things.
Sam: Employees do not become problem employees from day one. Every employee starts out with giving their best and contributing to the organization so that they can grow in their career. Over time, that changes because of the other reasons. Some of the reasons that we discovered were, we fail to equip our employees with the right tools to do their job. We fail to empower them to make decisions and always wait for management to do it. We fail to recognize them when they do a good job when they accomplish something.
The compensation you talked about is not only intrinsic; there is extrinsic compensation and inherent compensation. Many employees like to be recognized, to feel like they own something and they are contributing towards the vision and mission of the organization like Curtis said. In our team a year ago, I went to an exercise, and I met with about 108 ITS employees. Moreover, I met with them as individuals. Throughout my one-on-one meetings without supervisors, we discovered five different things that came up:
- Communication was an issue,
- Career development pathways,
- Participatory decision-making,
- Workload and a
- Clear vision.
These are the five categories of issues that we discovered. If you look at those, none of them relate to being underpaid. People want to be part of the IT organization, they want to be a part of the decision-making process, and they want the leadership to tell them where we are headed.
These are the five categories of issues that we discovered. None of them relate to being underpaid. People want to be part of the IT organization, they want to be a part of the decision-making process, and they want the leadership to tell them where we are headed. Instead of saying these are your paths for today and this is what I want you to accomplish, we want them to become a part of the mission of the institution and a part of the strategic plan. As a part of our discovery last year, we started doing the professional development plans. Like Curtis had mentioned earlier, these professional development plans focus on their career development pathways, of where they want their next step to be and how as an organization we can help them get there.
In about a year, we are heading in the right direction but those are the five top issues that we identified, and then we further did some grilling. I will be able to answer more questions as we go along in this show, to say how we have addressed each one of those issues.
Sanjog: That is great, thanks, Sam. Curtis, would you want to add to the inventory of problems that were reported?
Curtis: Yeah. Sam was talking about lack of empowerment, but sometimes within IT, people get into a niche, and they engage in what I call occupational hobbies, things that used to be essential to work but no longer matter. They no longer represent how that work gets done. That misalignment can cause problems in an organization because we are looking for people that are quick and critical thinkers. They need to come in and move through the organization and solve different problems. We hope they will be with us for a long time, but they are going to solve lots of various issues, instead of repetitive tasks.
Sometimes you see IT, people get into a niche, and they engage in what I call occupational hobbies, things that used to be essential to work but no longer matter.
I completely agree with the idea of empowering people to do great things by ensuring recognition. Let me give you some concrete examples. Every month we get all our 250 employees together and do what we call Price in Progress. Ten employees stand up, and they each get two minutes to do two things. One, they have to talk about the work that they are most proud of -not what their boss is most proud of, not what’s on the strategic plan – but what they are most proud of that they have been able to accomplish. Moreover, the second is they have got to thank someone outside of their team. This will be whomever they are most grateful for, for helping their career moving things forward.
It creates a culture of teamwork, celebrates success. It creates a culture where people have an opportunity to thank the folks that make a difference in their life. If they acknowledge someone outside the IT organization and that occurs a couple of times every month, then I write that person and their boss a personal note, I have been doing this for eight or nine years now. I have a 100% yield where they will email me back. I have done it hundreds of times and every single time I have got a revert, almost always saying something to the effect of you have made my week. I have created a champion for IT outside the organization.
Another thing that I like to do is, I invite every employee and their spouse over to the house for dinner, and it is not anything fancy, it is like hamburgers and hotdogs. We do it in small teams. However, it is an opportunity to thank the employee in front of their spouse and to appreciate their contributions. It is a monthly cycle, my wife has become very used to, and we are going on, on a monthly basis have a subset of employees over. It does not cost a lot, $300 a meal, but the ability to thank someone in front of their partner or spouse or date is priceless building that internal loyalty. Having casual conversations, seeing the boss as an approachable person- as I am there in a T-shirt and jeans, flipping hamburgers, is a big help.
There are lots of things that can be done to empower employees to correct that misalignment. However, at the same time, when those challenges do occur, you have to hold people accountable for it. We have to do it as a mechanism to get them back on track, and if we can do that, that is great. If you cannot, then it is time to part ways. In my experience, most people figure it out and take the first step to part ways. Sometimes you do, and you have to set processes and start the recruitment to bring in an A-plus player.
Sanjog: Sam, let’s build upon what Curtis mentioned. I can see that your mindset is where you want to put people first and you are trying to put all the pieces in place. Now it comes down to the problem employees. We identify the problems in the workforce or those individuals, and instead of managing them out immediately, see what you can do to turn them. We understand that no one can have full alignment, there will be some changes or movement. What are those top problem areas that you find in problem employees and in what context are you calling it a problem? While both you and he is trying to build a good environment, there will be some problem in the workforce. If you had to identify a problem employee, how do we define it? You can also give your definition. Then we should see whether it is how they work, their style of delivery? Please share the outcome that we use to define or benchmark someone to be a problem employee or someone who is up to speed or up to the mark.
Sam: I touched on it in the earlier segment that employees, employees do not come as problem employees from day one. Often when you are going to an organization, you inherit a team like I did four years ago when I came to Cal State San Bernardino. There were employees identified as problem employees by the previous groups and the past leadership. They could be dis-enfranchised, they were sidelined, and they were labeled as problem employees. The first thing I did when I went to the university was, give everybody a fresh start program. We launched something called a Fresh Start Program. Under that, I gave every employee who’s been sidelined, disenfranchised or didn’t feel like that the institution has done enough for them, or they were not feeling professionally nourished in our system – to come and talk to me one on one basis to express their discontent.
Through the conversations what I learned was, they were not problem employees, but they have been disenfranchised for one reason or the other over the years. Mind you; these are employees who will be in the organization for a long time, 10-plus years in some cases. As I sat down and talked with them, I discovered where the root of the issue was and started addressing them. Giving them different opportunities, having them work as a part of a different team moving their physical location, several techniques that I have used in the past that have turned these problem employees into productive and enthusiastic employees.
I believe that people are good in their hearts and they have the best interest of their organization in the center.
However, does that happen to every employee? The answer is no. It is not a 100%. However, I was able to turn most of them around. Still, for a handful of them, I was able to identify opportunities to move out of the organization. They were at the time of their career where they could either retire or be a part of a different team and be productive. I believe that people are good and they have the best interest of their organization at heart. However, they have for some reason, become problem employees over time. I have been able to turn the organization around very, very successfully. There might be a couple that is left over, then we continue to work on, and I do not ever give up on our employees.
Sanjog: I understand your perspective. Curtis, coming back to you, the way Sam handled it is, he saw that no one is a problem employee. Then did what he could do to open the communication and people turned around. Would you say that we should take it upon ourselves at all times that if there is a problem, it is because of us? Alternatively, we look at it with a critical eye and agree there is something wrong with the person.
Curtis: I started my job here about two years ago, and this is my third turnaround where I have been brought into a troubled IT organization to try and move it forward. Typically, I find there are three principal issues. In some cases, there is a lack of standard expectations, and we had employees who grew with the wrong expectations under previous leadership. Let me give you two examples.
One of my first conversations was with an incredibly talented database administrator, perhaps technically the most talented on the team. However, he was the least capable in terms of emotional maturity. His premise was because I am the most talented, I can treat everybody else severely. That is not correct. The previous leadership had allowed him to get away with that behavior and that was considered okay. In our initial meeting with him, he was incredulous that, A, he was being called on the carpet for it and, B, we were putting him on a 90-day personnel improvement plan. If he did not complete the project, then he would no longer be an employee of the organization.
I find there are three principal issues. In some cases, there is a lack of standard expectations, and so we had employees who under previous leadership grew with the wrong expectations.
That is an issue of expectations setting and leaders with the right expectations. In all three of the turnarounds, I have spent much time investing in mid-level managers to make sure that they were comfortable in sitting down with an employee to set goals and have candid conversations on performance and on handling situations. Sam and I have done this countless times throughout our life. Some employees break down and start crying in the middle of a meeting; there’s a way to handle that and bring that employee back around. However, there are times when the employee gets very angry; there’s a different way to handle that.
Empowering mid-level managers who sometimes don’t have that training is critical. I did not mention it, but every one of my employees has a training plan. We sit down with them to build goals for the year, and that goes all the way up to me. I have a training plan for the year too. Then we track that training plan on an information basis and an action basis quarterly, as we monitor to make sure that the project is executed. There’s a lot that goes into ensuring that you have got the right alignment and expectations through the organization. Some of those fundamental issues of being a team player and of being competent can be addressed.
The last one is this idea of alignment and agility. Tare hard things to do. Today is the slowest day you will ever have; tomorrow is going to be faster. In that case, you have to automate something or take some mechanism to create capacity for tomorrow! That is the mindset that we have within the organization. I want everyone to be an agent of innovation, and that is not hype, that is a reality, and that is where the accountability comes in. When you start having that expectation that this what it means to work in IT -we help others solve their problems – we empower greatness in others.
Some people do not want to do that. Some people want to come to work at 8:00 and go home at 5:00 and do the same thing every single day. That is not the nature of the IT organization I lead right now, so it is not a good fit for them. However, they are not a problem employee; they are in the wrong job, or in the wrong organization. There are plenty of jobs out there where you do come in at 8, and you go home at 5:00 and you have got weekends off. It is not that they are a problem employee, they are misaligned with the organization.
I want everyone to be an agent of innovation, and that is not hype, that is reality, that is where the accountability comes in.
At least my previous experiences have been that during the year two in an organization, my vacancy rate will go to somewhere around 17% to 20%, mostly self-selected where people vote themselves off the island. Then the long-term -about year two on, it drops back down to about 4% because you have got a team that’s aligned, excited and they want to be agents of innovation. They want to help other people, and they are willing to go the extra mile to do that. While 4% is much under the national average, to get to that point you have to get the right people on the bus. You have to empower them to do great things, and train people so they have the right competencies. You have to also and give them lots of feedback.
Sanjog: At the beginning of this conversation we spoke about not having somebody burn out because that does not. We know 9:00 to 5:00 would not cut it for IT because that is not natural and we do not insulate our staff from all the work. Even though the person says yes, it is the amount of work that you have asked them to that creates the burnout.
The second thing I wanted to bring up before and I will ask you, Sam, to respond to is, when we are saying fixing a person and putting put them on a performance plan, it is a natural thing for an HR to suggest. While you turned that person around, he started behaving in front of you. However, does that help that person to turn around and become the productive worker? That is against his DNA. So, is your technique working, and reaching where you want to reach with the person so that they meet their full potential?
Also, the 9:00 to 5:00 is being frowned upon, saying that IT is not the type of organization where 9:00 to 5:00 would work. However, then is this not self-inflicted, where we are saying yes to more things that business always keeps throwing at us? Then it becomes 9:00 to 9:00, and burnout happens. How do you deal with that?
Sam: The nature of the work in IT is not 9:00 to 5:00, because our stakeholders expect that we have systems up and running, and providing them services 24/7. That does not mean that the same employees and the same group of the employees are always called upon to work 24 hours a day. In our organization, we have a rolling schedule. People who are responsible for monitoring systems and making sure they are up and running, are available. Now the landscape of IT is changed from when we maintained servers in a data center that needed to be babysat and always patched and upgraded. Besides, we have moved many our services to the cloud.
Now the landscape of IT is changed from when we maintained servers in a data center that needed to be babysat and always patched and upgraded; we have moved many our services to the cloud.
In many cases, it is not the systems that we are monitoring; it is the services that the cloud is providing to make sure it is always available to our consumers or students, faculty and staff. We have a rolling schedule of employees who are monitoring systems day after day, so no one employee feels like they have to be on call 24/7. We do that in collaboration, in consultation with our employees. The management is not expecting them to be on call. We work with their schedule, accommodating their family schedules and have them pick their plan to be on call and do the upgrades and the patches, etc.
That is one of the ways that we have done to lessen the burden of employees always feeling overwhelmed.
Sanjog: Curtis, when you invite the different workers and groups to your place, and you can see the pride in the spouse’s eyes but has anyone come to say, “You know what? I love what you are saying about my husband, I am very proud, but I would also like him to spend some time with the family and me.” However, if he is there 9:00 to 9:00, how he is going to do that?
Curtis: Yes. The way you get to 4% vacancy rates, is you get people to have a sustainable life balance. We are trying to engage them in a way where they are excited to come to work, and they are comfortable going home and spending time with their family when they need, so they have got the appropriate balance. It is also about building a strategic plan that is inclusive. We recently had 14 town hall meetings, a crowdsourcing site set up so that the community could engage. We had that seven-committee setup; with more than 200 people working on that strategic plan, around the premise of ‘let’s listen and act .’
What we are trying to do is not burn employees out but instead engage them in a way where they are excited to come home to work, and they are comfortable going home and spending time with their family when they need, so they have got the appropriate balance.
Once we have an achievable plan laid out over the next three years, we sit down with each of the employees and work it through -that is a process of co-authorship. It is not management coming in and saying, “Hey, here are the 458 things I want you to do,” instead it is more of the employee and the supervisor saying, “These are the things that fall into your lane that we have got, what do think? What things are we going to accomplish? Let’s jointly set goals for doing those things.” There’s some balance there.
I mentioned coming over to the house for dinner. We celebrate the wins that occur where we are delivering services on a monthly basis, so there’s this kind of feedback mechanism. We are recognizing resources that are keeping an appropriate balance. Every year we go, (at least for the last two years) to a movie theater with all our employees and our top customers and watch whatever Star Wars movie comes out at Christmas. For whatever reason, there are a different number of IT people that view themselves as either Seth Lords or as Jedi Knights because of the magic they can work, and they appreciate it. Again, we invite their spouses if we get extra tickets, we welcome their kids -and we do have extra tickets.
For whatever reason, there are different number of IT people that view themselves as either Seth Lords or as Jedi Knights because of the magic they can work, and they appreciate.
I did not realize this, but it is very inexpensive to run a theater the night before the movie goes out. When we go back and celebrate those successes, we were engaging the employees and ensuring that the investments we are making in training those employees are setting them up for success. It is not about burnout, if it were burnout, I would not have training plans. I would not be making the significant investments and employees and holding them accountable. I would be burning them out. However, you get to 4% vacancy rates if you have a long-term commitment to the organization at a sustainable pace. At the same time we are at the moment in time where IT is fundamental to the growth of the company and to process innovation. We want to engage our customers and co-author those solutions as well. I agree with you; it is a delicate balancing act. However, it does come down to people, our most precious resource; we have to invest in people, empower them for greatness but then hold them accountable to deliver those results.
Sanjog: Sam, let’s go to that other example that I mentioned where that person who was an exceptional DBA, but he refused to work well with others, so Curtis was able to put him on a performance plan. Now that is a very traditional HR centric approach to put somebody undisciplined to change their behavior. However, does their DNA change as a result? While you wanted that response to change, this will cannibalize that person’s ability to deliver as well. How do you handle that?
I come down to people, our most precious resource; we have to invest in people, empower them for greatness but then hold them accountable to deliver those results.
Sam: There are people in the organization who have a very high level of skill, who think, without them, their team cannot run. That leads to forms of techno aggressions where they treat employees poorly and putting other employees down. One of the things in my leadership team is that, when every week they meet, and the minutes are being passed along to the IT team, the first agenda item in every one of my leadership meetings is, fairness and equity. Justice and equity are at all levels – starting from fair and fair pay to treating employees with dignity and respect.
Now while you might not be able to change the DNA of an employee, you will be able to change their behavior in the workplace. We do not expect people to be friends outside the workplace, but when they are here, we hope that they treat others with respect and dignity.
One of the things we discovered last year was five different categories of issues, communication, and career development pathways, including the decision-making process, workload, and a clear mission. As a result of my conversations with the employees in the last year, we pooled these employees into smaller groups and had HR facilitated sessions, whereby two of these issues came to the top. The first one of communication, the second one was career development pathways. We then launched task forces for both of these, and as the result of these task forces, we have a program called Active Awareness Communication in the Workforce, which is an employee-led workshop for all ITS employees.
We do not expect people to be friends outside the workplace, but when they are here, we hope that they treat others with respect and dignity.
At any point in time, ITS employees have to be involved in things that are not technology related. If the attention is always on IT, for technology resources, the focus is still on being on-call and satisfying the demands of the organization. Then there’s a high chance that people will become indifferent and they might turn into more aggressive employees. We need to distract them with other kinds of workshops and skills that they enjoy doing. These communications of the workplace, an active “awareness communication in the workplace” workshop, has turned many of our employees around. Moreover, we will continue to do non-IT projects to take IT employees’ minds off what they are working on, and give them a little bit of a distraction which will enable them to be re-energized and come back refreshed.
Sanjog: Curtis, have you seen situations where people who will have a political bone in them or they would try to make trouble. They would work hard to come across as heroes but have an agenda which could be poisoning or weakening the very foundation of the organization. Most people like those know either hide or slide through these different situations; they are pretty good at it. How do you go about finding such people who are otherwise very smooth?
Poisonous people follow a career path model that I liken to Mary Poppins which is up, up and away. They come, and they do things, the poison starts to work through the organization. They try to leave before the poison takes full effect and then you have got a train wreck to clean up.
Curtis: there are two components to that. However, that poison is slow acting. They follow a career path model that I liken to Mary Poppins which is up, up and away. They come and do things, but when the poison starts to work through the organization, they try to leave before it takes full effect, leaving behind a train wreck to clean up.
The good news is that they tend to be short-lived within the organization, maximum of two to three years. The second part is that you have to create the capacity to detect those things and to value those things too. However, that is a good example, and again, it points out some of the limitations that I have as a leader.
My preferred leadership structure is, where I have got three direct reports. I have got a deputy CIO, I have got a chief technology officer, and I have a head information security officer. That is my preferred model only because I can just manage three to four employees at a time. Some people can do eight. I cannot. There’s the notion of moving at the speed of trust, but there’s also the notion of check and verify and make sure things are going the right way. You catch those poison employees if you have got the leadership structure set up where people are managing between three to eight employees, and they can make sure that that poisoning is not taking place and being covered up with a glib cover.
The truth will come out; it is a question of how long it takes. Again, when I moved into this organization, I had eight direct reports, and there was no way I could manage them. Things were happening, and we moved quickly to three direct reports because this is what I am comfortable with and that is what I can handle. Move at the speed of trust but verify what’s going on, and you will catch those employees. Have the quarterly conversations and then you will know the behavior is not changing. Sometimes it starts moving into a more traditional HR fashion of working to help them out.
In some cases, we are going to get them a coach or a mentor to try, if they are earnest, to change their behavior. If not, and they are people who cannot feel good about themselves without putting others around them down, then it is not going to work long-term in our organization.
Sanjog: Now coming to you, Sam, when you go about confronting them with this, they turn around and say, this is happening because there are problems in the organization and some issues which you cannot contest. Would you say, “You know what? Stay put; I will be right back after I fix those issues and then let’s talk again.” Is that how you are going to approach it?
Sam: No. The way I approach it is, turn around to the employee and ask them how they would like this issue handled if they were in my shoes, how would they handle it? I want to get their opinion because many of the task forces formed are employee-driven and employee-led. I want the employees to be a part of the solution of the problem that they are bringing to the forefront and many times; you will get some good ideas on how to how to fix the issues. There might be situations where an employee might tell you, the boss that I work with doesn’t work for me, and in those cases, if the problem is real and it cannot be resolved, we reassign them to a different team, we retrain them. We have done a couple of those in the past four years that have worked for us. It is a matter of engaging with employees and staying close to them.
I want the employees to be a part of the solution of the problem that they are bringing to the forefront and many times; you will get some good ideas on how to how to fix the issues.
The other thing is, employees, sense it–they can immediately pick out whether you are genuine and you feel authentic. If you are a real leader and you will live the authenticity by listening to employees and making meaningful and useful changes based on their feedback, then that is going to spread over time. In the past, that might have been many employees have told me, “Oh, you are doing this exercise only to do a checkbox.” Okay, I have done this and now let’s move on. They have never seen any actions taken based on their feedback. What we have done in the last couple of years, when we engage with employees, ask for their feedback, and make meaningful actions. When they see the genuineness of the leadership team, they know that there’s hope for the organization moving forward.
Sanjog: See, the response that you give is precious, and that input is well taken, that if you listen to them, that is leadership. Now you ask him for the input; he gives you some information. However, what do you do with him while you are fixing the problem with the organization?
..In the last couple of years, when we engage with employees, we ask for their feedback, and we take meaningful actions. When they see the genuineness of the leadership; then they know that there’s hope for the organization moving forward.
Sam: Curtis alluded to it in the previous conversation that while we are fixing the problem, we hold the employee accountable for what they have been hired to do within the organization.
Sanjog: Accountability. It becomes a discipline issue then, again? I am trying to see if that person needs to start behaving, versus someone who is wholeheartedly working in the same direction and in alignment with what Curtis or you, Sam, would like to see happening. Curtis, do we discipline them or is there is a middle road?
Curtis: Well, as I mentioned, all of the people who work for me are adults, so you know I do not have any children that come into work, and we try to address this as adults interacting. That means we are often co-authoring solutions forward. Certain things are boundary conditions, associated with the leadership of things; you are not going to allow within a company. Moreover, then other things fall within the left and right boundaries of behavior that is acceptable. Besides, you are going to let those employees explore those avenues but at the same time hold them accountable for accomplishing the mission. We do not have long conversations about that because, A, they are adults, and B, there’s an accountability piece where we are pretty clear on what the expectations are. If we are not clear on the expectations, then we go back co-author what should those expectations be, how they should be conveyed.
Let me give you an example that may help. Like Sam, like any CIO, I run hundreds of servers. Those hundreds of servers have to be patched. It is not the responsibility of the security team to tell the application owner to do that. There’s someone assigned to it, and he is held accountable for those systems. As a manager does not assign a server under their purview to someone to be patched, but the manager is held responsible for repairing that server.
If you act genuinely with candor and compassion but hold people accountable, they figure out that you are serious about, and again you move pretty quickly to where the organization is aligned, and you do not have those issues.
I am not trying to diminish that these things happen but they tend to be pretty quick conversations. So, first time around, shame on me, the second time around, shame on you, third time around, we are going to write it down, and then we are going to move forward from that point. These things resolved themselves. Assuming you act on it, now if you let it happen, if you let that fester in the organization, then you are going to have problems. However, if you act genuinely with candor and compassion but hold people accountable, they figure out that you are serious about it, and again you move pretty quickly to where the organization is aligned, and you do not have those issues. It just becomes part of the culture.
Sanjog: One last thing, Sam. If you were to pick up traits of a culture which doesn’t require you as a top leader to deal with each employee, the other team members take care of it for the most part or make sure this person does not stay; the person is not behaving. Do you think we can build such a culture and if yes, what would be the tenets?
Sam: Absolutely, I think we can build that culture, and we are in the process of doing it. Of course, it starts with the leadership team, acknowledging that there’s a problem within the organization that we need to equip and empower, they are working as employees and set them up for success. There needs to be a commitment from the leadership team. Once the responsibility is shown the responsibility is helped the employees in the organization, they will start doing things that will just amaze you. That is what our Active Awareness Workshop was leveraged by two of our employees. The culture can be propagated throughout the organization.
Sanjog: Thanks so much Sam and Curtis for sharing your insights on how we can use our leadership to diagnose the right problems and work with them together to solve and create solutions so that we have not a problem workforce but transition them or turn around them to become a productive workforce.
Curtis: Thank you.