Class notes - week five, Fall 2017

This past week was difficult. Like, really difficult. But it also felt like a week where I turned a corner.

Table of contents

I’ve started getting in a groove with how I’m using this blog to reflect on and summarize course content. I survived the heavy workload due this week, even if it was a bumpy ride. The semester is a third of the way done and I now feel a little more confident in my ability to handle it. The lighter workload on the coming week’s horizon provides a little sense of relief. And I got almost a full eight hours of sleep last night.

The sleep deficit is something I’m trying to really take seriously. This is far from the first project that I’ve sacrificed sleep to accomplish. But grad school is a sustained, high pressure endeavor and a very different animal from my typical “I’m going to obsess over this work project / learning about this new technology in my own time” type of thing. So last night after class I came home, had a bite to eat, almost immediately went to bed and was asleep before 9:30pm. A little under eight restful hours later I woke up to my almost-three year old climbing on me. She was asleep when I had gotten home the night before and was clearly happy to see me at 5 in the grrrmph hrrmpph morning. “Good morning papa, how was work, how was school, would you please tell me a story? I want to hear the story about the little girl in the woods.” So I told her a variation of the stream-of-consciousness story that I’ve told her a hundred times, until she wanted to hear it again, and again, and .. I guess we’re not going back to sleep so let’s go downstairs to make coffee and have breakfast. Such is the joyful, tired parent life.

After writing this blog and then maybe one or two of the week’s readings, I’m resolving to be in bed by 11pm. The next two days will be eventful and long at work. Plus keeping up with my studies of course. A friend who’s been in academia a long time told me this morning to “dare to be mediocre.” And while I certainly want more than that I get what they were saying. It’s enough of a challenge to just survive school while holding down a full time job, being there for your family, and getting enough sleep along the way. As tempting as it is to overachieve, you’ve got to cover your bases first and not burn out. So I guess I’d better get on with wrapping this post up so I can make good on that resolution to be in bed at a reasonable hour tonight.

Notes from Strategic Planning

In our Strategic Planning class this week we discussed the readings in our discussion forums, and conducted a power versus support grid activity for the case study.

Prof Bryson used the third of the way mark to solicit feedback from the students on their experience and how we feel about the class. That lead to a pretty interesting dialogue, some of which is captured in these notes.

  • Two most important tools for strategic planning - speaking and writing clearly and directly
  • Getting people to do a debrief and reflect is typically one of the hardest parts of a strategic planning process. People typically want to get through it and move on. Understandable, we’re all busy.
  • Strategic planning is not a soft science but a hard art. You have lots of templates, cases to draw upon. SP is not a single thing. It’s a toolkit. You don’t follow a set recipe or algorithm. You need to be able to bring the knowledge to bear and think strategically to apply it in context.
  • Think of SP as a kind of assembly process - ideas, people, information. There’s an art to assembling something elegant when you’re done, though lots of messiness along the way.
  • Purpose mapping is single most powerful SP tool Prof Bryson knows of
  • We act on assumptions. If our assumptions are off base, we can really get into trouble
  • One of the lessons that comes out of this is that ups and downs are normal over time. If you want to make a pretty safe prediction, don’t make it too far into the future.
  • One of the points of strategic planning is to build capacity for whatever comes along. Think about the range of possible futures and build the capacity to manage transitions. Organizations that build capacity to a range of futures and turnarounds are the ones that survive.
  • You ignore internal and external realities at your peril
  • It can be a difficult and delicate task to introduce challenges to the “official future.” In orgs, you should provide incentives for truth-telling.
  • The future is unlikely to be wholly open, but it might be more open than you think. There are lots of path dependencies and lots of emotion involved. Path creation is possible as well.

Notes from Strategic Human Resources Management

This week’s SHRM class was my favorite of the semester so far. There was a phenomenal guest speaker who told us an exceptional story about how living up to the values of their organizational culture got them through a very difficult time, and how that experience strengthened the organization going forward. Then the class had a great discussion, inspired and informed by the story we had just heard.

Guest speaker on organizational culture

  • Company background: they had traditionally done well and grew quickly. When the speaker began there they had a few hundred employees and saw that number more than double.
  • Then, a couple of years ago, their largest client non-renewed their contract. That one day they found out that 70% of their business and 50% of their revenue would be going away.
  • Management had 24 hours notice before it hit the news cycle. They had no message control and an urgent need to get in front of it and break the news to their employees.
  • The organization culture is strong. Employee engagement surveys top 5-10% in the nation. But how would they maintain their commitment to that through the coming crisis?
  • Layoffs were unavoidable, but right out of the gate they decided to approach it differently. Committed to coming through with just as strong of a culture. Did some things that other orgs would have been uncomfortable with.
  • Some of the things they have done for a long time to foster employee engagement:
    • Communicate strategic direction and developments often
      • They don’t get very far into their strategic planning process before departments are engaged to get their input and feedback
    • Ensure visibility of senior leaders
    • Employ managers with strong leadership skills
    • Celebrate organization and individual success
    • Invest in employees’ development
  • Employees were still needed through the end of the year to meet existing service obligations under existing contract.
  • Lots of orgs would have kept the layoff decisions from their employees as long as possible and then dropped the ax at the last minute. They went a different route. Decided on transparency and keeping employees informed.
  • Around September everyone who would be laid off was identified and notified. Those who would stay and those who would be let go kept working side-by-side through those months, kept participating in meetings, and the company went out of their way to ensure nobody was treated as second class.
    • “If we didn’t tell everyone what the decisions were, then everyone would assume they were on the chopping block.”
  • They were careful, and everyone was so considerate about the approach. Said repeatedly that this was a difficult process and everyone may get a call in the future when positions open again. Didn’t tolerate disrespectful conversations around the issue.
  • There was a bonus and severance package offered to those who would be laid off, contingent on staying through the end of December.
  • Had they not built up trust and credibility over time, then they may not have been as trusted when being open about this situation.
  • They made efforts to retain employees with unique and hard-to-find skills, for instance bilingual employees, even if that skill wasn’t immediately needed.
  • When hiring started back up, they made good on their promise to offer jobs to laid off employees. Roughly 20% have since been brought back.
  • Employee loyalty is even higher today than before the layoffs, and employee turnover is now half the industry average.
  • Any employer has a risk of downsizing, and you don’t really know how the employer is going to react until you see it. This company now has a track record which has bolstered their reputation.
  • They now see stronger interest in open positions enabling them to be very selective and getting even higher quality hires than before.
  • The company has since recouped over 70% of the business that was lost two years ago and is growing.

The guest speaker told another story about a hiring process for a senior executive which I’ve decided not to fully summarize here, aside from these few gems from it:

  • The department advisory group was engaged in the process early, asked what they needed from their new boss.
  • When the two finalist candidates were brought in, they each came in for nearly a full day and met with multiple committees comprising 35 separate employees.
  • The compensation conversation was handled early in the process. You don’t bring someone in to talk with that many people without being on the same page regarding compensation already.
  • After the new person was hired they shared that when getting the offer they were a finalist in other searches, but could tell from the process that this culture was different and special.

Notes from class discussion

  • Prof Jay feels that the most important thing to teach in the Humphrey School is critical thinking
  • One of the keys in doing employee engagement surveys is that you follow up with the employees
  • Good organizations have a compensation scheme. Also part of the culture of honesty.
  • If you want to get the best people need to work really hard at it.
  • Best practices for recruiting:
    • Build a “talent management mindset”
      • If you want really talented people, need to work at it and encourage across the organization
      • Some teams feel threatened by strong talent, afraid they’ll be upstaged
    • Know what the organization seeks tied to mission
    • Own the entire recruiting process to get the best person
      • Don’t trust HR to hire people for you. Use HR as a resource to help, but you need to own the process and make the decision yourself
    • Train recruiters for recruiting - and for business
      • An ideal recruiter is someone who’s savvy about what the business is
    • Close the loop on employee referrals
      • Seems obvious but follow up often gets missed
    • Have an interview plan that is thorough
      • Doesn’t mean having set questions. Means that you’ve looked at the candidate with the information you have, then write down the questions you need answers to fill in gaps
      • If you’re a prospective employee, the interview isn’t about whether you’re the best person. It’s about finding the best fit. And if it’s not a good fit you shouldn’t want to work there.
    • Establish consistency in assessment methodology
    • Develop and value candidate relationships
    • Maximize your employee retention programs
    • Do post-hire and exit interviews
  • Regarding psych assessment: What you want to find out is about a person’s weaknesses, and determine if their weaknesses are going to be debilitating in a given position
  • Onboarding process - how do you lose talent in that? If you throw somebody into a job without teaching them, training them, setting them up for success - they may walk after a month or so feeling that if the org doesn’t care then no chance for success
  • Worry that sometimes the words “cultural fit” are used in a way that’s discriminatory, as a code word for people who look like you, have the same religion, politics, etc. So be careful with that.
  • Diversity in a workgroup is superior to homogeneity.
  • Turnover is not necessarily bad, it’s an opportunity to hire
  • In a decision between someone who matches up with organization values versus matches up with position skills, values are more important. Skills can be trained.
Written on October 5, 2017