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Put Your Money Where Your People Are

By: Andy Snider

With employee loyalty at an all-time low, businesses are facing a major challenge. Many struggle to keep talent on board while maximizing the productivity of existing teams. As managers, it’s our job to find ways to solve this problem, but that can be difficult given our crucial—but narrow—focus on efficiency and the bottom line. By concentrating our efforts solely on proposals and tactics that have immediate potential to save or increase income, we often sacrifice the need to connect with and engage employees. Yet employee engagement and team-building are as critical to business success as marketing and finance.

The fact is, it’s easy to let teams fall into ruts. The solution requires a rethinking of how teams’ work will be done—removing permanent structures and organizational barriers that can slow business down.

By establishing a team model built around your company’s core values and mission, you will not only strengthen your teams, you will also provide focus and clarity around your organization’s current (and emerging) business challenges. Here are a few tips to help you along the way:

1. Remember, employees are people too.

The first barrier to your success is always your employees. Not because they are poor workers but because they aren’t a high enough priority. When a company makes its associates the top priority, then the associates will do the same. Work with employees to cultivate an open and creative environment that propels performance and gives everyone opportunities for growth and leadership experience. Keeping employees happy means considering their needs beyond just income. Career growth, personal growth, security, and a sense of belonging to a positive and supportive team are also strong motivators.

Before you can worry about keeping talent on board, you must be sure you’ve found skilled workers who buy into the company’s core values and mission. In the competition for the most highly skilled workers, it’s easy to dismiss this as unnecessary. However, hiring for values first and skills second ensures you have an employee-base willing to stick around even during lean times.

While job skills can be taught, values cannot. However, adopting a value-based hiring model doesn’t mean stopping evaluating for skills. It just means observing if candidates fit your corporate culture and values. During the application process, weigh the candidate’s technical skills, as well as ambition, sense of responsibility, compassion, professionalism, and respect. Remember, it is far better to screen out people during the initial interview than several months into a job.

2. Open up your business’s “can of worms.”

Barriers in the workplace aren’t always obvious, but when left unaddressed they become larger problems. People hold back from voicing complaints for fear that communicating “too much” will backfire and reveal vulnerabilities or weaknesses. But how can an organization succeed if it doesn’t fully understand the issues impacting its people? Open communication not only leads to happier employees and better functioning teams, it also exposes hidden barriers to efficiency and work flow and, ultimately, makes your organization more productive and profitable.

When senior leadership listens to employees throughout the organization, the real issues come to the surface. At my company, an international tour operator called Grand Circle Travel, our CEO devotes time at each month’s corporate meeting to putting executives on the “hot seat.” Employees are encouraged to speak up and ask tough questions of the executives in front of their colleagues and peers. We’ve found the discussion breaks down barriers, and honest feedback from employees improves efficiency and streamlines work practices. By creating an environment where people feel comfortable communicating openly and honestly, teams can tackle any problem no matter how insurmountable it may seem. The combined intelligence of your teams may astound you, but you’ll never know what it can achieve if employees don’t feel comfortable expressing themselves openly.

3. Empower ad-hoc teams and systematically teach tools to make them productive.

When a new issue or crisis does arise, don’t try to change the whole organization to deal with it. Instead, build ad-hoc teams that are focused on clear, short-term objectives. Building improvised, cross-departmental teams when you’re trying to resolve a big issue or make a big change fosters collective ownership, shifting the responsibility from the manager to the organization as a whole. Integrating team members from across the organization forces them to devote themselves to learning the needs of all the departments and to come together— through a group leadership plan—to move the company forward. Doing so will empower your employees, making them feel part of the leadership and problem-solving process.

Most teams and organizations are trained to operate in “predictable” environment, but business is anything but predictable. To prepare your employees for team leadership, don’t wait until the next crisis hits. Training employees for adaptive group leadership starts with introducing them to new situations and asking them to problem-solve for a creative solution. When confronting a situation they’ve never seen before, employees are forced to consider and articulate new ideas and solutions. Encouraging this kind of approach will inspire your teams to think about creative ways to make other work processes more efficient and productive. Team building isn’t just a feel-good activity; it’s a strategic investment of company time and resources that will allow your organization to reach its business goals quickly and effectively.

In order to prepare people to work together on ad-hoc teams to deal with crises or new goals, they need to be taught a methodology to stay focused. Whenever we kick off a team we take them off-site with a facilitator to help them get started.

That same approach is reinforced by regular team and company programs. At Grand Circle, each June, hundreds of our associates from as many as 60 different countries come together at our conference site in the woods of New Hampshire. They engage in hands-on experiential learning designed to solve current business issues and reinforce our company values. Asking teams to tackle the tough issues gives them ownership of the same business challenges that the company is trying to solve. Building strong teams creates an environment where issues aren’t handed down from the top, they emerge from the collective.

4. Unchain employees from their desks.

Get employees involved in organizational activities beyond their daily tasks. An effective way to do this is launching corporate responsibility initiatives that employees can choose to take part in together. Service projects and other organization-wide activities can improve employee engagement and retention because they allow employees to build an emotional attachment with the organization. Instead of asking employees to donate to a shared cause, ask them to commit to projects such as volunteering or taking part in a walk for charity. Participating in community service projects creates a sense of pride and connection, and gives employees a chance to lead projects where they otherwise wouldn’t be able—as team captains, fundraising chairs and project organizers.

5. Really sell your company culture.

Show your hard-working and talented employees you value them by channeling their creativity into common goals that they have helped to develop and have collectively agreed upon. A strong mission and explicitly stated values make it easier to define these goals and keep everyone pulling together in the same direction. Shared goals and values shouldn’t be empty words printed on the first page of your employee manual. Used effectively, they’ll govern how you and your employees behave.

Employees need to embrace your company culture from the get-go, and the commitment to shared values and goals will sustain their commitment to the company even when the going gets rough. Retaining skilled workers is important, but don’t be afraid to lose employees who don’t buy into the vision.

As you struggle to maximize your employees’ and teams’ contributions to the organization, remember that asking employees to do more requires their willing cooperation— and you have to be willing to put in the extra effort as well. Push your employees too hard and you risk stretching them thin, and the resulting lack of focus will be counter-productive to what you’re trying to accomplish. Think about what you can offer your employees to improve their focus, engagement and motivation. They’ll emerge with a sense of empowerment and determination to accomplish their new set of shared goals, enabling the success of the organization as a whole.

About the Author(s)

Andy Snider is managing director of Grand Circle Leadership, which offers unique off-site programs that combine experiential learning and powerful behavior change processes to help executive teams align to reach new goals. These programs are based on practices that have helped parent company, Grand CircleTravel, become one of the largest and most profitable privately-held global organizations in the international travel industry. For more information, contact: asnider@gct.com