You’re paid the big bucks to make the hard decisions but you don’t (and can’t) know it all. And pretending that you do can be far more detrimental than admitting you might benefit from someone else’s assistance every once in a while.
So where do you look for help? Right under your nose. If there’s anyone who knows your business (and the components that go into running it) as well as you, it’s your employees. Collectively, they know more than any outside consulting analyst brought in for a couple of weeks could ever hope to. Plus they have a vested interest in helping you to make it the best workplace it can be. Their professional wellbeing depends on it.
So here are a few questions you should be asking them periodically. A few key points to consider:
*There’s no point asking the questions if you aren’t prepared to listen.
*If you’re prepared to listen, there’s still no point asking the questions if your employees aren’t confident that they can answer them honestly without fear. What they say might be hard to hear but it’s harder to hear as part of an exit interview when it’s too late to prevent yet another lost employee.
*If your employees are prepared to answer the questions honestly, there continues to be no point asking the questions if you aren’t going to take action based on what you’re being told.
‘What do we do right?’
It might seem self-evident but when you are getting it right, it’s important to get that feedback from your employees so you can continue doing it. Whether it’s flexible start times, recognising good work practices (or, just as importantly, recognising poor work practices and doing something appropriate about it), communicating openly and honestly about what goes on in the business, performance bonuses, monthly massages, weekly fruit baskets, not playing favourites, Friday drinks to encourage team bonding, Foxtel in the staff kitchen (and not minding when everyone gathers mid-afternoon to watch the latest episode of Game of Thrones), getting it right can be hard. So when you do, you need to know about it so you can keep doing it and you deserve to receive a pat on the back.
‘What could we do better?’
As much as doing things right can make your employees happy, doing things wrong can mean all the good will generated goes right down the drain. And sometimes it takes just one thing, one tiny little thing, for it all to go horribly wrong. But speaking broadly, the top two answers to this question tend to be ‘consultation’ and ‘communication’.
Nobody likes working for a company that acts like a benevolent dictatorship. And worse is a company that doesn’t even bother with benevolence and goes for out-and-out fascism. ‘You’ll do what you’re told, without question, and like it. And if you don’t, there’s the door.’ It rarely achieves anything but low team morale and high staff turnover.
Consultation, from the most senior managers to the most junior trainees, means people feel they are valued. And they are specialists in their roles. That’s right. They are specialists. They might not have the skills to run the whole company (yet) but the likelihood is that you don’t have the skills to do their job either. You don’t know how much server space you need, you can’t design a series of advertisements, you wouldn’t have the first clue what to do when a client needs an express order filled. But your employees do. You need them just as much as they need you.
Sure, they might not be able to see the whole picture, but they can see the part that is affecting them. And once you have consulted with a cross-section of the business, you should be able to see the whole picture. That’s your job, after all.
Then comes the communication. Which doesn’t just mean telling people what you’re going to do. It also means explaining why in plain and simple language and outlining the expected results. You will be surprised how many people will understand and accept a difficult decision if you explain the reasoning behind it and support this reasoning with the evidence gathered from your consultations.
And once you’ve communicated, it also means listening to feedback and modifying your plans if, as is so often the case, your employees identify challenges that will result from whatever changes you are attempting to make. Remember that communication is not a once-off, one way flow of information. It needs to be ongoing, in both directions, a constant stream from which the next great idea can be sifted, refined and implemented.
‘What else can you do?’
It may sound like a strange statement to make but employees are one of the most underutilised resources within a business. So many of them are restricted by the job description of the position that they were initially hired to fill that we forget they might actually have a wider skill set and might even be able to contribute to your business in different ways.
This is especially true in an age of multiple careers. Your recruitment officer is firmly entrenched in human resources now but ten years ago was knee-deep in the development and implementation of marketing strategies. A fresh pair of eyes over an expensive two-year advertising campaign you are about to launch isn’t going to hurt and will more than likely help.
But just as important to remember is this: if you are going to give an existing employee additional tasks, recognise that they likely already have a full workload and that some redistribution of responsibilities is going to have to take place, even if just in the short term. There’s no point trying to take advantage of the wider skill set of an employee if the end result is that you are actually just taking advantage of them.
‘What training would you like to do?’
Traditionally, employers tell employees what training they will be doing and rather than being based on individual needs, it’s based on getting as many employees through the program as possible to take advantage of the economies of scale. For this very reason, I’ve sat through operations training despite never having worked in operations of any kind. I’ve sat through customer service training despite never having worked in customer service. I’ve even sat through communications training despite already having a Master’s degree in writing. I like to think I can already communicate effectively after completing a postgraduate qualification specialising in the clear transfer of information, but if I can’t then no amount of Certificate IV level training is going to change that.
If any form of training can in any way be linked back to what your employees are doing now or what they potentially could be doing for you in the future, then it should be something you are willing to consider.
Instead of telling your employees what training they are going to undertake, accept suggestions, then offer a range of programs and a sign up alternative. If only a few people are interested, you can work with them individually. But if enough people are interested, you might still be able to take advantage of those economies of scale. And you might just be providing the right training for the right people for a change.
‘What can we do to keep you in our business long term?’
My sister Stephanie is lucky enough to work for a company that asked her this very question. It’s a genuine compliment because it means she is being recognised for the contribution she is currently making and valued for the potential contribution she could be making in the future.
Employee turnover can be expensive. And when you take into account the amount of time and money spent training a new employee, the cheapest option is always to keep staff in the business rather than bringing in brand new people. Sometimes it’s necessary. Other times there are things you could have done – but didn’t – that would have avoided the expense. Asking this question could be one of them.
Sometimes the answer is, ‘Nothing.’ If your employee has their heart set on moving into primary school teaching and you produce industrial lubricants, then there’s little that can be done to keep them.
But sometimes the answer might be, ‘I’m enjoying the accounts payable function. But I think down the track I’d be interested in studying accounting.’ You could have just found the employee who will be managing the accounts payable and receivable team in two years, moving into an accountant role in five years, and becoming the finance manager in ten to fifteen years when the current manager (and perhaps a couple of subsequent managers) move on.
I know this question is important because it’s a significant contributing factor to why I have left every job I’ve worked in: there is nothing more conducive to retention than a career path.
*First published on LinkedIn 15 September 2014