Handling Difficult Employee Performance Conversations (A Practical Guide)

This practical guide was developed for HR professionals to share with leaders at all levels to help them effectively manage these important conversations.

For most HR professionals, the first quarter of the year is an extremely busy period managing the year-end Performance Cycle. Running workshops for managers and employees on preparing for their review. Leading talent and succession planning initiatives. Ensuring the merit and bonus process runs smoothly. The list goes on. One of the most important items for me during this time period as an HR Business Partner was coaching leaders on how to handle specific year-end performance conversations- especially the difficult ones.

Here are some important reminders to share with leaders to help them with handling difficult employee performance conversations.

Be Clear on The “Why” Of The Conversation

Everything starts here

The goal is to help the employee and provide them with the opportunity and support to improve their performance. Even if that ultimately means they are not able to course correct and you need to end the employment relationship because….

As a leader, you are responsible to your people – not for them

As a leader you need to be able to look yourself in the mirror and know you have done everything you could to help them be successful. That means providing them with all the conditions to achieve in their role.  

Being clear on your expectations, ensuring they have the resources to get the job done, providing them ongoing coaching and feedback, recognizing and rewarding good performance and providing them guidance and support to advance their career.

Their role is to step-up, perform and come forward early if they are experiencing difficulties. 

Responsibility is a two-way street.

Sometimes things don’t work out that way.

In these cases here are some practical tips to help you manage these difficult employee performance conversations:

Before the Conversation

  • Don’t Wait Until Year EndThere is no single conversation that will “fix” employee performance issues.  It is part of an ongoing dialogue that needs to happen throughout the performance year. What makes these conversations more difficult is when that has not occurred, and the focus becomes on “the conversation”. If you wait, you have made it more difficult for both you and them. Make the time throughout the year to save yourself time at year-end.
  • Shift Your Focus – Let’s face it. Most people do not enjoy having to provide difficult feedback and managing poor performance issues. It’s much easier (and a lot more enjoyable) to work with high performing employees. Many times managers focus on how they will perform in the conversation, what they will say, how their employee will react and imagining worst case scenarios. It’s a natural human emotion. However, let’s come back to the most important thing – the “why” you are having the conversation in the first place. If your intention it truly to help the employee, that becomes your guidepost going in and shifts the focus off of yourself. It also shifts the tone of the conversation. If you are genuinely trying to help them, they will sense it and not feel as threatened. Doesn’t mean it will necessarily be easy but approaching it this manner allows for more open and honest discussion.
  • Prepare, Prepare, Prepare – Organize your observations and feedback you have received from others. Many times, managers do not work with their employees on a daily basis or are part of a virtual team. In these cases, tools like 360 assessments can be very helpful in gaining a well-rounded perspective on their performance. Whether you use a formal 360 assessment or not, ensure you are clear on the performance gap and have validated it with others.

During The Conversation

Here is a simple yet powerful four step method to frame your feedback during the conversation:

  1. Focus On Behaviors – It’s not personal. It’s about their specific behaviors and actions that are falling short of expectations. The key here is specific. Behind very quantitative goal you set for employees (e.g. increasing sales by xx%) is a series of actions and behaviors they need to perform to achieve that goal. That’s where the focus of the conversation lies. Being overly general will not improve their performance.
  2. Discuss The Impact – If the behaviors are the “what”, then discussing the impact is the “why”. It’s simply not enough to share where they are off course.  It is equally important to share the impact of their actions or behaviors on the business, the team, colleagues, customers etc. When employees understand the impact of their actions or behaviors they are more likely to correct them.
  3. Be Clear On The Ask – Paint a clear picture as to what success looks like. Use examples and share your own experiences. Ask them for their thoughts and input. Even better, have them describe to you in the conversation what specific actions they will take and what that looks like for them. The most effective conversations are 2-way ones.
  4. Align On Next Steps – This is sometimes the most overlooked part of the conversation. You think they understand what you said. They think they understand as well. However, what you thought you said, what you said, and what they heard can be three different things. Ensure you recap the conversation and you are both aligned on what needs to be addressed, by when and how you will both work together to address it.

After The Conversation

  • Have A Documented Plan –If or when the time comes the you may need to end the employment relationship, your HR Business Partner will always ask what you have done and documented to date. Waiting until year end to document just starts the clock over again. But that’s not the most important reason to document. The greatest benefit is actually showing you care enough to outline a plan of the steps you will both take to ensure they get back on track. For some people it also is “the thing” that signals to them that they need to take it seriously. Don’t just document to “create a paper trail” to terminate. Document to outline each of your responsibilities and the action plan to address the performance gap. This comes back to your intention to help them course correct.
  • Follow-Up Frequently – Helping employees with performance issues is not a “one and done” thing.  It is important to conduct regular 1-on-1’s to discuss progress and provide additional feedback. New or different behaviors are best reinforced with more frequent follow-up meetings.
  • Catch Them Doing It Right – The best way to reinforce desired behavior it to positively reinforce it in the moment. Studies have shown that people have anywhere from 12,000 to 60,000 thoughts per day, with as many as 98% of them being exactly the same as we had the day before, and 80% of them negative. We as humans it seems naturally gravitate to the negative. Look for the positive. Again it comes back to intention. If you are genuinely trying to help them, and they are responding to your feedback, then recognize them for it.

Having difficult employee performance conversations is not something most leaders look forward to. Instead of having it build up to a more difficult year-end event, make the time throughout the year to share your observations and feedback. Use these steps before, during and after the conversation to set both yourself, and your employee, up for success. Do not lose sight of why you are having the conversation in the first place.

You are responsible to your people, not for them. That means knowing you have done everything you possibly can to help them be successful. The rest will be up to them.

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Ideas To Disrupt Your Talent Strategy

I need to make a confession. I am a “HR trends addict”.

What usually fuels my addiction are studies like the Deloitte Human Capital Trends Report and the Mercer Talent Trends Study. I am intrigued by what executives and HR professionals believe are their current and future priorities. I am fascinated by the analytics, trends and insights. I am inspired by some of the innovative ideas presented.

Is Your Talent Strategy Aligned With Your Business Imperatives?

I suppose like all addictions it is a bit of a “love-hate” thing as well.

Much to my chagrin, every year there is a prominent insight in one form or an other at the front section of every report that goes something like this…..executives do not believe in some aspect that their HR function is keeping up with their business imperatives.

Take for example the 2017 Mercer Talent Trends Study:

“93% of executives surveyed stated they plan to make significant organizational design changes in the next 2 years yet only 11% of HR professionals stated that redesigning jobs is a priority.” 

Here is another insight from the 2017 Deloitte Human Capital Trends Report. For the past 5 years they have been tracking how well executives believe their HR function can address the talent issues around them in what they call the “HR Scorecard”.  2015 was a grade C. 2016 a C+. 2017 a C.

There could be many reasons how we can try to rationalize the data.

Perhaps you believe your HR function would receive a better score from your senior leadership team than the results presented in the reports. Perhaps HR professionals are their own worst critics. Perhaps we have a higher expectation of what we could be delivering as a function if we only had…(time, resources, systems, data etc.). Perhaps respondents had more short-term imperatives that had their share of mind when completing these surveys. Perhaps you believe our organization is not ready such levels of change yet.

All these things may be true, however we can’t rationalize away it away either.

One thing is for sure. How organizations are designed, how work is performed and how talent is managed are the most important people related trends from both reports.

The time for alignment and execution is now.

The HR Identity Change

Deloitte’s conclusion was that HR is in the middle of a an identity change as they are being asked to step up to the realities of a rapidly changing work environment.

This is a topic I wrote about before the report earlier this year in an article entitled Your 2017 HR Strategy May Involve A Reduction In Headcount. HR Departments need to organize around, and focus on, what I call the “Big 3” – Talent, Leadership & Culture.

Whether is be due to the impact of a competitive labor market, changing demographics, the digital revolution, artificial intelligence, increased competition, geo-political uncertainty or the global economy – we live in a rapidly changing world.

At minimum, traditional talent practices need to be rethought to adapt to these new realities. Some may need to be disrupted.

There are also a lot of promising developments.

The Mercer Talent Trends Study discusses how vertical hierarchies are being replaced by simpler more horizontal ones resulting in increased efficiency, lower costs, closer relationships with customers and greater innovation. Different industries are doing it in different ways to reflect the current and future business realities. The Auto, Energy and Healthcare industries are flattening. The Financial Services industry is moving from support functions to shared services. The Consumer Product Goods industry are creating special units for project based work.

Leading companies are responding to this new reality, and HR is playing a key role in redefining how work is performed and how talent is managed as a strategic advantage within them.

The Implications For Talent Management

“I think that’s the single best piece of advice: constantly think about how you could be doing things better and questioning yourself.”

Elon Musk

How your organization is structured today, or needs to be structured to remain competitive in the future, is integral to your talent strategy.

Gone are the days of conducting talent discussions infrequently, for example at year-end in conjunction with your Performance Management process.

Long gone are the days of only identifying your high potentials and paying special attention to them throughout the year.

Long, long gone are the days of succession and development planning as a standalone practice.

To be successful in the new economy organizations must be built for speed, agility and adaptability. Traditional hierarchies are being flattened and being replaced with a more flexible teams model. Functional teams are being replaced with cross-functional teams that are customer, project or business problem focused that can be quickly disbanded and rapidly deployed.

There are many innovative ideas out there on how to adapt to this new reality. Instead of trying to build an exhaustive list of all these best practices, I will focus on what I think are the 3 main pillars of a successful talent strategy in the future.

Your talent management practices must follow the ABC model to be successful.

The implications are wide and deep in every aspect of the talent lifecycle.

It will impact your company values. To be successful your organization will need to value, model and reward behaviors like adaptability, collaboration, transparency, total company mindset and innovation to name a few.

It will impact the type of talent you need to attract and your Employer Value Proposition (EVP). Your talent acquisition team, and even more importantly your hiring managers, will need to think about external talent in a new way. Less important will be the plug & play desire by hiring managers to “just find someone” who can do the immediate requirements of the job. Critical to attracting this new type of talent will be a strong and credible EVP that can differentiate your organization by offering new and different types of career paths.

It will impact how you define and calibrate performance and potential. Discussing potential will need to shift away from how long until they are ready to assume the next vertical position or how many levels you believe they can move up in the organization. The new definition of potential will include things like mobility, dealing with ambiguity, managing complexity and rapid learning ability.

It will impact how you think about succession planning. Succession planning will be need to be more cross-functional than it is in most organizations today. It will also necessitate moving away from using an org chart as a roadmap to career growth. It will need to on the fewer critical positions or project teams that drive business performance, and ensuring you have your “A” players in these “A positions”.  It will also mean thinking of your top talent as a talent pool that can be flexibly deployed.

It will impact what you expect of your leaders and how you develop them. Leaders of the near future will need to have an organizational mindset than a functional or territorial one. They will also have to be rewarded for it to a much higher degree than most are today, at all levels. Leaders will also need to be adept in getting work done across your organization.

It will impact how you retain and development plan for your people, especially your top talent. Organizations will need to map and clearly communicate how what may be perceived as an asymmetrical career path can lead to bigger and better opportunities in the organization. Paramount to your employees taking these perceived “risks” will be to make it safe and reward them for doing so.

It will impact the frequency of talent discussions and the metrics you use to track the performance of your strategy. The shift will be from individual talent metrics to business strategy and team performance talent metrics. It will also be more Business Intelligence driven than HR driven. It certainly will be a standing item on any strategic business review meeting at the senior level.

Tomorrow Starts Today

The trends presented here may seem like a long way away. It’s not as far away as you think.

Take the rise of social media and growth of Facebook as an example. In January 2007 there were about 12 million users. In January 2010 about 400 million. January 2013 just over 1 billion and as of the beginning of 2017 close to 2 billion. Change today is exponential.

Coming back to the Mercer study, 93% of executives are planning significant organizational change in the next 2 years. The future will be here before you know it.

This may seem daunting but you can’t let that stop you.

Experiment with new approaches as pilot programs and learn from your experiences. But start now. 2 years from now will be too late given the change management required.

Tomorrow starts today.

The only thing that I can say is certain in the future for me personally is that I will still be a “HR trends addict” in 2019.

Here’s hoping HR get’s an A+.

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Critical Imperatives For Your Learning Strategy

This month LinkedIn Learning Solutions published their 2017 Workplace Learning Report.

I applaud them in their continued efforts to benchmark human capital and provide the report freely to business leaders and HR professionals.

I believe there are deeper, more important insights for L&D professionals than what is summarized in their report.

2017 LinkedIn Workplace Learning Report Summary

LinkedIn Learning surveyed 500 L&D professionals from the U.S. and Canada, who either influence or are decision makers for their companies’ L&D budgets.

The report details the Top 5 trends from their survey findings– and what they prescribe as 5 key strategies to “make the sift” including:

  • Don’t Just Take Orders – Identify real training needs.
  • Deliver modern learning experiences to meet expectations from modern learners.
  • Develop a tightly executed communication plan.
  • Report value to the individual and the business.
  • Build a culture of learning, one that rewards growth.

The Time is Now

I do not disagree with their general prescription. I do think they are not hard-hitting enough.

The key takeaway for me was that L&D is disconnected from commercial or business strategies. There is too much emphasis on administrative functions and HR as the owner of L&D. There is also a critical gap in the business partner mindset required for success.

Why? I believe we fall in love with the idea of what our programs deliver at the expense of starting with the business impact first and foremost. 

Here are some alarming stats from the report that illustrate this point:

  • 69% of L&D professionals stated talent was the #1 priority yet when asked what the main objectives of your L&D strategy, supporting the career development of employees was 4th on the list out of 4 items – behind training all employees globally in a cohesive way at #3.
  • When asked what the most important skills are for L&D professionals to train for, sales was 8th on the list while compliance training was 4th.  Even more alarming, marketing was 13th- behind administrative support at the 12th spot. At least customer service was 3rd.
  • 2/3 of L&D professionals say L&D is centralized within their organization, while 1/3 say L&D is decentralized across various business functions.  Of the 1/3 where it is decentralized, sales is 7th on the list and marketing is 8th on the list of where it sits.
  • Only 60% said L&D leaders have a seat at the table with their C-suite.
  • Business Impact is the No. 1 measure desired by CEOs yet only 8% currently see the business impact of L&D programs.
  • ROI is the No. 2 measure desired by CEOs yet only 4% currently see ROI of L&D.

We can do better. We must do better.

Critical Imperatives For Your L&D Strategy

The time for change is now. Here are the insights I believe are more critical in order to “make the shift”:


In an article I wrote recently entitled Your HR Strategy May Involve a Reduction in Headcount, I outlined that HR departments should be laser focused and organized around what I called the “Core 3”:

This requires senior HR teams to critically examine their organizational structure to support the “Core 3”.

The 2017 Workplace Learning Report only underscores this idea to me.

The report is not all bad news. On the question “What are the most important skills that you/your team provide training for?”, Leadership/People Management and Career Development/Soft Skills were #1 and #2 respectively. That is a focus on the “Core 3”.

There is an important point I was to re-emphasize from my previous article before we proceed.  No two HR departments are the same– and there is no “one size fits all” model.  It depends on the needs of your business.

Yet question needs to be asked as to where commercial skills training needs to sit.

I would suggest a decentralized model where sales owns sales training, or where marketing owns marketing training, is more often than not the better approach.  I understand the rationale for traditionally keeping it in HR e.g. consistency, leveraging resources, centers of excellence, common technology platforms etc.  There is no reason why these reasons can still not be satisfied in a decentralized model. There can be a matrix reporting structure.

Listing sales as #8 and marketing as #13 (behind administrative support at #12) is not sustainable. Clearly commercial training programs are taking a back seat. I wonder if you asked your C-suite to rank order the same list whether they would put sales at #8? I think not. If more than 60% want a seat at the table this needs to change.

Focus your L&D team within your HR department on what they should be doing best  – the “Core 3” and let sales do what they do best.

Critical Imperatives For Your L&D Strategy


There is a particular quote from the report I want to highlight:

[su_quote cite=”2017 Workplace Learning Report”]We’ll be the first to admit, it’s extremely difficult to articulate the power of learning in the form of ROI. In fact, it’s nearly impossible to legitimately calculate the transfer of learning that occurs due to training investments. [/su_quote]

I understand. Really. It’s not easy. It’s risky. It’s time-consuming. L&D teams have limited resources. I get it.

However I disagree. It can be done. we can’t put our head in the sand and say “it’s nearly impossible”- we need to find a way.

In one of my former OD/L&D roles I developed a business case to roll-out a leadership development program tied to measurable business outcomes and a minimum ROI target per participant. At the time there was no money to do this – it was risky, and business was not good at the time. I took it to the CEO at the time and he agreed. One of the most thrilling and terrifying days in my career. It had to work. I used the Kirkpatrick Model at the time to develop a framework on how we would measure the business impact. I developed a reinforcement strategy to ensure it stuck. I partnered with our Finance team in the business impact measurement component to ensure there was validity and alignment on the data. Long story short we were able to show a $8000.00 ROI per participant.

Since then I had the opportunity to spend 3 days with Dr. Jack Phillips in a training program on how to measure ROI/Business Impact. With this knowledge I would do the measurement completely differently now. I learned a lot.

I sincerely share this with you not to brag. Quite the opposite. Anyone could have done it. You can do it too. It was hard and risky, but this is what we need to be doing more of.

You do not need to measure the ROI and business impact for every program  – only for the programs that are critical to business success. It was not a “perfect” study. Could you poke holes in the methodology? Of course.

That is the problem in my opinion. We are so afraid of it not being “perfect” we don’t try. My senior team was thrilled with the results. I was able show them business impact results which had not been done before. The data was not “my data” but shared with our Finance team.

The more we do it the better at it we get. We have to start now.

I also disagree with the ideas in the report on how to measure business impact and ROI with general statistics such as the cost of turnover or the cost of employee disengagement.

This is not measuring business impact. Too general, not tied your business nor your specific programs. Eyes will glaze over with your C-suite using these types of numbers. Don’t do it.


In the report only 27% of L&D professionals are expecting a budget increase this year. 49% of L&D professionals surveyed stated having a limited budget as their #1 challenge.

All the more reason to implement imperatives 1 & 2. Over time this will change if we can show the value of L&D in a more quantifiable way.  Not only in a quantifiable way. In a more quantifiable way.

In the interim, be honest about where your current resources are being allocated. Stress test it with your C-suite. If there is alignment great. If not quickly tweak or change your strategy. Do not wait until the next planning cycle.

There are more insights and valuable data points from the report that I encourage you to read such as how to best engage learners.

To me this report was more than an interesting read. It was a wake-up call for L&D professionals. The current trend is not sustainable.

The time for change is now.

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Love Or Fear – The Foundation Of Your Leadership

This article is the first in a series that examines love vs fear at work from several HR & people related angles.

Part 1 deals with the idea itself, and begins the discussion on the applications for self-leadership.

Love or fear. At first glance it seems like a strange topic to be discussing from a professional perspective. Some people may even bristle at the idea.

It has everything to do with work.

Love or fear is the primary filter that governs our lives as human beings. We do not stop being human when we come to work everyday.

As individuals, love or fear is the basis of how we treat ourselves and others. From a work perspective, it is the foundation of your culture and ultimately how you engage with your people.

Love or fear is also the basis of your character. Character is a choice we make – consciously or unconsciously. Which will you choose?

The Idea – Love vs Fear

All human beings experience emotion. These emotions at their very core come from a place of either love or fear. They shape the defining elements of everyone’s life.

At the root of every negative emotion is fear. If you are angry, jealous, worried, upset, distrustful, anxious, hurt, blaming, shameful, insecure, distrustful etc. – you are coming from a place of fear. Living in what many authors, psychologists and spiritual philosophers would call the ego. The “me”. The ego is of our own construction and leads us to believe it is our self-identity – what we do, what we have, what others think of us and our perceived power over others. All based on external factors – and therefore always at risk of not being in control over what others think about us. Your lesser self.

When I use the word love it is not in the romantic sense of the word. Some of have defined love as the absence of fear. It is too big to define in a word or phase. It is being connected with your highest self. People like Simon Sinek would call it your “why” – your purpose. Not coming from your ego. In harmony with something greater than yourself.

One of my personal aspirations has always been to what I have themed “bridging the gap between the self-help and business sections of the bookstore”. Authors like Wayne Dyer, Eckhart Tolle, Dr. David Hawkins and Deepak Chopra have been a constant inspiration. One of my favorite authors has also been Anthony De Mello.  Here is how he summed up love vs fear at the end of his book entitled Awareness.

What kind of feeling comes upon you when you’re in touch with nature, or when you are absorbed in work that you love? Or when you are really conversing with someone whose company you enjoy? Compare those feelings with the feelings you have when you win an argument, or when you become popular, or when everybody is applauding you? The latter feelings I call worldly feelings, the former feelings I call soul feelings. Lots of people gain the world and lose their soul. Anthony De Mello, S.J.

Thoughts Are Energy

The new discoveries in quantum physics are astounding and there is so much we have yet to understand.

All physical reality is made up of vibrations of energy though particles – this is not new.  We are still trying to uncover the mystery of particle physics at the most sub-atomic levels like the CERN project in Switzerland.

Recent discoveries in quantum physics have scientifically proven that thoughts are vibrations of energy as well. One popular study was conducted by Dr. Masaru Emoto in his in his New York Times bestseller, The Hidden Messages in Water.  In this study he was able to show how thoughts, words and feelings on molecules of water can change their composition and formation into ice crystals. Dr. Emoto discovered that crystals formed in frozen water reveal changes when specific, concentrated thoughts are directed toward them. He found that water from clear springs and water that has been exposed to loving words shows brilliant, complex, and colorful snowflake patterns. In contrast, polluted water, or water exposed to negative thoughts, forms incomplete, asymmetrical patterns with dull colors.

Considering humans and our planet are largely composed of water – the implications are profound. They are from a work perspective as well.

Love and Fear Is Our Biology and Sociology

Dr. Jelena Radulovic, a professor of psychiatry and pharmacology at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine discovered in experiments using mice that love and fear produces the same hormone – oxytocin. After something socially stressful happens to a person oxytocin goes to work on your brain enhancing your memory of the event. She also discovered that oxytocin also increases your level of fear after a socially stressful episode. That is why people can still emotionally relive negative experiences from childhood.

“Social stress is the dominant stress now. We don’t really have that much physical stress anymore.” Dr. Radulovic

The key here is the idea of social stress as the dominant stressor in our lives today. We do not need to be fearful of dinosaurs eating us anymore – but our biology is the same.

Our sociology is the same as well. We still live in tribes.

Your family is a tribe. Your different social groups are tribes. Your company is a tribe. Your department is a tribe. Project teams are a tribe. The colleagues you associate with most are a tribe. Each have their own dynamic, energy and set of rules for social interactions. What is the key for being successful in a tribe? Fitting in and being accepted by others members of the tribe. Or put in another way – the greatest punishment is fear of being cast out of the tribe.

Think of the opportunities in gaining productivity, innovation and engagement in your company if people were not as focused on the social stressor of fitting into their tribes at work a.k.a. “politics”.


You Choose Your Thoughts

The famous ancient philosopher Lao Tzu sums it up perfectly:

“Watch your thoughts; they become words. Watch your words; they become actions. Watch your actions; they become habits. Watch your habits; they become character. Watch your character; it becomes your destiny”. Lao Tzu

Researchers have conducted many studies as to how many thoughts a person has in a day.  The numbers range between 12,000 to 70,000 thoughts per day. According to some researchers, as many as 98% of them are exactly the same as we had the day before – and 80% of those thoughts are negative.

Your thoughts are a either a conscious or unconscious choice. These thoughts are vibrations of energy that come from love or fear at their most fundamental level. Others may influence your thoughts – if you let them – but they do not control them.

We are each ultimately responsible for our thoughts. It’s a choice we make everyday whether we know it or not.

The Reality – There Is Both Love And Fear

Love and fear are opposite – but they are never separate. That is paradox of everyone’s life – yin and yang – light and darkness – the cycle of life and death.  One can not exist without the other. It is how the universe works.

I am not suggesting that life is simply a choice of love over fear and everything will be perfect. Life is complex. There is both love and fear in our daily reality and human existence.

Rather, it is about being conscious about your thoughts and where you spend the majority of your time.  Try a simple experiment today. Given we know that we have mostly the same thoughts everyday, and most of them come from fear, catch yourself in a fear based thought and ask – what am I afraid of? Someone upset you at work – what am I afraid of? Loss of power, loss of status, not being accepted by the tribe? Can I make a different choice?

If I take the focus off of “me” and my ego – could I operate at a higher level? How can I direct my thought energy in a different way? I am projecting from my higher self or my lesser self? How can I operate from my soul?

Don’t judge yourself, just be aware of your thoughts. Play in the space of observation. It’s an amazing thing catching yourself in the moment.

We create our own realities in our minds.

So What Does This Have To Do With Work?

Everything. In comes down to performance at both an individual and organizational level.

Can you perform at high levels from fear? Of course you can. Is it sustainable over time? No.

As a leader – and we all are leaders whether you manage people or not – what do you want, which will you choose? Which will you allow to control you?

Again Lao Tzu sums it up perfectly:

“To lead people, walk beside them … As for the best leaders, the people do not notice their existence. The next best, the people honor and praise. The next, the people fear; and the next, the people hate … When the best leader’s work is done the people say, We did it ourselves!” Lao Tzu

I look forward to continuing this discussion on how love and fear manifests in your HR and people practices at work. Stay tuned for more.

On a personal level – make a conscious decision to choose love over fear today.

Do not gain the world and lose your soul.

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Your HR Strategy May Involve a Reduction in Headcount

For many HR professionals, the first week of January is the beginning of a very busy period depending on when your fiscal year begins.

It also usually represents the beginning of your annual HR strategic plan.  Likely you either you have developed it– or in the final stage of its completion.

That is where I hope to help shape your thinking.

Human Capital Trends – Same Message, Different Year

If you have been following our blog, you will know that I am a big proponent of Human Capital and HR Trend reports.  I believe they add tremendous value, and drive the thinking as to the strategic direction of the HR function.  Deloitte, Gallup, Mercer and Glassdoor reports are something I always look forward to reading.

Can we start the new year off together with an honest conversation? 2017 HR Strategy Best Practices

In general they are all saying the same thing.  In 2015, 2016 and likely in 2017– you will be able to boil down the latest reports to what I will call the “Core 3” elements of where HR adds the most value:

2017 HR strategy best practices

Sure, there are more layers to the reports than that.  People analytics, digital trends, diversity, generational forces and HR capabilities to name a few.

Yet in the end, these other important elements ultimately support– or are related to– the “Core 3”.

2017 HR Strategy Ideas– Taking an Honest Look at Your HR Structure

There are some very positive signs that the HR transformation required for future success is well underway.

More than two-thirds of executives (68%) in the 2016 Deloitte Human Capital Trends Report stated their companies have solid development programs for HR professionals, and 60% believed they are holding HR accountable for talent and business results—both a higher proportion than in 2015.

You don’t need stats to prove this.  I am sure your LinkedIn feed is full every day with articles on HR transformation, talent, leadership & culture. 2017 HR Strategy Best Practices

In the same report, 92% of executives rated organizational design as a top priority, and nearly half (45%) reported their companies were either in the middle of a restructuring (39%) or planning one (6%).

Yet I see very little in my LinkedIn feed about HR org design and it has caused me to wonder why. 

Are we as HR professionals are so busy supporting organizational change, that we have forgotten about our own org design?  

Make no mistake, your HR structure is critical to your success in driving the “Core 3”. 2017 HR Strategy Best Practices

A Simple Framework

I was fortunate enough to come across a simple model early on in my HR career – The Adaptive Value Culture Chain. 2017 HR Strategy Best Practices

I can’t remember exactly where I got it from– one of the larger consulting firms was using it at the time.  I had a printed copy of it and placed it on the wall of every job I had to continually ask myself at what level I was operating as an HR professional. More aspirational than reality at times– it was always there to challenge me.

The model is a simple one.  It can be used from a holistic perspective e.g. at what level am I operating in my role overall – or on an individual task, goal, objective level e.g. at what level is this specific thing I am doing.2017 HR strategy best practices

  • Level 1– At this level there is no value-add, you are simply performing tasks that others could perform.
  • Level 2– You are operating as a “technical expert”.  You have a body of knowledge, expertise or experience which you are utilizing in a more reactive way.  Someone asks for “x” because you are the expert, and you deliver for them.
  • Level 3– A quantum shift from levels 1 & 2.  Here you are still the expert but you are proactively identifying a solution to a need before being asked to do so. The other shift is “wants” vs. “needs”. Sometimes the customer is not always right. Sometimes the customer does not know what they don’t know. You are shaping the discussion and driving a better solution.
  • Level 4– The ultimate aim. Here you are delivering insights, expertise and solutions that are driving business performance. My litmus test as an HR Business Partner was this. Was I asked to attend and/or participate in business planning discussions by the business leaders– or did I have to ask to be there?  Was I offering/and being asked for my POV on business strategies that are non-people related– or am I there for the people portion of the discussion?

The model is not meant to be a way to eliminate all Level 1 responsibilities and only focus on Level 4 work. Everyone has aspects of their job that fall into each level. 2017 HR Strategy Best Practices

The question is –where am I spending the balance of my time, and what is the opportunity cost of operating at levels 1 & 2?

For level 1 & 2 responsibilities, the next set of questions are also quite simple:

  1. Does the work need to be performed at all?  Would anyone care if the work stopped? (Typically Level 1)
  2. If it does need to be done, does it need to be done by me?  Could it/should it/would it be best performed elsewhere? (Typically Level 2)
  3. If it does need to be performed by me, how can I become more efficient at it to free up my time to operate at a different level.  The opportunity cost of time.

In no way am I suggesting I personally perfected this approach. Just thought about it– a lot.

The Adaptive Value Culture Chain Applied to HR Structure

The same exercise can be applied at an organizational level for your HR function.

If your HR strategy is centered around the “Core 3” then you need to take an honest look at the other responsibilities that fall under your HR team and complete a similar assessment.

Let me say right now– no two HR departments are the same– and there is no “one size fits all” model.  You may work in an extremely large department for a global organization with very specialized teams/functions.  Or you may work in a team for a small to mid-sized business where HR wears many different hats.  

Whatever your situation, you can still apply the same thinking process– and this is where the title of my article now connects. 2017 HR Strategy Ideas

Analyzing your org structure as to how it will support your HR strategy centered on TALENT – CULTURE – LEADERSHIP requires you to challenge the status quo, and take on the “red herrings”.

There are a few areas right off the bat I would question whether they need to be performed by your HR Department:

  • Payroll Processing & Administration– Typical arguments center on the confidentiality of information and the need for HR to own it. Can it be performed by Finance? They confidential information everyday. To me this is not an argument. If you are concerned about people in Finance not being able to handle the information in a confidential manner- do you have the right people? It can also be outsourced. I would advocate HR still owning HRIS and people analytics.
  • Benefits Administration– Similar argument to payroll processing. I am not talking about health and wellness plan design– that is integral to talent and culture.  But the day-to-day administration takes people, time and effort away from your “Core 3”. The opportunity cost of time. Perhaps this still falls under HR but you outsource it? Maybe this falls elsewhere? The questions need to be asked.
  • Operations/Facilities– In smaller companies HR can be the catch-all for other “administrative” responsibilities. Don’t continue to let that happen.
  • Union/Labor Relations– Here is a big “red herring”.  By definition a Collective Agreement is a codified set of workplace rules for unionized employees that is a binding legal document for the term of the contract. Why not let your Legal Department manage it day-to-day e.g. grievances & arbitrations?  Most Labor Relations specialists I have met have a legal background anyway. Perhaps Legal manages the day-to-day during the term of the contract with a dotted-line to HR with regards to how what is bargained impacts the “Core 3”. Maybe your HR Business Partners only get involved with the coaching/leadership aspects of disciplinary meetings and delivering feedback. Perhaps HR only gets involved in Collective Bargaining? Worth examining.
  • HR Legal Compliance– The biggest “red herring” of them all. The ever changing legal landscape and the impact on your HR policies and procedures must fall under HR right? Like Labor Relations, if you have an in-house Legal team they can handle keeping up with changes and workplace audits. When HR owns it– you end up having to get internal or external counsel to sanction changes to your policies anyway. Perhaps this is another example where it is dotted line to HR as it relates to your “Core 3” with Legal taking the responsibility of things like scanning the external legislative environment, timekeeping audits etc. Again, worth examining.

Again, there is no “one-sized fits all solution”.  However we must continually challenge ourselves to think differently by applying the questions listed above, and organize ourselves to be transformational in the “Core 3”.

Perhaps your organization tried it before and was not successful. That does not mean it will never work. Examine why, what you learned and how it could work differently next time vs. giving up the idea.

Giving Up Some Headcount

Applying the model to your HR structure also does not mean you simply shift the work but retain the headcount.

If you lead your HR function, it may require you to give up some headcount to other functions or outsource some of the work. These are important decisions that can not be taken lightly.

If I were a CHRO, I would rather have a smaller team focused on the “Core 3” than a larger one where you are bogged down with administration or compliance.

Perhaps you are in a job listed above and do not want to move outside of HR. I agree– you don’t necessarily need to.  Think of it as an opportunity to chart a different HR career path for yourself. Take some courses, get involved in projects, apply for new HR roles that are centered on the “Core 3”. That is the future of HR– and these roles are rewarding that can take you to new and exciting places.

Maybe your 2017 strategy does not allow for such an exercise this year. No problem. Then look at job responsibilities on a more granular level and see if there are some duties that can be done differently.

You may be reading this article and are thinking we have already done this. Excellent. Keep challenging yourself then to continually examine if you can take it even further.

The 2017 Deloitte Human Capital Trends Report will be a must read for me when it comes out. In the end we know the “Core 3” will be front and center.

Start thinking today about how you can best structure your HR team to create an engaging company culture where your talent can grow with a strong leadership pipeline. All for the benefit of your people– and the bottom line.

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How Millennials Should Be Driving Your Engagement Strategy

Full disclosure- I am not a Millennial.  In fact, I am squarely In the Gen X category.  Wife, school age child, mortgage, two cars- the “whole 9 yards.”  Born in the 70’s, grew up in the 80’s and started my HR career in the mid 90’s. The rise of MTV and the PC, the end of the Cold War, the dot com bubble and Y2K all seem not as long ago as they actually were. I am told that is just getting older……. Employee Engagement Strategies For Millennials

Also in the interest of full disclosure, I am tired of labeling the generations.  Traditionalists (also known as the Greatest Generation) vs Baby Boomers vs Gen X vs Millennials (some even dissect Gen Y vs Millennials).  Before the social scientist in each of us gets offended, I am not suggesting that there were social, political and economic forces that helped shape each generation. Of course there were. These forces will also continue to shape future generations- whatever label we will place on them.

I have been doing some reflection on my career experiences in Human Resources. I consider myself very fortunate in my career to date having worked for some great (and some not-so-great) companies and leaders along the way.  Learned a ton, and a ton still to learn.

One thing I have learned is this.  People are people. There are more similarities than there are differences between generations. We fundamentally all want today, and have always wanted, the same things from our company and our leaders. Regardless of the generational label we are placed in.

Here is another thing I have learned.  We fall in love with shiny new objects.  Focusing on Millennials as the key driver of your internal employee engagement strategy is the shiny new object.

Employee Engagement Old School

To illustrate my point we need to take a brief trip back in time.

The term employee engagement became popular with the book First, Break All The Rules by Marcus Buckingham in 1999.  I will not go into a lot of detail from the book, however it is a must read if you have not done so already.

The book was based on Gallup research that spanned 25 years involving 80,000 managers across different industries.  One of the highlights of the book was what was called the 12 Questions. These were the elements that the best managers provided in the work environment so their people would answer positively:


The study showed that those companies that reflected positive responses to the 12 questions profited more, were more productive, retained more employees per year, and satisfied more customers.

Important to note- the book was published almost 18 years ago and the research spanned back to the 1970’s. This is what Boomers were saying, back then.

The 2016 Deloitte Millennial Survey Redux

Fast forward to today. I spent some time this week reviewing the 2016 Deloitte Millennial Survey.

Another good read with too many insights to fully cover here.  In short, the survey illustrated that 2 in 3 Millennials expect to leave their company by 2020. In order to attract and retain Millennials, the study states that companies should identify and align with their ambitions and values by doing the following:

  • Encourage mentorship
  • Ensure company purpose and values are aligned (“have purpose beyond profit”)
  • Provide career development opportunities
  • Create the “perfect job environment” (pay/financial benefits, work/life balance, opportunities to progress, create an inclusive environment, open communications along with other items listed above in terms of purpose and professional development)

There is one key insight I thought was particularly interesting:


The parallels between the 1998 Gallup survey and the 2016 Deloitte survey are very clear.  Boomers then, and Millennials now essentially want the same things from their company. Scroll between the two diagrams and you can almost do a 1-to-1 comparison.

Yet Another Data Point

Here is another useful 2016 research report by SHRM entitled Employee Job Satisfaction and Engagement- Revitalizing a Changing Workforce.  Again too much to cover here, but a couple of interesting insights to share:



Excerpt from Report:

“The Millennial generation is frequently generalized as entitled, lazy and self-centered. Given these stereotypes, it would not be surprising to see these young workers as less satisfied with their jobs. This research, however, found no statistically significant differences in job satisfaction between generations. Overall, 88% of employees were satisfied with their job this year; 86% of Millennials indicated the same. Similar percentages were reported for Generation X (88%) and Baby Boomers (90%). Stereotypes about Millennials often lead to misinterpretations about this cohort”.



And what was the summary of their findings across all generations in terms of key employee engagement drivers?


Their recommendations with regards to Millennials and their engagement at work:

  1. Stop the stereotypes
  2. Cultivate culture
  3. Develop and engage your talent

I could not agree more. Regardless of which generational label you are placed in- there are universal pillars of engaging employees:

  • Ensuring your people have clarity on what is expected of them, and the resources they need to meet these expectations
  • Great leadership at all levels
  • Recognition for a job well done
  • Meaningful relationships with co-workers and strong collaboration
  • A sense of purpose and aligned values
  • Fairness in the workplace
  • Open, honest two-way communication
  • Opportunities for coaching/mentoring and professional development
  • Creating a diversity of job experiences and career advancement
  • An environment where people can fulfill their potential

This, is not new. I recall addressing these same issues in the 1990’s and 2000’s with regards to what was called “employee satisfaction” then- and “employee engagement” now.  Nor is it unique to Millennials.

How Millennials Should Be Driving Your Engagement Strategy

If you are thinking I am advocating that Millennials are not an important part of your employee engagement strategy, that could not be further from the truth. They are. Very important in fact. But not because of the here and now. Not because they are a special audience that has vastly different needs or concerns from the rest of your employees.

They are important because of the future, and your business strategy.

Millennials have surpassed Baby Boomers as the nation’s largest living generation, according to population estimates released earlier this year by the U.S. Census Bureau. They represent the largest target demographic for your company’s products or services if not already, then in the not too distant future.  It is also estimated that Millennial workers will comprise one-half of the workforce by 2020 according to the SHRM foundation.

The power Millennials bring to your engagement strategy, is how you link it as a key element of retaining or attracting consumers/customers. There is no more impactful way to tie your HR strategic plan to your business strategy.

Last week Glassdoor listed their 2017 Best Places To Work report. I have not had the opportunity to work with or for any of these companies to date. I would venture to bet more often than not, they view Millennials and employee engagement primarily as an externally focused endeavor to generate future growth. Not primarily as an internally focused exercise to attract/retain employees and develop their talent bench.

Both matter, but starting with an external focus is more important. That is when engagement becomes everyone’s responsibility, and not primarily HR’s responsibility.

Millennials Are Getting It Right

One last personal disclosure, I admire Millennials for the direction they are shaping the topic of employee engagement.

I admire the fact that they strongly believe that businesses should be more responsible, ethical and society focused. I respect that they place a high importance on personal values when making decisions at work. I love they have a high need to align themselves with company purpose. As an HR professional, we sometimes see the darkest side of ethics and integrity in companies and have to play the role of clean-up. I wonder if Millennials would tolerate some of the things I had to. Rather, I chose to. I hope not.

The fact that two-thirds of Millennials express a desire to leave their organization by 2020 is a good thing. They are doing a better job holding leaders and organizations accountable to engagement by voting with their feet.

We all fundamentally want the same things from our companies and leaders. If the shiny new object is what provides the burning platform to really make substantive changes, in the same employee engagement areas we have been trying to impact for decades, then call me a Millennial.

Well…not really….that ship has sailed for me. However, I am happy to ride the wave of the ripple effect they will have on us all.

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Choose Love Over Fear To Unlock Your Leadership Potential

We are very excited to share that we have partnered with Goalcast as a platform partner to expand the reach for our articles on talent, leadership & culture.

This article discusses a personal story of a situation early on in my career where under the same difficult business conditions, I witnessed 2 different leaders make two completely different choices.  One love and the other fear.  These two leaders make an indelible impression on me as I progressed within my own career.

The article then offers 3 important ways that each of us can make the choice of love over fear to unlock our greatest potential as leaders.

We hope you enjoy. Stay tuned for more, we are just beginning our partnership with Goalcast!

Click here for the full article on Goalcast.com.

For more on the topic on love and fear at work, click here for the first article we wrote for our own blog in January 2017.

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What Hurricane Irma Taught Me About Effective Teams and the Power of Teamwork

We are very excited to share that we have partnered with Goalcast as a platform partner to expand the reach for our articles on talent, leadership & culture.

This article discusses a personal story of our experience during Hurricane Irma and the characteristics of effective teams and the power of teamwork. When we take the focus off of ourselves, when we acknowledge the innate contributions of others, when we drop the need to “be right” and learn to listen to other perspectives — and when we step up to be a living example of the generosity we want from others — people make a powerful team.

The article then offers 3 important ways that each of us can make the choice of love over fear to unlock our greatest potential as leaders.

We hope you enjoy. Stay tuned for more, we are just beginning our partnership with Goalcast!

Click here for the full article on Goalcast.

Click here for our other recent article published on Goalcast about choosing love over fear to unlock your leadership potential.

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The Best Leadership Lessons Are From Loved Ones

In late April our family lost a great leader. The world lost one if you ask me.

My uncle John Cortissoz or “Big Jack” as he was affectionately known to family and friends. A loving husband, father, brother and family man who was dedicated to serving others.

Dynamic personality. Movie star qualities. Former advertising executive with Businessweek and Inc. magazines. Quintessential New Yorker. Storyteller extraordinaire.

There are few people that can naturally have others just gravitate to them with no effort. Just being themselves. He was it. The real deal.


There are so many “big” things that happen in life that we end up forgetting. Yet it is the “little” things that matter most.

A smile. A hug. A conversation. A visit. A photo. Just being together.

I did not spend enough time with him, but will never forget the time we spent.

Years pass like minutes in our “busy” adult lives. Time and distance are a human construct. Love is forever.

I looked up to him. Every time I walked through Grand Central Station, it never was lost on me I was walking in the footsteps on my current and departed family members. It humbled me. It gave me strength. It made me feel connected to something bigger than myself. In my own small way was the extension of their legacy. The next generation.

It’s important to be small to be big.


Obviously attending a funeral is something no one looks forward to. Yet at the same time it can be a powerful event.

Reminiscing about the past. Discovering information about the person you did not know. Being with friends and family members you may not have seen in a long time. A collective and outward display of love and support.

There was also an important lesson for me that I realized.

“Big Jack” taught me everything you need to know about be a leader. Yet he never wrote a book, did a TED Talk or spoke about leadership at conferences.

Because he didn’t need to.

He showed us all by the example he set every day. In how he treated everyone at work, at home and in his community.

In how he lived his life.


To sum it up in a word – belief.

Believe in yourself.

He built a very successful career as an advertising executive working his way up one of the top executives of Businessweek and Inc. magazines. Yet there were many times others did not believe in him.  He did not have an Ivy League education like many others at his level, yet he was not intimidated by their paper qualifications. He believed in hard work and determination. He challenged the “old boys” network at that time and never gave up on himself to settle where others though he should be.

He was a “disruptor” before disrupting was cool.

Belief in service to others.

He was never a “salesman” but was very successful at sales by listening to the needs of his customers and delivering results for them- not to them. This extended to his family life as a loving a devoted husband to his wife of 64 years and 5 children.  It even extended into his community. He volunteered his time often in his church and with Habitat For Humanity on a countless number of projects.

He never took himself too seriously and knew the true measure of his life was in what he did for others.

Belief in the possible.

“Big Jack” was the type of person who loved to do completely new and different things that he had never done before. Just for the heck of it, to challenge himself to learn and do something new.  Learn how to become a boater – check.  Take up painting – check.  Build houses – check. All with an incredible sense of humor, humility and the extraordinary ability to story tell about life and his adventures.

He was very creative and intrinsically knew the value of challenging yourself to grow in new ways.


What he taught me I will never forget.  The best part is that I did not have to buy a book or attend a seminar to do so.

Here is my advice and the important lesson I was reminded of which I believe applies to each of us.

Stop looking to externally for what it takes to be a leader.

The next big leadership “guru” or expert is not going to show you anything you don’t already know through the living examples of people in your life. They may remind you of what you what you already know.  Nothing wrong with that but they will not illuminate you with previously unknown secrets.

Leadership is how each of us show up every day in the “small things” which we too often take for granted.

You don’t need to spend lots of time with people to impact them. Never underestimate the interactions you have. Don’t try to be perfect, just try your best. Laugh. Love all. Make a difference. Do good.

I am sure there are people in your life who have done this for you. I am sure you already do this for others.

Whether you realize it or not….

“Big Jack” did for those who were lucky enough to know him.

And for those who did, we will be forever grateful.

Special thanks to my cousins John Cortissoz and Cathy Cortissoz for sharing the stories and photos of their father with me. He will live on through all that knew him.

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