Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Executive Coaching: A Guide for the HR Professional

There are a great plenty of books about coaching, some good and some atrocious. I have read many of those and should I have not had the pleasure of being coached on how to coach, I am pretty sure that I would not have been able to grasp the essence of the process merely by reading the literature. Well, surely books are necessary to provide you with perspectives, add structure and equip you with numerous tools and frameworks, but it's actually coaching and practice that will turn you into a good coach.

Most books will try to teach you how to become a coach. This one that I have just finished reading has a slightly different objective as you can gather from its title: Executive Coaching: A Guide for the HR Professional.

This is not a new coaching technique or philosophy. Actually, as a coaching textbook it's pretty useless. I can recommend you others that would be much better if it is your own skills honing that you are after, e.g.:
          - The Skilled Helper
          - Leader as Coach
          - Co-Active Coaching
          - and many many others
But if you work in HR and you need to come up with an effective and low-cost strategy for developing critical staff, you might find it worth reading.

The authors in an easy and non-intrusive manner tell us when and how to assess the need for a coaching intervention, how to gain the senior leadership buy-in, figure out the ROI and set up a network of those who need development help and those who can provide it. Besides, I was pleasantly surprised that Executive Coaching: A Guide for the HR Professional addressed such issues as:

  • role definitions and clarity: where do the power lines in the HR/client/coach/boss lie and how to navigate the underwater currents;
  • HR issues: confidentiality, involvement, budget, etc.;
  • coaching populations: HiPos, expatriates, female talent, diversity groups, cross-cultural, etc.; 
  • tools: a selection of questionnaires, forms and templates that any HR needs; 
  • special topics when coaching is most needed, especially when we deal with high-fliers: assimilation coaching, executive development and coaching, multi-cultural issues, coaching and diversity.
It is an easy read: I doubt that it will take you longer than a couple of hours to get through the book. It is good reference material and your colleagues would appreciate if you lend it to them, whether they are employees, line managers, senior management or HR - this manual can appeal to a breadth of audiences. Actually, being a decent overview of the subject, I think this book is a good way to begin your relationship with the exciting sphere of coaching.

I had to learn the hard way. When we set up the coaching network back in Shell South Africa, I was not fully prepared to coach managers who were much higher than me in the hierarchy. I did have the support of two professional psychologists, to whom I could bring my cases for discussion and guidance, but that was post-mortem - with the client it always was one-on-one and at times I was simply freaking out. Often I had to make a tough conscientious effort to draw the demarcation line between me as a coach and me as an HR. Under the strict confidentiality agreement that we agreed upon at the very beginning of coaching, I could not use any of the information revealed to me in the coaching sessions in my professional HR capacity, and at times it was really difficult. There were instances of "scope creep" when, for instance, while I was supposed to do leadership coaching, I had to deal with personal problems of a crumbling marriage. At times I had to face situations when the coaching process became a political battle. Going through such experiences makes you a better professional and a better coach, but you can't learn that by reading a book.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Pay Communication: The Less You Know...

Most blue chips run employee surveys on an annual or biannual basis. Those are very effective and, if managed properly, can really help the company redress the major motivation issues and avert a low morale disaster. Yet, I don't need a crystal ball or any of those fancy questionnaires to predict the three things that on a company-wide level will always score lowest:
low salaries, lack of training and insufficient communication.
Why is human nature organized in such a way that we start complaining the moment we come across something that's not up to our liking even without looking into the root of the matter? Complaining for the sake of complaining can be a ruse to get some grease if you are a wheel but surely there must be boundaries. It does not matter how you slice and dice the employee engagement survey results (seniority, gender, organizational unit, etc.), the rankings for salary satisfaction are always among the lowest. Yet, the staff normally have limited understanding of the entire mix of the remuneration practices, and here is the proof.
A few years ago, World at Work conducted a Rewards Communication and Pay Secrecy research in order to find out to which extent is compensation information is being communicated within the companies and how effective it is. The results were not encouraging: compensation professionals believe that employee understanding of organizational reward strategies and philosophy is limited. Depending on the focus of the communication,
  • 42 percent to 70 percent of respondents reported that only a “few” or “some” of their employees (40 percent or less) understood basic information related to their reward strategies and philosophy.
  • Specifically, 70 percent reported that “few” to “some” employees (40 percent or less) understood how the mix of base pay, variable pay and benefits was established.
  • Only 13 percent of respondents indicated that “most” to “all” employees (60 percent or more) did understand the reward mix.
So here we are, trapped in the conversation of "don't see, don't hear, don't tell". Each party blames the other and everyone is unhappy. 50% of companies do not disclose the pay scales to their employees, the other 50% provide full clarity. Neither approach provides the desired results. Some companies have a separate budget for pay communications, others do not. Nobody reports on their efficiency, and in any case the ROI on such intangible things are difficult to measure.
What should we do? To me, it looks like we can agree on a few fundamentals and stick to them:
  • Communicate is better than not communicate.
  • Different employee groups need different amounts of information.
  • Employees' dissatisfaction about their pay may not come from the amount of pay per se: look deeper.
  • Regular "temperature checks" are a must
  • Do not leave communications to amateurs: more harm can be done than good.
As a parting sentiment, I would like to add that senior involvement and back-up is critical. Making sure that your leaders fully understand the pay philosophy, support it and are able to explain it to the rest of the company and externally is a cornerstone of successful implementation of your Retain & Reward strategy.

Friday, August 19, 2011

When Pay Creeps In Into Career Choices

A couple of days ago I had dinner with an old university friend of mine, who is now facing a dilemma: keep her position of a personal assistant and the perks that come with it or take up a transfer to the position of an economist but with a salary cut.
My mind went working in two directions at the same time:
  1. What sort of company is that where a secretary gains more than an economist, and
  2. How does pay influence our career choices and how should we go about it?
Answering the first question: any company experiencing pay compression, skewed salary scales, unmatched jobs or severe nepotism/favoritism. Since I know my friend very well, the latter hypothesis is eliminated, but all the former ones are extremely likely to take place. Whether you are using a point based system in job evaluation or whole job matching approach, you will need to do a lot of convincing to make me believe that any sort of a personal assistant is "heavier" than an economist. Following the Hay method, we are operating with three dimensions: Accountability, Know-How and Problem Solving. While we can have arguments around Accountability in this case, I will die fighting trying to prove that Know-How and Problem Solving dimensions of an economist position should be higher. Another likely explanation of this situation is pay compression, "defined as pay differentials that are too small to be considered equitable", e.g. when supervisors get less than their subordinates, new hires receive loftier salaries than the current incumbents or there are so many salary grades that the wage differences between them are negligible. My friend is in a similar situation: she will lose her 20% supervisory allowance and a few other perks if she agrees to take up the economist's job, which will drag her total cash down.
The key term in the last sentence is "total cash", which does not equal "total compensation", and many people do not differentiate between the two, as a consequence making grave mistakes in making their career decisions. Total Cash is a part of Total Compensation, but there are other elements such as Work-Life, Career Development Opportunities, Benefits, Performance & Recognition, if we are using the World at Work terminology. Focusing on pay only may lead to suboptimal choices, and here I would refer you to an HBR article Six Dangerous Myths About Pay. Hence, we need to look beyond the dollar.
Frederick Herzberg back in the 20th century, inspired by Maslow's ideas,  came up with a Two-Factor Theory, a research on motivation and job satisfaction. He discovered that there were two types of factors that affected employees' motivation and productivity:
  • Motivators (e.g., challenging work, recognition, responsibility) that give positive satisfaction, arising from intrinsic conditions of the job itself, such as recognition, achievement, or personal growth, and
  • Hygiene factors (e.g. status, job securitysalaryfringe benefits, work conditions) that do not give positive satisfaction, though dissatisfaction results from their absence. These are extrinsic to the work itself, and include aspects such as company policies, supervisory practices, or wages/salary.
As you see, pay is listed under the hygiene factors, i.e. the factors that primarily satisfy the survival needs in the Maslow's hierarchy. Therefore, if you are hardly making your ends meet, dying under the mortgage burden or have nothing left after having paid your alimony, your choice to go after the money in the short-term might be justified. However, should you be primarily concerned about your own development, learning new things, gaining more responsibility (and, as a result, getting prettier paychecks in the long run), you should definitely opt for career opportunities that will get you closer to the personal goal of self-actualization.
In not so sophisticated terms I gave her this advice, "Do not fear gaining less right now - by taking on a greater challenge, you will be much more equipped to compete on the labor market later, and never be motivated by money… it will come by itself should you invest enough time and effort into yourself".
P.S. There was some doubt whether the Russian Labor Legislation allows pay cuts. It does:

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Online Assessments Discriminate

I have already expressed my distrust and general feeling of uneasiness towards online assessment tools:

Such tests can be discriminatory and have a strong bias towards gender, sex, race or disability. Employment seekers, however, rarely have choice.

Continue reading here:

Employers turn to tests to weed out job seekers

Monday, August 15, 2011

HR: Butchery or Deli?

To a hammer everything is a nail, and to a butcher everything is a piece of meat.

What associations do you have with butchers of butcheries? Personally, I like the idea of getting a fresh cut just the way I like it, but going to the place of smelling of crushed bones and blood is for the intrepid and valiant. You might get the same feeling from visiting a nurse drawing your blood with a long needle or your HR Department.

What associations do you have with deli shops? I like taking my time with browsing through the rows with quaint olive oils, decadent cheeses and delectable meat treats. Similar sensations can be caused by profoundly positive emotion such as a successful date, a leisurely yacht trip or visit to your HR Department.

Why do we see such discrepancy in how people view their HR services and people? Apart from the fact that every perception is purely individual, I would agree that there are two types of HR: the evil one and the good one. I have not heard about something in the middle. The evil HR are butchers: they care for numbers and less for real people, cling to processes and policy books until the very end and even fire people. The good HR are deli chefs: they design complex and exciting transformation projects, coach and train employees and communicate at every convenient occasion. As you understand, both are severe exaggerations and the truth is "somewhere out there".

The truth is that a solid HR professional must be good in all four aspects of the trade defined by the guru of business science Dave Ulrich, be it orientation at people or processes, looking far into the future or being immersed in daily routines:

Variability and constant change make it an imperative to be skilled in all four. At times, you need to consult and deeply understand the underlying problems your employees are going through, and at time you need to bang the policy book on the table, and - yes - when the company is between the rock and the deep sea, layoffs are inevitable: the trick is in seamless and natural switch from one "HR gear" to another and being more or less equally comfortable with each. Unfortunately, books and HR theory are little help in this case. Speaking from experience, it is only practice that makes perfect. No matter how many books I read or training courses I attend, it is only when I sit down with a close-to-retirement father of four to work out the details of his retrenchment that I really understand what our profession is about.

Finally, internal marketing plays a great role. Since perception is reality, it is not what you are, but what others say you are. Do not hesitate to invest in functional promotion and branding. I have seen some very successful functional marketing campaigns (IT, HR, Finance, Supply Chain, etc.), and I should say that the ROI of such projects is manifold.

HR is really about being a deli. "Butcheries" are faux-pas nowadays and cookie-cut solutions won't express anyone, particularly the Gen Y quickly flooding the workplace. "Delis" are places where added value is generated, where opportunities for diversification thrive, where excellence is the rule of the game. There are positive tendencies that HR is given more and more responsibility for business decisions and "a place at the table", but unfortunately not always do HR managers know what to do with that power and freedom to operate. The intent and implementation dilemma again.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Interview Places: Always Ready

Recently I have run a small bit of research on interview situations some people have found themselves in. The results came in as expected - varied - still some of them are hard to believe. Take a look for yourself:

Having a job interview over coffee seems to be a regular practice. What is the MOST UNUSUAL place that you've even had a job interview in?
  • hotel room
  • petroleum depot
  • trattoria
  • in a park because the fire alarm went off in middle of my interview at the hotel
  • in the Presidential Suite in the GrandWest Hotel in Cape Town
  • aeroport
  • at a theatre

 Without being too philosophical about the topic, the moral is,I hope, clear: you need to be prepared all the time for whatever outcome and never miss an opportunity to have an interview right then and right there. Hence:
  • make sure you always have a copy of your CV with you, either in hard copy or on your smart phone/iPad/laptop;
  • have an ample supply of business cards (consider placing a QR code linked to your uploaded CV on it);
  • unless it is absolutely impossible, do not try to postpone the interview (later... in your office... etc...). Demonstrate your flexibility and ability to deal with unpredictable situations!
Thank you all those who have replied to my survey on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Employer Brand Must Be Like Makeup: Immaculate

Do you know a company called Praxair?

I didn't. Until they contacted me for an interview. Naturally, I deployed a full-scale investigation on them and discovered lots of interesting facts. For instance, Barron's lauded their profitability model and honored them for being "good corporate citizen". They are in the Top 10 chemical companies in the world; one of the largest industrial gases companies worldwide with annual sales of €8.2 billion in 40 countries. For eight consecutive years, the company has been selected as a component of the Dow Jones Sustainability World Index and is the only industrial gas company in the Carbon Disclosure Projects Carbon Disclosure Leadership Index.

So how come nobody knows about Praxair?

Employer branding is tricky business. It's an art on the verge of both HR and Marketing, none of which are exact sciences. It is distinct from pure branding or PR in two aspects: the intent is different (attract talent)and the target segment is that very talent, as opposed to customers, partners or suppliers. There might be an overlap but not necessarily.

The advantages of having a strong employer brand are obvious (lower attraction & recruitment costs, higher overall brand equity, credibility and strong communication influence if needed, etc.). The drawbacks are few but significant: money, time and efforts are needed - those resources that so often are most scarce. Hence, proper due diligence is needed at the point of contemplating an employer branding intervention. Cornell University suggests using this decision tree to understand what type of effort you need to make to position your company on the labor market optimally:

Rules of engagement apply, i.e. all usual marketing channels and tricks go: traditional (print, university presence, career fairs), virtual engagement, guerrilla tactics, etc. Depending on the type of talent you want to attract, you will be choosing the messages and the channels; after all, a brand is what others think of you, so you need to pay special attention to segment the audience well. It is an important point, and I would like to emphasize it. As Marty Neumeier put it, one is not what he thinks he is, but what others say he is. By sending wrong messages to the wrong segments you might produce adverse results and harm the situation even more.

During my interview with the VP of Talent Acquisition at Praxair, I asked her about the reasons for  her company being virtually invisible for prospective employees. She jumped up, hurried to her desk and fumbling through presentation print-out started to explain quite passionately how that is going to be her next big project. She joined Praxair in February 2011, so she must be just finding her feet there, but I am glad that the issue of building a strong employer brand is on her radar screen.
In closing, I would like to put in a caveat that it is not enough to design and launch an employer branding campaign. The real challenge lies in making your own employees true ambassadors of your brand - only then you can claim that your employer branding efforts have been successful.

And one more… remember that old fable and its moral that you can fool one person all the time, all people some of the time, but you cannot fool all people all the time. No matter now beautifully you present your EVP to the public, it had better be very close to the reality. In our networked world truth comes out very quickly. If you don't believe me, check out


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