The best thing about working here? It's the people...

I've been working with employee surveys for nearly 20 years now. If you've been in the workforce for a while, it might feel like you've spent a similar amount of time filling out employee surveys! Thankfully using a more focused approach and better analysis techniques means employee surveys can be a lot shorter than they used to be. One thing that hasn't changed is that most employee surveys include an open-ended question that goes something like this - "What do you see as the best thing about working here?"  

People write about all sorts of things when they are asked to consider that single best thing about working for their organisation. Some say "my manager". Some say "flexibility". It's pretty rare for people to mention "the office layout", "pay" or "meetings". In fact, one of the most frequent answers is "the people". And to be honest that used to frustrate me. After all the effort leaders put in to planning, rewarding, communicating and managing, the best thing you can think of is "the people"?!? I used to think “What can a leader possibly do about that?  Is the takeaway for leaders that they just need to hire nice people?"

But over time I've started to appreciate the business lesson for leaders that sits beneath this response. That perhaps the best thing about working at your organisation being "the people" does serve a purpose, and is something that you as a leader can influence. 

When you talk to employees about why "the people" matter so much, they often talk about the importance of working with "nice" people. People who are friendly and accepting of others. And people who will go out of their way to help you, even when it's not in their job description. In contrast, people will leave an otherwise great organisation where people aren't "nice" - where bad behaviour is tolerated and an individualistic "win at all costs" attitude prevails. 

When you speak to leaders about diversity, everyone knows that the textbook "correct" answer is "the more diversity, the better". Diversity has a lot of benefits for organisations - it helps your organisation to think in new ways, to be able to relate more effectively to a broader range of customers or clients, to be more nimble in responding to change - in short, to produce better results. But, if we're honest, a diverse workforce is much harder to manage than a non-diverse workforce (I'd say "homogeneous" instead of "non-diverse", but it still sounds to me like something you do to milk). 

The key to capitalising on diversity is actually "inclusion" - to what extent does your organisation (and you can substitute "your organisation" with "your people") accept others who are different? You can recruit a diverse workforce, but without inclusion it's a recipe for conflict, distraction and reduced performance. If your organisation and it's people aren't inclusive, you'd likely be better off avoiding diversity at all costs. And "inclusion" isn't a policy or document - it IS your people. It's also not how quickly we can force new people to become like us - it's how quickly the organisation can accept difference and build on the new resources a diverse workforce brings. 

Why is the response of "the people" so important? Why is it the best thing about working here for so many people? It's because the people are supportive and inclusive. They make you feel like you belong. They make you feel like this is a place where you can contribute and make a difference. The benefit for the organisation is actually collaboration. Inclusion and support breaks down the silos in your organisation. It helps to deliver results that the sum of individuals never could.  At our core we are social animals, and the connections we make at work have the potential to motivate us in a way that yet another meeting or presentation never could. 

As a leader there are a few things you might consider:

  • To what extent do we have an inclusive culture? Do we put up with people who don't "play nicely with others" (as a client once described it)? Or is that kind of bad behaviour something that our culture rejects even when the person in question is hitting all their targets?
  • As a leader, what can I do to build a supportive and inclusive culture? What's something practical I can do to model this to my team, and to recognise and reward it in others?
  • Do we really appreciate diversity? If not, what might be the preconceptions and biases amongst our otherwise well-meaning people that are getting in the way?
Recognise that many of your employees will see the best thing about working for your organisation as "the people". Sometimes that means overlooking the slightly longer lunch break, or the bit-too-loud conversation in the kitchen. It might mean considering an idea that initially seems to be too “out there” to be practical. It might even mean dragging yourself along to sing happy birthday around a cake when all you want to do is finish off some work. "The people" matter. Support and inclusion matter. They're not just "nice to haves" - they're core business.  

Retaining Generation Y? Help Build their CV.

Leaders are struggling to retain talented younger employees. Many leaders are quick to decry what they see as Generation Y’s lack of loyalty and commitment. As I’ve noted elsewhere though, generational differences are often overstated and don’t necessarily help in predicting or explaining individual preferences. However it’s easy to see how the corporate downsizing that has impacted family and friends has taught this generation that employee loyalty may not be reciprocated by employers. Add to this Generation Y's high levels of education and mobility, and you have a recipe for high turnover.

So is it all about bean bags, bright colours and free food? Well, making offices more ‘cool’ only goes so far. Some organisations try to take these surface elements (from organisations that are known for their ability to attract and retain Gen Y’s) and inject them into their own offices. Like all transplants though, they’re often rejected. Cool offices are an outworking of the culture of organisations – they’re not the driver of the culture. Likewise pay doesn't guarantee longer tenure – you can read more about why here.

There is a practical way to help retain Generation Y employees. While it sounds counterintuitive, helping workers to grow and build their CV can make them more likely to stay with your organisation. 'Mastery', or developing additional skills and experience, is a major source of workplace motivation (see more here). As a manager, you can consciously help your people to develop skills and experience that matter to them. In addition, you can help employees to recognise the development and progress that they are making.

During your regular meetings with your people, make sure you set aside some time to identify what further development is of interest. Also spend time looking back at the previous month or quarter to identify the new skills and experience that they have gained. Help them to summarise this experience in a way that will fit into a CV or LinkedIn profile.

By highlighting and increasing their employability, you will be able to demonstrate the value staying with the organisation will have on their development. And the approach also works across all employees. For example, as people approach retirement, providing them with skills that will help them to pick up part time roles (if that's what they want) will also be attractive.

Achieving this at an organisational level requires managers who can have skilled discussions with employees. This is likely to involve some investment in skill development for managers as well. But, as we’ve seen, this development may also help to retain your managers.

Best Practice? Here's a Brochure...

So you're thinking about 'best practice' for your organisation, and start looking around. It won't be long before you stumble across brochures from all sorts of consulting firms highlighting their version of 'best practice' and what it could deliver. When thinking about implementing 'best practice' in your organisation (and indeed whether it will be 'best practice' for you), it's helpful to explore the different roles of consultants and academics. It also helps to appreciate that 'best practice' for your organisation is unlikely to be found in a brochure.

Consultants, and the firms they work for, are primarily driven by the pursuit of 'practical benefit' (oh - and money). They therefore invest in developing approaches that help organisations to produce better results - and that's a good thing. Without this investment, a lot of what we know about organisations and how they operate wouldn't exist. These approaches provide practical guidance to leaders in how to achieve results. In order to protect the advantage their approaches provide, consulting firms hide them from competitors and from organisations who aren't willing to pay to use the approach. And, because of the significant investment it takes to come up with a new approach and all the supporting materials, they will only change their approach if they really have to - even maintaining an approach in the face of contrary evidence. And they're also unable to build on the good work that a competitor may have produced.

Academics are driven by pursuit of 'the truth' (oh - and being published, which leads to money). They want to know what best 'explains' or 'predicts' things we can observe in organisations. This approach means that what they develop must be open to scrutiny and to be built on by others. It also means they tend to focus on quite specific issues or questions - something where there can be a clear 'answer'. Academic ideas about 'best practice' will change over time - that's an important part of explaining and predicting. Academics also tend to only tell you when something 'works', but it is possible for others to demonstrate that it doesn't work, or that the idea can be improved. The researchers themselves are inclined to improve their ideas to make sure they're 'correct'. The problem with this level of detail and focus is that it's, well, boring. You can read an article and think 'so what' due to the lack of immediate practical application. The research is still important though, as it may be building towards something that does actually matter in practice, or perhaps it contributes to part of a bigger picture.

So that's great - you want your organisation to improve, and one way to do that is to apply the best thinking to your organisation and its leaders. How can you practically do that without buying into 'fads' and without scaring people off with 'theory'?

Armstrong and Miller give us an insight into this dilemma of explaining and applying scientific theory in this comedy sketch:

Here are some tips for applying 'theory' to your organisation:
  • Start with business priorities first - Is this theory relevant to our business priorities?
  • Ensure there's a demonstrable practical benefit - Will applying this approach actually help?
  • Ensure there's relevance to your people and their work - Will this help address the needs of the 'end users'?
  • Examine other perspectives - What do others think?
  • Create, or build on, a common language - Does this help us to understand and communicate with each other more effectively?
  • Balance 'ours' versus 'best practice' - Are we better to customise this to our organisation, or keep the approach unchanged?
  • Involve leaders early - How can we ensure implementing the change is 'done with' instead of 'done to' leaders?
  • Have the approach 'sold' by leaders who have experienced it - How can our leaders champion the new approach?
So what are the main priorities for leaders in your organisation? What have you read, seen or heard recently that you could apply to help leaders meet this priority?

Why You'll Never Retire...

What if you never retired? No really... forget about retirement for a moment - let's just assume that you'll never retire. What would you do differently? How would you spend your life right now if retirement wasn't guaranteed?

People seem obsessed with working towards retirement, despite it being a relatively recent invention (1880's in Germany in case you were interested, and they set the initial retirement age at 70 years old). And life being a predictably unpredictable thing means that making it to retirement isn't guaranteed. In fact, most retirement ages around the world were set to be a close match to the life expectancy of the time. As life expectancy has dramatically increased, the retirement age has remained largely unchanged.

The concept of retirement comes with some drawbacks. For a start it is expensive. People need to save to fund retirement, so will compromise their current life to provide some 'security' for the future. While this makes sense to a degree from an economic perspective, many end up leading an overly compromised 45 year work life, in the hope of 10-15 years of retirement while they're physically fit enough to enjoy it. 

What about if you worked for 55-60 years instead and didn't retire, but tried to make the most of each year instead? Well, that only makes sense if you enjoy what you're doing. In fact, you wouldn't settle for a job that you didn't find rewarding in a true sense - instead you would seek out (or even create) a career that was truly rewarding. You would find ways to extend your career beyond the typical retirement age. You would identify options for work that would allow for changes in your health and mobility. You would keep on learning and staying up to date to ensure you could continue to be of value to others. You would make a greater effort to stay fit. And I suspect you would be less 'old' in your outlook and ability. In fact, you may not end up being that 'old' at all!

We have three sons aged 9 and under, and so made a conscious decision to have 'outdoor' holidays as much as possible (those with young kids might relate!).  We bought a caravan a few years back because it suited our needs as a young family, and have travelled all over Australia. The other demographic group that enjoys travelling in caravans is retired people. As a result, I've had plenty of opportunities to chat with retired people about their views on life. A regular comment from the retired people I've met is "I wish we had done this when we were your age - I wish we had taken the time to travel and enjoy life more with the kids when we were younger". These conversations have helped shape the way I run my business, the way I work, how I spend my time, and ultimately my desire to never retire (check in with me in 30 years or so!). Instead I've been planned, fortunate and disciplined enough to live a life that I genuinely enjoy, and that I feel I could sustain for a number of decades to come. Sure - that has meant some compromises. I don't have a regular pay cheque (or 'check' for US readers) that turns up each month. But I have quantity time with the ones I love (I don't buy the 'quality time' concept either), and I spend my time doing things that I enjoy and that I find rewarding. That kind of sounds like retirement, eh? And surely where you spend your time is a measure of what's most important to you. 

So maybe that's fine for a 40 year old, but is it really reasonable for those joining the work force to find a job they love? Well, maybe not - at least not straight away. I've had some pretty diverse jobs that weren't always fantastic. But I have learnt a lot through each job. My passion has unfolded over time and with hard work. So don't expect that first job to be perfect (or the second, or the third). Work hard, keep learning and be flexible, and you might just find that perfect job and wonderful career emerges from the most unexpected places. 

So, you might read this and want to examine your priorities and how you spend your time. If so, please email me ( and I will send you a worksheet that will help you to examine your purpose and values. Working through this may assist in clarifying where you want to head. 

In conclusion, a healthy and happy retirement isn't guaranteed, so why live your life as if it is?