Non-Nonsense HR for a No-Nonsense World

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If a 3-year-old child can spot when someone’s being fake, why risk being fake to your workers? They’re just as likely to know when you’re not being genuine, and this fakeness has lasting repercussions on your organization. I recently spoke with one expert who shares her “secret sauce recipe” for clearing the corporate clutter in your organization to help engage and retain your top performers.

Meet Amy Leschke-Kahle, Vice President of Performance Acceleration at The Marcus Buckingham Company, an ADP company.

You’ve mentioned that you were an engineer. I always ask interviewees how they got started in HR; it seems like a particularly relevant question for you.

I get asked all the time, and as you know, I work for The Marcus Buckingham Company, an ADP Company. Marcus Buckingham has spent his career studying strengths and positive psychology and employee engagement. We always talk about strengths as an activity that makes me feel strong, so people often automatically assume when I say I started off as an engineer that I must have discovered that I didn’t like engineering. In fact, “I loved it.”

My transition into HR was through working at a College of Engineering, where I ran a career services office. One day, a client customer said, “Hey, do you want to come in and help us do talent acquisition?” Which I knew nothing about, by the way. So I learned the ins and outs of talent acquisition including designing an applicant tracking system. Remember paradox databases? That’s how long ago it was!

The organization needed to meet some regulatory requirements, so I designed a database to ease the administrative hassle. Then I helped start up its first corporate university, and it just evolved from there. That’s how I got into HR. But people will say, “Well, you must not have liked chemical engineering,” but to me, it’s all the same process. My head works the same way solving problems in a paper mill as it does now when I’m thinking about how we help people do better work.

One of the things I did as a chemical engineer was to analyze why one of my client’s paper mills was seeing variation in their finished product. I ran a frequency analysis to figure out there was a splotch of gunk on one of the dryer rolls. Weirdly, it’s the same approach I use for employees. For example, let’s say an employee shows up for work late every other Monday. Why is that? Well, I don’t know. Let’s go ask the person; let’s find out. It is opening the door for curiosity. It’s the same thing. It’s just different contexts.

So that’s how I got into HR, and I always worked for large, mostly global organizations. The last place I worked, before I came to work with Marcus, was at Kohl’s department stores. At Kohl’s I had the amazing opportunity to be a client of The Marcus Buckingham Company (TMBC).

One day, Marcus called me and asked if I was interested in working with him and a short time later I was helping to build the next generation of our technology product that helps people do more of their own unique best work or play more to their strengths.

Even though I didn’t have product development experience, Marcus trusted that my technical background combined with my HR experience would help TMBC create a one-of-a-kind tool to help team leaders. That’s how I got here. I never thought I would work for a vendor. And it’s the best, most fulfilling risk I’ve ever been able to take. It’s just been amazing, absolutely amazing.

I imagine it’s exciting to be able to jump into something like that. I always try to say yes to whatever opportunity comes my way, and most of the time, it doesn’t really work out because that method means you have to take a lot of risks.

Yeah, it was definitely a risk. I went from a big organization with all the stability, and at the time, TMBC was not a big organization. We had fewer than 50 employees. But what it’s allowed me to do is break those “walls and barriers” I ran into as a practitioner. I led HRIT, HR analytics, learning and development, and several other talent related practices, so I’ve run into plenty of walls in my time.

We have a tool called the Standout Assessment. It’s a strength-based situational judgment test, and my top role is pioneer of that assessment. It allows me to pioneer my outlook with data and research to answer the question: How do we help work be a better place, with no BS, because our employees deserve it? Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do as HR folks?

HR and talent practitioners are supposed to make work better. Don’t make it harder; make it better, easier, and more conducive to you doing more of your own unique best work. To be able to smush all that together and help clients actually go do that by being, I guess, provocative, edgy, and disruptive, and have research to support that work, not just make it up. It’s not a “kind of, sort of” thing. It’s “here’s what this organization did,” “here’s what that organization did,” and “here’s how to rethink what you’ve done—how to help create a culture of attention.”

I get to take all of that experience and intelligence and help organizations make work better. I can’t even put into words how lucky I am to be able to do this work with so many amazing clients all over the world.

It sounds really exciting. I like the “no BS” part. How did you arrive on the “no BS” concept then, and how did you integrate that into your work?

Now as I think back over the last 10-ish years or so, one of the things I have started realizing, while owning a very large budget for a very large organization, was what are we getting out of these expenditures, or unfortunately not getting? I was doing all the things I thought I was supposed to do. I was doing all the things the professional organizations told me I was supposed to do. I was doing performance management, and big engagement surveys and designing and delivering complicated, expensive leader development programs.

So many of the development programs available are great content in and of themselves; however, they just are not applicable to everybody. I was doing all of those things, and yet the organizations, at least the ones I worked at, were still full of mediocre-at-best leaders.

So I started to put my engineering hat on and approach these people challenges like an engineering problem and said, “You know what? Maybe some of these vendors actually don’t know what they’re talking about. Maybe they’re wrong.” What if we started to assume they’re wrong, and do over? What if we think about what the critical few things are that people need in order to be proficient at their work, and how do we help people do more of their own unique best work?

It’s sometimes hard in the corporate world to really dig into those questions and do the work to answer them. You can do little bits and pieces and little experiments but it’s hard to tackle the bigger questions head on and to do that work quickly.

I think that Marcus knew just enough about how I was challenging some of the HR conventions and together with his amazing research and knowledge and a fabulous team at TMBC, we were able to start to rethink how HR does some of its core practices like employee engagement and performance management. The “no BS” part comes from reasonably skeptical and not believing everything you read.

I do keep up with what’s being written, but there are so many things that sound more like someone had an idea and called it real, rather than a proven practice. We’ve spent decades buying things and doing things that just haven’t made any difference at all. So I stopped getting sucked into the convention and started thinking about the real world of work before, and how the real world of work “works” and how we help people be human at work.

Work is an emotional thing. It’s not a robotic thing; it’s an emotional thing. What does that all look like? Again, I’ve had the great privilege of helping our clients rewrite and reengineer and rethink about how they do work. And it’s been amazing.

It’s funny because at some point, I realized kind of a similar thing. What most people need is a little bit of objectivity.

Yes, and there’s actually very little of that, right? I mean, objectivity in the world of work—there isn’t much of it because it is emotional, it means it’s also very subjective, which means stripping all of the preconceived notions about work off the table. If you stop and focus on the critical few, all of a sudden, the power question becomes, “What are the critical few things that people need in the context of the real world?” If you really think about this question, at least for me, you can’t help but take the current norms and push them to the side.

We need to move beyond the ideal world and solve for the real world. Leader development is a really good examples of this, Jim, because you think about the hundreds and thousands of books that have been written on leaders and leadership. I can’t tell you how much money I have spent, particularly as a talent practitioner, on those books searching for the answer. What is that right model? What are “the right” leader competencies? And Marcus is so right, there is no magic leader model.

We, well at least I, did this. I would buy a program, or an assessment, or a tool, or design one to fix “broken leaders.” Number one, there’s no model to be broken against. And what we’ve done is we’ve gone around telling people the 27 ways they’re broken against a model that doesn’t even exist. That’s nonsensical.

Oh, it reminds me a lot of motivational speakers. When you listen to motivational speakers, they’ll always say, “Look at the success that I have, and you can have that success, too.” And what it is a self-fulfilling prophecy, right? They did get successful, so they have had success. The lie, or the misdirection, is that that’s transferrable to other people.


And just by the sheer fact that these speakers are talking to the people at that company in a way that the people at that company don’t talk to them, they’re finding success because that’s what’s really missing; it’s the conversation, the no BS conversation that you can only get from an objective standpoint. And they say, “Look, it was successful. It must be the program, right?” But no, it wasn’t. It wasn’t a program. It was just that they took the time to sit down and talk to some people.

Yeah, and it’s exactly what we find and so much of the work I do. It’s not fancy. How do you create a culture of attention? And that’s exactly what you just said. What we know from our research, as well as from working with our clients, is that the secret sauce to those things we are trying to do—the secret sauce to what leaders already do—is: “How do we help create this culture of radically frequent attention between an employee and his or her most important person at work,” which is the person’s boss or bosses? How do we do that?

You must hyper focus on that practice, which is what the best leaders do. Most of us are not the best leaders. Most of us are reluctant leaders. We became team leaders or managers—call them whatever you want. I’m not talking about a leader hierarchically. I’m talking about someone who provides support, guidance, and direction to someone else at work.

So many of us became team leaders because it’s the only way we started to get more money and a better job title. That’s the reluctant team leader, and most of us are reluctant team leaders, including myself. If you take those realities that we know, like attention is the secret sauce to engagement when engagement is defined as the emotional precursor to extraordinary work, you find that the secret sauce to engagement, to productivity, to performance, to high-quality work, or to less shrinkage in your retail organization is attention from the most important person to you at work, which is your team leader.

When you’re outside of work, that secret sauce to you being the best version of you, is attention from your most important person or people. Again, work is an emotional thing, and if we weren’t talking about work, we would call it love. Love at work is attention.

Too true.

The challenge to operationalizing the fundamental truth of attention is how do you create that ritual? How do you start to create that ritual and embed it into the fabric of how organizations do work? How do we create a sustainable culture of attention? For us, it’s an approach as well as a technology product. It’s evolving HR strategy to include talent activation. And “how do you create space for that most important, critical ritual in the context of the mess that we’ve created?”

My favorite quote comes from a CEO of one of my clients. I said to him, “You’ve been doing this for a couple of years now, and you’ve done great work. What’s the most surprising thing to you about what we’ve done?” We helped the client remove a bunch of stuff from their HR work: annual performance reviews, traditional engagement surveys including heavy action planning, training – lots of check-the-box stuff, unless it’s compliance-related; of course you should do that..

I said to him, “You’ve done all this work with your CHRO, and you’re really leading the charge. What’s the most surprising thing?” And he says, “It feels different here.” How do you make it feel different? Work is an emotional thing. It feels different. How do you do that? You do that by creating and embedding this ritual of really frequent, weekly, attention into an organization.

That is the secret sauce: helping organizations remove the crap and the noise and create that culture of attention where we see each other for the best of each other. We call that being strengths-based—“I see you for the best of you.” It’s also, by the way, the best inclusion strategy I’ve encountered. To create and have a strengths-based culture is to have an organizational approach that helps people see each other for the best of them.

Of course, we’ve all got our stuff that drives other people a little bit crazy. You’re never going to fix that. You are who you are. How do you see through that and see into the best of each other? Let’s do that! Let’s help organizations do that—create a culture of attention and see each other for the best of each other. And guess what happens? Innovation increases; productivity increases; performance increases; and, of course, engagement increases.

We measure engagement super regularly. Again, we do it through the StandOut Engagement Pulse, the eight items that TMBC has found to be most predictive of extraordinary performance. We know that when team members are paid attention to, engagement goes up. And people feel more connected to the mission of the organization. They feel known. They feel seen. You see it in the data. The wonderful thing about this, Jim—the most amazing thing is how fast it happens. This is not a “1- or 2-year cultural journey” or a “5-year culture strategy blah, blah, blah program” we’re talking about.

If you pay attention to people really frequently for 12 weeks, one you’re going to see incredible growth in engagement. If you focus on only one thing, it’s frequency of attention. I think one of the pieces as practitioners that we have been missing is the power of frequency, not the power of fluff and stuff; it’s the power of frequency…

Source: HR Daily Advisor

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