Everwise: Seven Tactics to Boost Learning in the Workplace

Does your company provide a learning work environment? Is your company helping you improve your customer service and/or productivity skills? Another resource is Lumber Buildings Material Foundation (LBMDF) for educations seminars and online learningLMS.  Below is a blog from Everwise by Nicole Beckerman:

Seven Tactics to Boost Learning in the Workplace

Successful organizations emphasize ongoing professional development and gaining new knowledge. A learning culture benefits companies by enriching the employee experience, boosting productivity and innovation, and curbing turnover. It is an essential priority to remain competitive in today’s rapidly-changing landscape. Employees must be prepared to learn and adapt to rapidly changing conditions and new technologies. Employers would do well to provide an environment for doing so internally.

While modeling curiosity and prioritizing a passion for knowledge starts at the top, growing an organization-wide learning culture requires on-the-ground efforts. Though employees are busier than ever, there are simple, cost-effective ways to integrate learning into their work experience. Here are seven tactics to get you started:

  1. Learning lunches: Change things up at lunch time by giving employees a chance to increase their knowledge. Mid-day is an ideal moment to shift gears from active work to take in an educational presentation. As this is typically a break time and people will be eating, it’s a good time to present knowledge directly rather than with interactive formats. If employees need extra enticement to attend, offering free food or dessert is always a crowd-pleaser.
  2. Staff presentations: Having employees share their expertise is a great way to capitalize on in-house knowledge and make people feel valued. Setting up presentations where your employees educate each other in person or via online tools is a powerful way to foster connection and learning. This is also a chance to expose people to new experiences outside of their department. Even simply having staff share with each other what it is that they do and what they are working on helps build interpersonal relationships and a clearer picture of the organization for everyone.
  3. Speakers: Industry experts are a valuable source of the latest trends, and inviting them to work with your employees brings a useful outside perspective. If they are physically visiting an office, get the most out of their presence with an interactive format such as a workshop or a small group activity. Make sure to prepare employees to take full advantage of guest speakers by promoting their arrival, distributing background information in advance about them, and sharing related learning materials to spark questions.
  4. Webinars: As a useful way to spread information among a large group of people, webinars are an essential part of efficient learning. They can be one format option for delivering a presentation from an employee or a guest speaker as discussed above, but to keep it more engaging consider putting together a panel discussion. This way, even if employees are passively watching the webinar or are engaged in another activity (like email) at the same time, they will still take in a variety of perspectives and insightful questions.
  5. Distribute resources and news: Most professionals have a genuine interest in their field and want to stay up to date, so employers can facilitate learning by bringing news and resources directly to them. This might look like an organized list of resources for learning that employees have easy access to, or even a more dynamic method like periodic emails with news, relevant articles, and links to short-form video clips.
  6. Stipends: A direct and straightforward way to promote learning is to simply subsidize it. There a variety of ways to provide funds for education, so organizations should consider how predictable they would like this expenditure to be, and how much direct control they would like over the learning process. Some organizations offer an educational stipend as a simple cash bonus add-on to the employee benefits package and let people use it as they see fit. Others will pay for particular courses from approved providers. Another related option is to pay for employee’s’ membership in professional organizations so they can continue to network and learn via a trusted third party.
  7. Office Library: If you have an open office plan, chances are the environment can get noisy and social, which might be great for morale but not conducive to learning. Consider designating a space or specific room as a quiet area, and supplementing it with learning resources to create an office library. Create an employee book exchange or facilitate monthly book clubs. This separate space can be a strong part of emphasizing learning culture by making it clear in a tangible, visible way.

This list is a place to begin your journey towards a learning culture and spark ideas. However, change efforts should always be tied to an organization’s large-scale development strategy. In implementation, make sure these efforts are also tailored to the unique style and priorities of your staff. Finally, modeling learning culture from the top is essential to reap the full benefits, so leaders must walk the talk.

Culture evolves when an entire organization gets on board, and producing a company of nimble, motivated learners is a worthy goal for everyone.

 

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HBR: A 2×2 Matrix to Help You Prioritize the Skills to Learn Right Now

Take time to reflect on the mix of activities in your working day. What would help you the most? Learning to write more clearly, improving meeting skills, or learning to manage your time more productively? Below is a blog from the Harvard Business Review by Marc Zao-Sanders.

A 2×2 Matrix to Help You Prioritize the Skills to Learn Right Now

So much to learn, so little time.

The world is bursting with learning. There are several million business books, 3,000 TED talks, 10,000 MOOCs, hundreds of thousands of e-learning courses, and millions of self-published articles on platforms such as LinkedIn and Medium. The article you’re reading right now is just one of thousands of articles on HBR.org. Picking the best and most relevant from all this is hard.

Yet it’s essential. The modern worker has very little time for learning — less than 1% of their time, according to Bersin, a division of Deloitte. And it’s more important than ever to learn continuously as the shelf life of skills shorten and career paths meander and lengthen.

So there’s a significant pressure on us all to learn the right stuff. How do we identify what that is?

One approach is to apply a time-utility analysis (similar in form to a cost-benefit) to the subjects you’re interested in learning. “Time” is time to learn. It’s effectively the opportunity cost to you of achieving competence. “Utility” is how much you’re likely to use the desired skill. For example, today’s manager spends a lot of time emailing, gathering data, running meetings, and making spreadsheets, so the utility for improving at these activities is especially high.

Combine time and utility, and you get a simple 2×2 matrix with four quadrants:

  • Learn it right away: high utility, low time-to-learn
  • Schedule a block of time for learning it, ideally in your calendar: high utility, high time-to-learn
  • Learn it as the chance arises — on a commute, lunch break, and so on: low utility, low time-to-learn
  • Decide whether you need to learn it: low utility, high time-to-learn

2x2 Learning.png

Once you’ve decided what you want to learn, you can use this same framework to zero in on specific skills to focus on.

Let’s illustrate the method with a single workplace activity with high utility: spreadsheeting. Knowledge workers spend almost half an hour in a spreadsheet every day. And in major corporations, this is almost synonymous with using Excel: there are almost a billion users of Microsoft’s spreadsheet program, and more than four-fifths of businesses globally use Excel. A time-utility analysis might suggest you want to get better at it.

But Excel contains over 500 functions and many more features; that’s a lot to learn. Where would you even begin? For a time-utility analysis to be of any use, we need it to help us at this level, down here in the weeds. To get a sense of utility, we reviewed dozens of articles written by Excel experts about their preferred Excel features. We used this analysis to compile a list of the 100 most useful Excel functions, features, tips, tricks and hacks, ordered numerically by utility. We combined this with our own data on how long each of these features takes users to learn, and plotted the two against each other. (Yes, we got a little excited about this project. Don’t worry, you don’t have to delve into this level of detail when you’re prioritizing your own learning.)

Exel Learn.png

As you’d expect, there’s some correlation (r=0.3), so the more useful items take longer to learn in general. But the scattered effect gives rise to some useful, tangible pointers for prioritizing what to learn.

You’ll find the quickest wins in the bottom-right quadrant, which we’ve labeled “Learn it right away.” In here we have time-saving shortcuts that can be applied frequently, like Ctrl-Y (redo) and F2 (edit cell) and a nice combination formula that cleanses your spreadsheet of errors (IF(ISERROR)).

The quadrant “Schedule a block of time for learning it” hosts the highly useful but more complex features, such as conditional formatting and pivot tables — these were deemed the two most useful on the entire list.

Bottom-left is those less useful but quick-to-learn items like Ctrl-5 (strikethrough) and Show Formulas (Ctrl¬).

Finally, in the top-left quadrant are the theoretically least appealing items, such as Get External Data and Text to Columns.

But for all of these, you, the individual learner, will impose your own opinions and experience on an analysis like this: “Actually, I already know Ctrl-Y, and I’ll never need to get external data.” And that helps filter out even more items, leaving you with an even more manageable list.

How would you apply this to your working, learning life? You probably don’t want to learn only about spreadsheeting, and you’re unlikely to have the kind of data we’ve used above at your fingertips. But you may have an idea of some of the skills you’d like to acquire or develop.

Consider the mix of activities in your working day. What would help you the most? Finally being able to use Photoshop, getting a grip on Agile or Waterfall, learning to write more clearly? Are there meta-skills that would help you do all of these things better — like coming across the way you intend to in meetings, or learning to manage your time more productively? You could assign approximate scores for time (to learn) and utility for each of these and plot a scatter chart like the one above. Or you could just estimate: Classify the skills on your list as either low or high in utility and time to learn, and place them in the corresponding quadrant. Either way, what shows up in the bottom-right quadrant? You may discover some learning bargains.

You can use this approach just for yourself, or across a team, department, even your entire company. Since you probably don’t have much time to learn, learn to make the most of what you have.

 

HBR: Good Leaders Are Good Learners

Are you setting learning goals? Is your company helping you identify your learning opportunities? Below is a blog from the Harvard Business Review by Susan J. Ashford, Peter Heslin, Lauren Keating:

Good Leaders Are Good Learners

Although organizations spend more than $24 billion annually on leadership development, many leaders who have attended leadership programs struggle to implement what they’ve learned. It’s not because the programs are bad but because leadership is best learned from experience.

Still, simply being an experienced leader doesn’t elevate a person’s skills. Like most of us, leaders often go through their experiences somewhat mindlessly, accomplishing tasks but learning little about themselves and their impact.

Our research on leadership development shows that leaders who are in learning mode develop stronger leadership skills than their peers.

Building on Susan Ashford and Scott DeRue’s mindful engagement experiential learning cycle, we found that leaders who exhibit a growth mindset diligently work through each of the following three phases of the experiential learning cycle.

First, leaders set challenging learning goals in the form of “I need to learn how to…” For some leaders, the goal might be to become more persuasive or to be more approachable. With a goal in mind, leaders can identify opportunities to make progress toward it. These could include a new project, an international assignment, a job rotation, or simply striving to approach routine encounters in a fundamentally different way.

Next, they find ways to deliberately experiment with alternative strategies. A leader interested in increasing their persuasiveness, for example, might experiment with sitting in a different place or speaking first or last in a critical meeting. Creating and capitalizing on learning opportunities can be bolstered by having a coach or peer provide feedback and act as a sounding board.

Finally, leaders who are in learning mode conduct fearless after-action reviews, determined to glean useful insights from the results of their experimentation. Candidly reflecting on what went well, what did not go so well, and what might work better in future are essential though often neglected initiatives for learning from experience and discerning what to focus on learning next. Understanding these principles is important for organizations not just because it means that leadership development doesn’t have to be expensive, but also because it means that leadership skills can be systematically learned and practiced.

How can leaders enter learning mode? Leaders can construe setbacks as meaning they have not yet developed the required capabilities, rather than them being just not cut out for the task at hand. They can also avoid the trap of constantly seeking out places and tasks to highlight their strengths, as well as feedback that affirms their innate talents and self-esteem. Simply asking themselves, “Am I in learning mode right now?” can be a powerful cue to wholeheartedly focus, or refocus, on their leadership development, as well as their leadership performance, and thereby truly learn from their experiences.

How can organizations help leaders enter and remain in learning mode? Organizational leaders can help rising leaders focus more on being progressively better than they were in the past, rather than on constantly benchmarking themselves against others. They can model construing mistakes as potential learning opportunities rather than as indicators of leadership inadequacy. In hiring and promotion, organizational leaders might give priority to those most likely to grow and develop in a role. Finally, they might conduct an audit of fixed mindset cues in their organization — such as the use of psychometric testing to select the most “innately qualified” high-potential leaders; forced ranking performance appraisals; and winner-take-all reward systems — and tweak them to focus more on developing than diagnosing leadership capabilities.

The bottom line is that by supporting leaders being in learning mode, organizations can develop the capabilities that leaders need to anticipate, respond to, and continually learn from the stream of emerging challenges to organizational prosperity.

HBR: Lifelong Learning Is Good for Your Health, Your Wallet, and Your Social Life

As we age, though, learning isn’t simply about earning degrees or attending storied institutions. Books, online courses, MOOCs, professional development programs, podcasts, and other resources have never been more abundant or accessible, making it easier than ever to make a habit of lifelong learning. Every day, each of us is offered the opportunity to pursue intellectual development in ways that are tailored to our learning style. So why don’t more of us seize that opportunity?  Below is a blog from the Harvard Business Review by John Coleman.

Lifelong Learning Is Good for Your Health, Your Wallet, and Your Social Life

In 2015 Doreetha Daniels received her associate degree in social sciences from College of the Canyons, in Santa Clarita, California. But Daniels wasn’t a typical student: She was 99 years old. In the COC press release about her graduation, Daniels indicated that she wanted to get her degree simply to better herself; her six years of school during that pursuit were a testament to her will, determination, and commitment to learning.

Few of us will pursue college degrees as nonagenarians, or even as mid-career professionals (though recent statistics indicate that increasing numbers of people are pursuing college degrees at advanced ages). Some people never really liked school in the first place, sitting still at a desk for hours on end or suffering through what seemed to be impractical courses. And almost all of us have limits on our time and finances — due to kids, social organizations, work, and more — that make additional formal education impractical or impossible.

As we age, though, learning isn’t simply about earning degrees or attending storied institutions. Books, online courses, MOOCs, professional development programs, podcasts, and other resources have never been more abundant or accessible, making it easier than ever to make a habit of lifelong learning. Every day, each of us is offered the opportunity to pursue intellectual development in ways that are tailored to our learning style.

So why don’t more of us seize that opportunity? We know it’s worth the time, and yet we find it so hard to make the time. The next time you’re tempted to put learning on the back burner, remember a few points:

Educational investments are an economic imperative. The links between formal education and lifetime earnings are well-studied and substantial. In 2015 Christopher Tamborini, ChangHwan Kim, and Arthur Sakamoto found that, controlling for other factors, men and women can expect to earn $655,000 and $445,000 more, respectively, during their careers with a bachelor’s degree than with a high school degree, and graduate degrees yield further gains. Outside of universities, ongoing learning and skill development is essential to surviving economic and technological disruption. The Economist recently detailed the ways in which our rapidly shifting professional landscape — the disruptive power of automation, the increasing number of jobs requiring expertise in coding — necessitates that workers focus continually on mastering new technologies and skills. In 2014 a CBRE report estimated that 50% of jobs would be redundant by 2025 due to technological innovation. Even if that figure proves to be exaggerated, it’s intuitively true that the economic landscape of 2017 is evolving more rapidly than in the past. Trends including AI, robotics, and offshoring mean constant shifts in the nature of work. And navigating this ever-changing landscape requires continual learning and personal growth.

Learning is positive for health. As I’ve noted previously, reading, even for short periods of time, can dramatically reduce your stress levels. A recent report in Neurology noted that while cognitive activity can’t change the biology of Alzheimer’s, learning activities can help delay symptoms, preserving people’s quality of life. Other research indicates that learning to play a new instrument can offset cognitive decline, and learning difficult new skills in older age is associated with improved memory.

What’s more, while the causation is inconclusive, there’s a well-studied relationship between longevity and education. A 2006 paper by David Cutler and Adriana Lleras-Muney found that “the better educated have healthier behaviors along virtually every margin, although some of these behaviors may also reflect differential access to care.” Their research suggests that a year of formal education can add more than half a year to a person’s life span. Perhaps Doreetha Daniels, at 99, knows something many of us have missed.

Being open and curious has profound personal and professional benefits. While few studies validate this observation, I’ve noticed in my own interactions that those who dedicate themselves to learning and who exhibit curiosity are almost always happier and more socially and professionally engaging than those who don’t. I have a friend, Duncan, for example, who is almost universally admired by people he interacts with. There are many reasons for this admiration, but chief among them are his plainly exhibited intellectual curiosity and his ability to touch, if only briefly, on almost any topic of interest to others and to speak deeply on those he knows best. Think of the best conversationalist you know. Do they ask good questions? Are they well-informed? Now picture the colleague you most respect for their professional acumen. Do they seem literate, open-minded, and intellectually vibrant? Perhaps your experiences will differ, but if you’re like me, I suspect those you admire most, both personally and professionally, are those who seem most dedicated to learning and growth.

Our capacity for learning is a cornerstone of human flourishing and motivation. We are uniquely endowed with the capacity for learning, creation, and intellectual advancement. Have you ever sat in a quiet place and finished a great novel in one sitting? Do you remember the fulfillment you felt when you last settled into a difficult task — whether a math problem or a foreign language course — and found yourself making breakthrough progress? Have you ever worked with a team of friends or colleagues to master difficult material or create something new? These experiences can be electrifying. And even if education had no impact on health, prosperity, or social standing, it would be entirely worthwhile as an expression of what makes every person so special and unique.

The reasons to continue learning are many, and the weight of the evidence would indicate that lifelong learning isn’t simply an economic imperative but a social, emotional, and physical one as well. We live in an age of abundant opportunity for learning and development. Capturing that opportunity — maintaining our curiosity and intellectual humility — can be one of life’s most rewarding pursuits.

HBR: Why Leadership Development Isn’t Developing Leaders

What is your approach to leadership development? Which of the following approaches would work for you? Below is a blog from the Harvard Business Review by Deborah Rowland 

Why Leadership Development Isn’t Developing Leaders

Too many business leaders today are out of touch with the employees they lead. Edelman estimates that one in three employees doesn’t trust their employer — despite the fact that billions are spent every year on leadership development. Part of the problem: Our primary method of developing leaders is antithetical to the type of leadership we need.

The vast majority of leadership programs are set curricula delivered through classroom-taught, rationally based, individual-focused methods. Participants are taken out of their day-to-day workplaces to be inspired by expert faculty, work on case studies, receive personal feedback, and take away the latest leadership thinking (and badges for their résumés). Yet study after study, including my own, tells us the qualities that leaders in today’s world need are intuitive, dynamic, collaborative, and grounded in here-and-now emotional intelligence.

The mismatch between leadership development as it exists and what leaders actually need is enormous and widening. What would work better?

Over the last 16 years I have carried out research into how leaders create change, and I’ve worked in the change leadership field for 25 years in multinational corporations. Over that time, I’ve come to appreciate four factors that lie at the heart of good, practical leadership development: making it experiential; influencing participants’ “being,” not just their “doing”; placing it into its wider, systemic context; and enrolling faculty who act less as experts and more as Sherpas.

Make it experiential. Neuroscience shows us that we learn most (and retain that learning as changed behavior) when the emotional circuits within our brain are activated. Visceral, lived experiences best activate these circuits; they prompt us to notice both things in the environment and what’s going on inside ourselves. If leadership development begins in the head, leaders will stay in their heads. We can’t simply think our way out of a habit. But in experience, and novel experience in particular, our intentional mind can be more engaged as we make conscious decisions about our behavior.

In practice, this mean setting up what I call “living laboratory” leadership development. Throw out pre-planned teaching schedules, content, lectures, and exercises that ask you to think about your world and how you need to lead it. In its place, switch to constructing self-directed experiences for participants that replicate the precise contexts they need to lead in. In such experiences the group dynamics at play in the room become the (at-times-uncomfortable) practice arena. Business simulations or unstructured large group dialogues are examples of this. I have also used experiences that challenge participants to self-organize visits outside of their companies to stakeholder groups that matter for their future, such as a carbon-dependent energy provider visiting environmental NGOs. All can act as powerful experiential catalysts for learning and change.

Influence participants’ “being,” not just their “doing.” In soon-to-be-published research, Malcolm Higgs, Roger Bellis, and I have found that leaders need to work on the quality of their inner game, or their capacity to tune into and regulate their emotional and mental states, before they can hope to develop their outer game, or what it is they need to actually do. So leadership development must start by working on the inner game. It’s very hard for leaders to have courageous conversations about unhelpful reality until they can regulate their anxiety about appearing unpopular and until they’ve built their systemic capacity to view disturbance as transformational, not dysfunctional.

In order for leadership development to influence being-level capacities, the learning experience needs to offer stillness and space for intentional, nonobstructed contemplation. It’s difficult to teach how to be! Training people with tools and models is very different from simply holding a space for leaders to be. In practice, I have found that offering participants experiences such as mindfully walking outdoors in nature, sitting silently in peer groups to hear colleagues share their life stories, and providing out-of-the-ordinary tasks such as stone carving, enables leaders to tap into their inner world as a powerful instrument for cultivating the vital skills of purpose, self-awareness, empathy, and acute attentional discipline.

Such approaches might sound a million miles from the chalk-and-talk model on which leadership development was built over the last century. But do we really believe that inner capacities can be developed in this way?

Place development into its wider, systemic context. In their HBR article, “Why Leadership Training Fails – and What to Do About It,” Michael Beer, Magnus Finnström, and Derek Schrader talk cogently about the need to attend to the organizational system as a vehicle for change before companies simply send their leaders on training programs to think and behave differently. Too often I have seen the “parallel universe” syndrome, in which leaders attend courses that promulgate certain mindsets and ways of working only to go back to the workplace and find that the office (and especially top leadership) is still stuck in old routines.

I have an additional spin on this need. And that is to use the lived leadership development experience as an opportunity to tune into and shift that very system, because they are intimately connected. Recently I directed a three-year change intervention in which the top 360 leaders of one company (including the board) attended a leadership development program in 10 waves of participants, with 36 leaders in each. Given the uncertainty in their industry, it was impossible for senior management to know what their long-term business strategy or organizational model would look like. However, the CEO did know that all he could do in such a dynamic context was build new capacities for agility and change in his organization. Each wave of participants joined the leadership development at a different stage of the company’s change journey, and at each stage we used the development experience not just for personal training but also as a vehicle to import and work with the shifting systemic dynamics of the company through time — helping them move through the “change curve.”

This meant, of course, that the program for each of the 10 waves felt very different, all set course designs had to be thrown out, and we as faculty had to continually adapt the program to the shifting context.

Enroll faculty who act less as experts and more as Sherpas. Finally, you have to attend to the required skills and characteristics of the people who lead these programs.

In the above example, we found that no single provider could provide a facility that was holistic enough. We needed a faculty group with egos not wedded to any particular leadership methodology or school of thinking and who could work skillfully with live group dynamics, creating psychological safety in the room for participants to take personal risks and push cultural boundaries. We required the educational equivalent of Sherpas, people able to carry part of the load in order to guide participants toward their personal and organizational summits.

This required not just hiring a bunch of individuals with such guiding skills but also developing ourselves continuously as a robust faculty team. We needed to be able to work with a continually changing curriculum design, and with the group projecting their discomfort with the wider change — and how it was being experienced in the program — onto the faculty.

Make no mistake, attending to all four of these factors is a sizable challenge. Whether you are a corporate or business school leader, a head of leadership and organizational development, or a senior business leader sponsoring and attending leadership development programs, take a long, hard look at how you are currently delivering leadership development. The price of failed leadership is already too high for us not to attend to the process through which we develop it.

HBR: How One Fast-Food Chain Keeps Its Turnover Rates Absurdly Low

In this blog post Bill Taylor explains why Pal’s Sudden Service has a low turnover. They hire for attitude and train for skill. New employees get 120 hours of training before they work on their own. This one is my favorite: employees are given pop quizzes on the specific job they perform. Does your company spend time training, teaching, and coaching? What are your thoughts on pop quizzes from your employer? Is your personal growth keeping up with your company’s pace of growth? Below is a blog from the Harvard Business Review by Bill Taylor.

How One Fast-Food Chain Keeps Its Turnover Rates Absurdly Low

Many of us who are hungry for the latest dispatches from the war for talent look to to Silicon Valley. We want to know Google’s secret to hiring the best people or Mark Zuckerberg’s one tip for hiring employees. But in a world where most companies don’t operate on the frontiers of digital transformation, and most employees aren’t tech geeks or app developers, our appetite for unconventional talent strategies should probably extend to more conventional parts of the economy. Like, say, an amazing fast-food chain called Pal’s Sudden Service.

At first blush, there’s nothing all that amazing about Pal’s. It has 26 locations in northeast Tennessee and southwest Virginia, all within an 80-mile radius of its home base in Kingsport, Tennessee. It sells burgers, hot dogs, chicken sandwiches, fries, shakes—standard fast-food fare, although the taste and quality have a well-deserved reputation for excellence.

Dig deeper, though, and you see that nothing about Pal’s is standard for its business, or any business. The most obvious difference is its fanatical devotion to speed and accuracy. Pal’s does not offer sit-down service inside its restaurants. Instead, customers pull up to a window, place their orders face-to-face with an employee, pull around to the other side of the facility, take their bag and drive off. All this happens at a lightning pace—an average of 18 seconds at the drive-up window, an average of 12 seconds at the handout window to receive the order. That’s four times faster than the second-fastest quick-serve restaurant in the country

But Pal’s is not just absurdly fast. It is also staggeringly accurate. You can imagine the opportunities for error as cars filled with bickering families or frazzled salespeople zip through in under 20 seconds. Yet Pal’s makes a mistake only once in every 3,600 orders. That’s ten times better the average fast-food joint, a level of excellence that creates unprecedented levels of customer loyalty, as well as loud acclaim from management experts. Indeed, back in 2001, Pal’s became the first restaurant company of any kind to win the prestigious Malcolm Baldrige Quality Award—an award that’s gone, over the years, to the likes of Cadillac, FedEx, and Ritz-Carlton.

Ultimately, what’s truly intriguing about Pal’s, what allows this small company to cast such a large shadow, is the level of intelligence and intensity with which it approaches the human side of its business—how it hires, trains, and links its identity in the marketplace to its approach in the workplace. “If you watch professional athletes, everything they do looks so smooth and fluid,” says CEO Thomas Crosby. “But eventually you realize how much work went into that performance, all the training, all the skill-building, all the hours. It’s the same for us.”

So what can the rest of us learn from Pal’s? First, the best companies hire for attitude and train for skill. Pal’s 26 locations employ roughly 1,020 workers, 90 percent of whom are part-time, 40 percent of whom are between the ages of 16 and 18. It has developed and fine-tuned a screening system to evaluate candidates from this notoriously hard-to-manage demographic—a 60-point psychometric survey, based on the attitudes and attributes of Pal’s star performers, that does an uncanny job of predicting who is most likely to succeed. Among the agree/disagree statements: “For the most part, I am happy with myself.” “I think it is best to trust people you have just met.” “Raising your voice may be one way to get someone to accept your point of view.” Pal’s understands that character counts for as much as credentials, that who you are is as important as what you know.

Second, even great people need constant opportunities for improvement. Once Pal’s selects its candidates, it immerses them in massive amounts of training and retraining, certification and recertification. New employees get 120 hours of training before they are allowed to work on their own, and must be certified in each of the specific jobs they do. Then, every day on every shift in every restaurant, a computer randomly generates the names of two to four employees to be recertified in one of their jobs—pop quizzes, if you will. They take a quick test, see whether they pass, and if they fail, get retrained for that job before they can do it again. (The average employee gets 2 or 3 pop quizzes per month.)

“People go out of calibration just like machines go out of calibration,” CEO Crosby explains. “So we are always training, always teaching, always coaching. If you want people to succeed, you have to be willing to teach them.”

Which speaks to a third lesson: Leaders who are serious about hiring also have to be serious about teaching. Pal’s has assembled a Master Reading List for all the leaders in the company, 21 books that range from timeless classics by Machiavelli (The Prince) and Max DePree (Leadership Is an Art), to highly technical tomes on quality and lean management. Every other Monday, Crosby invites five managers from different locations to discuss one of the books on the Master List.

Meanwhile, every day, he identifies at least one subject he will teach to one person in the company. Actually, that’s a requirement for all leaders at Pal’s, who are expected to spend 10 percent of their time on teaching, and to identify a target subject and a target student every day. “All leaders are teachers, whether they realize it or not,” Crosby says. “So we have formalized a teaching culture. We teach and coach every day.”

The end result of Pal’s commitment to hiring smart and teaching continuously is that employees show the same sense of loyalty as its customers. Turnover is absurdly low. In 33 years of operation, only seven general managers (the people who run individual locations) have left the company voluntarily. Seven! Annual turnover among assistant managers is 1.4 percent, vanishingly low for a field where people jump from company to company and often exit the industry altogether. Even among front-line employees, turnover is just one-third the industry average.

“People ask me, ‘What if you spend all this time and money on training and someone leaves?’” Crosby says. “I ask them, ‘What if we don’t spend the time and money, and they stay?’”

That may be the most important lesson of all.

HBR: The Best Ways to Hire Salespeople

How are you hiring salespeople? Do you use talent assessments to insure your they are successful? The Northeastern Retail Lumber Association (NRLA) has a great tool to assess your salespeople. Click on this link to get more information. NRLA/LMS Below is a blog from the Harvard Business Review by Frank V. Cespedes and Daniel Weinfurter.

The Best Ways to Hire Salespeople

Many firms talk about talent management, but few deal systematically with a basic fact: average annual turnover in sales is 25 to 30%. This means that the equivalent of the entire sales organization must be hired and trained every four years or so, and that’s expensive.

Consider these stats. Direct replacement costs for a telesales employee can range from $75,000 to $90,000, while other sales positions can cost a company as much as $300,000. Moreover, these figures don’t reflect the lost sales while a replacement is found and trained. In sectors like medical devices, big capital equipment, and many professional services, including these opportunity costs can push turnover cost to $1 million or more per event.

The challenge is compounded by the fact that there is no easily identified resource pool for sales positions. According to Howard Stevens in Achieve Sales Excellence, more than 50% of U.S. college graduates, regardless of their majors, are likely to work in sales. But of the over 4,000 colleges in this country, less than 100 have sales programs or even sales courses. And, even if companies are lucky enough to find qualified grads, the increased data and analytical tasks facing many sales forces mean that productivity ramp-up times have increased. Each hire is now a bigger sunk cost for a longer time.

Bottom line: companies typically spend more on hiring in sales than they do anywhere else in the firm. So how do you improve the returns on this investment? Here are four places to start:

Hire for the task. In business, you hear so many opinions about what makes for a good salesperson. But most are a bland summary of the Boy Scout Handbook, with traits like extroversion, assertiveness, empathy, modesty, and an “achievement orientation.” These platitudes are often reflected in firms’ competency lists and are so broad that, at best, they simply remind us that people tend to do business with people they like (but not always and not as often as many sales trainers assume). At worst, these abstractions are irrelevant to the execution of business strategy, and they make hiring, in sales and other functions, a classic example of the cloning bias: managers use these slogans to hire in their own image.

Selling jobs vary greatly depending on the product or service sold, the customers a salesperson is responsible for, the relative importance of technical knowledge, and the people contacted during sales calls. A review of hundreds of studies about sales productivity finds that “[t]he results of this research have simply failed to identify behavioral predispositions or aptitudes that account for a large amount of variance in performance for salespeople. In addition, the results of this research are quite inconsistent and, in some cases, even contradictory.” Common stereotypes about a “good” salesperson (e.g., pleasing personality, hard-wired for sociability, and so on) obscure the realities you face.

Selling effectiveness is not a generalized trait. It’s a function of the sales tasks, which vary according to the market, your strategy, the stage of the business (i.e., startup or later stage), the customers targeted by your strategy, and buying processes at those customers. This is true even for firms in the same industry. Think about the difference between sales tasks at Nordstrom, where personalized service and advice are integral to strategy execution, and Costco, where low price and product availability make sales tasks less complex and variable.

The first step in smart hiring and productivity is understanding the relevant sales tasks in your market and strategy and then reflecting those tasks in hiring criteria and a disciplined hiring process.

Focus on behaviors. Research based upon thousands of exit interviews shows that a primary cause of poor performance and turnover is poor job fit. People, especially salespeople with a variable pay component, become frustrated when they’re hired for tasks that are a poor fit with their skills and preferences. Conversely, as the saying goes, “You hire your problems.” Zappos CEO Tony Hseih estimates that bad hires have cost his firm $100 million. Famously, Zappos will pay people to leave voluntarily after a few months on the job.

The key is to focus on the behaviors implied by the sales tasks. In many firms, this means upgrading assessment skills. Managers are excessively confident about their ability to evaluate candidates via interviews. In reality, studies indicate a low correlation (generally, less than 25%) between interview predictions and job success, and some indicate that interview processes actually hurt in hiring decisions: the firm would have done better with blind selection procedures! The best results, by far, occur when those making hiring decisions can observe the potential hires’ job behaviors and use a recruitment process based on a combination of factors, as illustrated in the following graphic:

There are many ways to do this, including simulations, interviewing techniques, or (as at Zappos) providing an incentive for self-selection after recent hires experience the required behaviors. Especially in expensive sales-hiring situations, many organizations could emulate the practice used by investment banks and consulting firms when hiring MBAs: the summer job is, in effect, an extended observation by multiple people at the firm of the candidate’s abilities before a full-time offer is extended.

Then, immerse reps in the tasks they will encounter in working with customers. At HubSpot, which provides web-based inbound marketing services to businesses, Mark Roberge has sales hires spend a month in classroom-style training but also doing what their customers do: create a website from scratch and keep that site populated with relevant content. Roberge notes, “they experience the actual pains and successes of our primary customers: professional marketers who need to generate leads online. As a result, our salespeople are able to connect on a far deeper level with our prospects and leads.”

Be clear about what you mean by relevant “experience.” Previous experience is the most common criterion used by sales managers in talent assessment. In one survey, over 50% of respondents cited “selling experience within the industry” as their key selection criterion, and another 33% cited “selling experience in [an] other industry.” Driving this view is a perceived trade-off between hiring for experience and spending money on training. But because selling effectiveness depends upon a company’s sales tasks, “experience” is an inherently multidimensional attribute. It may refer to experience with any (or any combination of) the following:

  • A customer group: e.g., a banker or other financial services recruit hired by a software firm to call on financial firms; or, in health care, firms sell different products, but many sell to hospitals.
  • A technology: an engineer or field-service tech hired to sell a category of equipment.
  • Another part of the organization: a service rep moved to sales because internal cross-functional support is a key sales task and that rep “knows the people and the organization.”
  • A geography or culture: a member of a given nationality or ethnic group who knows, and has credibility within, the norms of the relevant customer’s culture.
  • Selling: an insurance agent or retail associate with experience in another sales context.

The relevance of each type varies with your sales tasks. So consider what type is, and is not (see below), relevant, and require the people doing sales hiring to clarify what they mean by experience.

On-going talent assessments. Markets have no responsibility to be kind to your firm’s strategy and sales approach. It is leadership’s responsibility to adapt to markets and develop the competencies required today, not yesterday.

As organizations confront new buying processes, required competencies are changing. The figure below, based on an extensive database of company sales profiles, indicates the changing nature of sales competencies at many firms. Competencies that, only a decade ago, were considered essential are now lower in priority.

Does this mean that developing leads, qualifying prospects, and adapting to different buyer motivations are no longer important? No. Rather, as one should expect in a competitive activity where success is ultimately measured by relative advantage, the focus of productivity improvement in sales is shifting. Yesterday’s sales strengths have become today’s minimum skill requirements.

This underscores the need for on-going talent assessments to stay in-touch with changing tasks and required behaviors. The good news is that the tools for doing such assessments, based on behavioral research findings, are more available and have more granularity and practicality for sales leaders. Conducting a skills inventory and determining the best fit for your sales tasks need not be the standard mix of folklore, various embedded biases by front-line managers, and the content-free platitudes about “selling” that populate many blogs. And it is increasingly necessary because companies must ultimately be worthy of real talent.

It’s often said that many firms maintain their equipment better than they do their people. If so, you ultimately get what you don’t maintain, especially in sales.