Reprinted by permission of Governing Magazine
‘Hire for Attitude, Train for Skills’
The way a successful airline finds employees who fit in with its distinctive culture holds lessons for the public sector.
BY: Russ Linden | November 9, 2011
Some years ago I was the director of a nonprofit agency. We provided services to handicapped individuals and their families. The work was hard, the clients really needed our services, the staff was highly trained and very committed, and we took pride in the impact we made on people's lives.
But Bill, one of our most talented staff members, was a puzzle to me. On one hand, he was creative, funny, very persistent, smart, and usually got great results. Some of our multi-problem clients made real progress from Bill's services. On the other hand, he often came across as the "smartest guy in the room." He didn't suffer from a small ego and didn't hesitate to tell other staff when he had a better idea. His arrogant attitude won him no friends in the agency. To be fair, his ideas often were superior, but that only made matters worse from his colleagues' point of view.
I tried to help Bill see that arrogance wasn't in his interest, that other staff who might learn from him weren't open to his ideas, that he could be more effective by teaming with other staff when working with a given family. Bill would have none of it; he saw himself as the brightest star in our agency. Ultimately, he had to leave.
I thought long and hard about what I came to call "the Bill problem": great skills, creative ideas, lousy team player. What could I have done to keep Bill and help him soften his sharp edges? Then I came across a book about Southwest Airlines, Lessons in Loyalty: How Southwest Airlines Does It--An Insider's View, and it totally changed the way I looked at the ways managers hire and develop staff.
The author, Lorraine Grubbs-West, cites nine lessons she learned as a senior executive at Southwest, from developing a culture of continual learning and creative methods for "onboarding" new employees (immersing them in the unique high-energy Southwest culture) to maintaining high standards for employees while giving them enormous support and quality training. But the most powerful lesson, for me, was the very first one: "Hire for attitude, train for skills."
As I read on, Grubbs-West's point became clear. It's not that Southwest doesn't value skills. Rather, she's arguing that we can't train people to have attitudes (just as athletic coaches like to say that "you can't teach speed") that are valuable to our organizations and that attitude is at least as important as skills in building the organization. Southwest's message is also that our attitudes don't tend to change dramatically during our lives, and when they do change, it's not because of some employee-development program. As the author puts it, "Hire 'nice' 'cause you can't train 'nice.'" Organizations can most certainly train for the skills they need.
Southwest's approach to "hiring for attitude" is easy to describe, but hard for many organizations to implement. The company:
• Makes people want to work for Southwest. The company's ads convey its love of creativity, individuality, irreverence and humor, as well as its commitment to what it calls "positively outrageous customer service."
• Defines the kinds of employees it wants and communicates that widely. Over the years, the company has identified the key attributes that build and sustain its culture (thinking outside the box, preference for a team approach, taking the job seriously but not himself or herself seriously), and it focuses on those throughout the recruitment process.
• Uses its marketing and public-relations strategies to support its recruiting efforts.
• Makes all of its employees recruiters. Southwest employees are continually "interviewing" applicants for jobs at the company. They notice how applicants greet the receptionist, how they respond to people in the hallway, and so on. Southwest employees love the company culture and are determined to hire only those who will contribute to it.
Fine and well, you might be thinking, but what about people whose skills are both wonderful and rare but whose attitudes don't fit well with the organization's culture. Shouldn't we make exceptions to the Southwest rule and hire such people?
Yes, there are such people, and if their skills are not only rare and wonderful, but also well suited to achieve very high organizational priorities, you can make the case to hire them. In my experience however, there are very few such people. Sadly, I've seen many people hired (or retained) because their skills seemed to be indispensable to the organization's success, only to cause far more problems than they were worth because of their attitudes. And, of course, once such people are hired, you have a very difficult time parting company with them.
Most public organizations would do well to follow the Southwest example: Know the attributes your culture needs, rigorously assess them during the recruitment process, and hire (primarily) for attitude. Just make sure it's the right attitude. Don't hire people like Bill.
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How’s Your ‘Court Vision’?
Effective leaders know the importance of focusing not only on the things they can control, but on the larger picture.
BY: Russ Linden | August 10, 2011
Here's a humorous story that has floated around the Internet for years:
A large U.S. ship is cruising in the North Atlantic. A blip on its radar reveals what seems to be a ship in its path. The ship's captain exchanges messages with the person responsible for the other vessel:
Captain: "Please change course 15 degrees to the north. Over."
Response: "Change your course 15 degrees to the south. Over."
Captain: "I repeat, change your course 15 degrees! Over!"
Response: "Negative captain, I'm not changing anything!"
Captain: "Sir, this is the U.S.S Montana, the second largest vessel in the North Atlantic fleet. You WILL change course 15 degrees, or I will be forced to take measures to ensure the safety of this ship. OVER!"
Response: "This is a lighthouse, mate. It's your call!"
When a navy captain is given command of a ship, he is told in no uncertain terms that it is his ship (the great majority of captains are still males). He is responsible for whatever happens to the ship, and he has full authority to make all decisions. However, while it is his ship, it's most definitely not his ocean!
Why do some leaders act like this captain, and get trapped in tunnel vision? How can they develop the ability to see the larger picture?
Many leaders find it appealing to focus only on what they can control (or think they can control). It's far more comfortable to do so than to think about those factors that we can't direct, such as what our customers and stakeholders want, how much our funders will give us, and what challenges we'll be facing in the future. Paying attention to the issues at our command gives us a sense of security, albeit a false one. And in a chaotic organizational environment, a little security is welcomed.
But effective leaders understand the importance of seeing the larger picture, of focusing on items that may affect us whether we can control them, influence them or only monitor for them. They know the power of "court vision."
A college basketball coach gave a talk to one of my classes some years ago. He was asked what he looks for when recruiting high-school players. "Court vision is one of the key skills," he said. "What's that?" we asked. "It's the ability to see the whole court, to use peripheral vision in order to anticipate scoring opportunities, and to see what the other team is about to do."
Court vision is equally important for managers and leaders. It helps them spot early indicators that their customers and stakeholders may be upset about something. It gives them insights into the expectations and needs of the 20-somethings entering the workforce. Court vision can also help us think broadly when we're given a big task. Rather than ask, "How am I going to get this done?", we're more likely to ask, "Who else has the skills and expertise to help accomplish this?"
But what if this kind of thinking doesn't come naturally? What if we sometimes succumb to tunnel vision? Here some steps that have helped others:
"Get up on the balcony." This is a term from the fine book Leadership on the Line, by Ronald A. Heifetz and Marty Linsky. They urge leaders to periodically leave the "dance floor" (where daily operations occur) and get up on the balcony, where they can better view what's happening. The "balcony" might involve visiting other organizations that have similar functions or it might mean conducting a retreat with your team where you gain some perspective on the unit. Other "balcony" activities include having a long conversation with your manager to learn how your unit fits into the larger scheme of things, or periodically working from home where you have time to think and reflect.
Conduct exit interviews with those leaving your unit. It often amazes me how much street wisdom people carry around in their minds — wisdom that's not usually shared with others unless we ask. However, most people feel free to share their views on an organization when they're getting ready to leave it.
Meet with managers and staff in units that interact with yours. Find out how your work affects them, and vice versa. Find out what pressures and opportunities they're encountering. Ask what you could do to make their work easier/better.
Think carefully about the questions you ask your staff. When someone proposes a new idea for a program or service, ask: Have we (or others) tried that before? If so, how did it work? What might be some unanticipated consequences?
Finally, spend time with others who have good court vision. It's smart to learn from the best. Ask them what steps they take to scan the internal and external environment. Find out what helps them anticipate future trends and challenges, and what keeps them up at night.
The environment surrounding most government agencies today is increasingly complex and turbulent. Court vision can help us make sense out of the chaos. It might even help navy captains avoid confrontations with lighthouses.
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Major Change, Fast Results
Changing the culture of an organization doesn't have to take a decade.
BY: Russ Linden | June 23, 2010
When Bill Leighty became commissioner of the Virginia Retirement System (VRS) in 1995, he inherited an agency in turmoil. It had been investigated for three years because of a scandal. Legislative support was plummeting, media reports were negative and employee morale was terrible.
It's often said that changing the culture of an organization takes seven to ten years. Leighty didn't have that kind of time.
VRS is a small agency with a huge mission. The agency offers pension benefits, life insurance and related services to over 270,000 public-sector employees. VRS was the 29th largest public or private fund in the U.S., managing over $30 billion at the time. So the stakes in making change quickly were high.
Locked Doors, Information Silos
When Leighty arrived he couldn't get into certain units. They literally had locks on a number of doors, and unless you knew the code, you couldn't get into that section of the building! The locked doors were symbolic as well as real. Information wasn't shared laterally in the agency.
"People had very narrowly-defined jobs," Leighty recalled. "The culture had been 'old school' for decades: you learn a job, do it better than anyone else, get promoted, then you learn that job, and so on.... Deep technical knowledge is power in that culture, so knowledge was hoarded. I knew we had to make major changes, fast."
One of the first things Leighty did was to get rid of those locks. As he put it, "We had to radically change the ways communications worked in the agency." Leighty also began to "manage by wandering around" in order to learn the culture, the operations and the people. He wanted to get to know the people first, and the best way to do that is to walk around. Most employees hadn't seen the agency director come anywhere near their office in years.
To break down silos, Leighty took groups of VRS staff to meet with employers in the state. The purpose: Help staff learn employers' expectations, what problems they encountered with the agency and how VRS could help employers make life better for their employees. This was a whole new world to his staff, who was accustomed to sitting at their desks and churning out paper.
Leighty also created a strategic planning process to give the staff a broader understanding of their environment and to provide clear priorities. Staff from all functions and levels were involved. The employees suggested several agency priorities, all of which were adopted.
The strategic plan identified six concrete issues that needed improvement. Leighty and his executive team developed "process improvement teams" or "PIT crews" for each issue -- the very name implies speedy change. People on the teams came from all levels and units -- from mail room clerks to division chiefs. Many team solutions were implemented. Moreover, employees learned about the agency's processes and the people who managed those processes.
In addition, Leighty instituted two kinds of formal communications methods: Monthly director's meetings for the entire staff, where he discussed important factors affecting the agency; and quarterly meetings with each work unit, where they discussed their work performance. These were two-way sessions; Leighty wanted feedback.
The changes at VRS are now legendary in Virginia government. The impact was visible by the start of the second year. The results, according to VRS staff and observers, included:
Two surveys documented the impact of the VRS changes. In every category but one, VRS employees were more positive than other state employees and employees nationwide. For example, only 56 percent of Virginia employees indicated they had "confidence in leadership," compared to 76 percent of VRS employees. The survey also found that while on average only 28 percent of employees across the nation were satisfied with the level of communication, at VRS 46 percent were satisfied. In addition, 89 percent of VRS employees felt they had access to the information they needed, compared to just 61 percent nationwide -- a clear indication that VRS leadership was making a difference in opening up the agency in terms of information flow.
In one of the most telling signs of the extraordinary change at VRS, some private-sector firms began asking Leighty to share the VRS "formula" for success.
What Made the Difference?
Leighty did things that any leader could do: strategic planning, process improvement teams, getting staff to meet with customers and managing by wandering around. Nothing new there.
No, it's not the novelty of any single change that explains the transformation at VRS. Rather, it's the fact that Leighty did all of these, and that they were part of an integrated package that focused on clear agency goals.
Equally important was the way Leighty communicated about change. He continually let people know what was going on, how the pieces fit together and sought ongoing input. According to a survey of leaders who led major changes in their firms, the one thing they would do differently would be to communicate more widely. Bill Leighty understood that. Any public leader seeking a quick organizational turnaround should as well.
This column is excerpted from Russ Linden's latest book: Leading Across Boundaries: Creating Collaborative Agencies in a Networked World.
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