Fortify your 401(k)

sherrie-suski-401kThe middle of the year seems like a good time, albeit, not as good as the beginning of the year, but good none the less, to ensure that you are on track to set aside the maximum amount allowed in your 401(k) plan.  If there is some catching up to do, contributions spread out over the remaining 6 months are infinitely easier to handle than if you wait until the last quarter of the year, which will necessitate such choices as rent versus 401(k) contributions or tasty meals versus 401(k) contributions, in which case the 401(k) almost never wins.  There are many variables when investing and your 401(k) is no different and not immune to any of them. It not always just how much you save that predicts your outcome when you retire, but how you save and what the economic environment looks like.

Your Contributions

The IRS has generously increased the maximum annual contribution limit in 2019 to $19,000, up from $18,500 in 2018. However, if you are moving toward those golden years and will be 50 years old or older at any time in 2019, you can contribute an additional $6,000 in the form of catch-up contributions. This means you’ll be able to contribute up to $25,000, which includes the catch-up contributions. If your employer makes matching contributions, the amount going into your 401(k) could be much higher.

Employer Matching

Any employer match is a good employer match!  Most employers have a 3,4 or 5 year vesting schedule on their match contributions so that employees are encouraged to stay around to actually collect 100% of their match.  This employer match is set aside as you make your own personal contributions, but should you leave before you are fully vested in the company match, you will only receive a portion of it.  Occasionally you will hear about companies with Safe Harbor plans. In this case, the employer match is vested 100% and immediately.  There is no vesting period at all. The reason this is attractive to many companies is that it significantly decreases the discrimination testing that must be done annually on all 401(k) plans and it ensures that you plan will not be found to have to refund dollars contributed back to your highly compensated employees.  Many of whom happen to be your senior staff and C-Suite individuals.

Economic Environment

To some extent this is beyond your control.  Certainly, the economy’s performance is beyond your grasp to influence, but how you react to the economy and the types of investments you make is very much within your control.  Forbes economic advisors are predicting on a 20% chance of a recession this year and a 30% chance of a recession next year.  One of the best predictors of a potential slow down is the US bond yield curve which inverted in March of this year for the first time since 2007.  An inverted yield-curve occurs when long-term debts have a lower yield as compared with short-term debt. An inverted yield curve is generally considered a recession predictor. It won’t be immediate, but recessions have followed inversions a few months to two years later several times over many decades. When you see this economic phenomenon, money market funds, CD;s and short terms treasury notes start to look more attractive.

Your 401(k) should not be a set and forget savings tool but one that is actively managed, at least quarterly, to ensure that the results are what you are hoping for when you do finally decide it is time to retire. 

Employee Engagement in Action

Employee Engagement must be close to the top buzz word for 2019 or perhaps even the last decade.   While everyone can speak eloquently about the benefits of encouraging employee engagement and the importance of it to producing top business results, ask more specific questions and those once vivacious people go silent.  Few actually spend the time to detail the specifics of what activities actually do increase employee engagement in the workforce. Before we increase our spending in 2019 by 45% on increasing employee engagement as predicted by G2 Crowd, let’s figure out exactly how we should be allocating those additional dollars.

Productivity 

Productivity yields employee engagement. A novel concept as most would argue that it is the reverse; a previously engaged employee yields better productivity.  However, this gives us a significant opportunity to ensure that we provide our employees with every opportunity to not only produce, but to understand how what they do fits within the framework of the organizational objectives.  Establishing waterfall goals is an easy an effective way to assist employees at every level to understand their ability to accomplish objectives and feel proud of their contribution to the organization, thus yielding more productivity.

Employee Recognition

Employee recognition can come in many forms, individual, team or even Company.  We use a peer to peer recognition program called Good Gotcha’s. Anyone can nominate anyone else for doing something good.  A subset of those are then chosen and announced at our quarterly all hands meeting. We also have quarterly awards structured around our Guiding Principles, an annual President’s award and Community service award.  Don’t forget about company awards, there is Great Places to Work and the corresponding Fortune awards, AON Top places to Work and many local awards.  Employees feel proud to work for a company that is recognized nationally as one of the best places to work!

Promoting Wellness

Healthy employees are happy employees!  While only about 10% of employers have implemented a formal wellness platform, they provide opportunities across a host of health initiatives for your employees.  We use Vitality and could not be happier.  Employees have the ability to earn points for individual or team fitness challenges, for taking healthy actions like getting a physical of biometrics performed, buying healthy food and participating in physical, mental, emotional and financial wellness opportunities offered by the company.

Continuing Education/Learning

Almost all employees want the opportunity to develop their skills whether that be through lattice, vertical or ladder, horizontal learning opportunities.  We offer a three fold approach to learning that encompasses action steps, which are specific projects an employee can tackle to enhance their value to the company, internal training opportunities through custom content and courses and also through Franklin Covey’s All Access Pass and external training courses or certifications.

The list is likely endless.  Almost anything you do with the employees’ best interest in mind can be utilized to enhance employee engagement, and, ultimately, company performance!

(Forbes) – “Meet the New Breed of Inspirational Leaders”

Sherrie Suski was recently featured in Forbes, commenting on the next generation of inspirational leaders. See below for an excerpt of the piece, and click here for the full article.

 

“In an organization, the word ‘mentor’ conjures up the image of a wise person offering sage advice — someone who has lived through ups and downs while learning valuable lessons along the way. Those early in their career are frequently told to seek out a mentor, someone experienced who could take them under their wing and provide the tutelage needed to navigate the fast track to success, while sidestepping the landmines.

While mentors still have a role in the workplace, the concept is giving way to a new breed: the idea of the inspirational leader. Employees today are looking to be part of companies that are giving back, and not just to employees, but to their communities and to society as a whole. The inspirational leader brings that broader impact and perspective.”

Continuous Feedback

sherrie-suski-reviewAn increased number of organizations are moving away from the annual review process to a feedback process that incorporates more frequent or real-time feedback. How frequent the review process depends on the scale, culture, and needs of the organization.  Although the process sounds simple enough, there are a number of considerations to be debated prior to implementing this type of change, from systems and platform changes to training associated with the new process.

Quarterly Feedback

Some companies choose to take an interim step between annual reviews and real-time feedback.  Enter the quarterly review. Quarterly reviews can be as simple as creating a comment box where each of the managers composes a brief summary of accomplishments for the preceding quarter or as complex as an annual review process, with ratings against core competencies, and comments for each conducted quarterly instead of annually.  Whether simple or complex, this process alleviates the employees’ common concerns around being surprised at the end of the year with feedback that they had never heard.

Real-time Feedback

The end goal in giving real-time feedback is to be able to provide continuous feedback to the employee so they can course correct in real time.  Normally this will be a two-way street where the manager can give feedback and the employee can ask for feedback on a specific project.  Many real-time systems will also provide an avenue to create Individual Development Plans ( IDP’s) in conjunction with the feedback to address any skill gaps that are identified so that training needs can be identified and a plan built to address

360 Feedback

Moving to 360 feedback, which entails feedback coming from the employee’s manager; peers; and subordinates, and is the most comprehensive of the feedback systems.  360 reviews should never be introduced without a training plan that encompasses all levels of the organization. Employees need to be coached on how to solicit feedback, how to give appropriate feedback and how to handle the feedback once it is received.  Criticism that is not truly constructive and offered with a pure heart, is almost never internalized.

Compensation

Organizations are frequently perplexed when it comes to implementing compensation reviews without an annual rating process that drives a matrix to calculate the percentage increase earned. After all, pay is one of the primary reasons employees show up to work each day. If you’re fundamentally redesigning how you determine their pay, then you need a clear plan that’s clearly communicated.  Many organizations have moved to a simplified approach where each manager is given autonomy to make pay decisions. Each manager is allocated a budget and is responsible for determining the pay/bonus of direct reports.

Ultimately, whichever review process and compensation model you choose to implement, your people leaders need to be trained to take an increasingly more active role in the management of their teams.  They need to understand that managing their people to be the best they can be is fundamentally what leadership is all about!

Driven to Succeed

sherrie-suski-motivationWhy do some push themselves to deliver the best and others are good with good enough?  What is it about the human psyche that pushes some to strive beyond good to excellent? Psychologists tell us that it is a convoluted web of past experiences, motivation and neurological make-ups that churn out individuals who constantly go above and beyond in every role they have in life, who are driven by achievement and being the best.  There are multiple reasons for this drive to excel and not all of them may be what you would initially think. 

Some psychologists tell us that these individuals are not so driven by the need to succeed, but by the need not to fail.

In fact, it is not the actual failure that they are so opposed to, but the shame that accompanies it.  These are individuals who usually care deeply about what others think of them. Certain messages are conveyed to the self when failure occurs, which motivate success in an attempt to avoid acknowledging them. Failure can lead one to have a sense of unworthiness and an expectation of abandonment or an unrealistic fear of complete ruin. In a paradoxical way, the desire to avoid a negative state or emotional experience is the impetus for achievement of your goals and great success.  

Neurologists provide us with explanations that are rooted in the brain.  When it comes specifically to motivation, one of the most important neurotransmitters is dopamine. Dopamine is one of the chemical signals that passes information from one neuron to the next. When dopamine is released from the first neuron, it floats between the synapses. Since dopamine is released before we ever receive a reward, its real job is to encourage us to act. It motivates us to achieve, while avoiding something negative. A team of Scientists at Vanderbilt found that the “go-getters” simply had higher levels of dopamine in the reward and motivation portions of the brain.

Those who do not hold advanced degrees with the letters Ph.D. or M.D. after their names suggest that the reasons for success are much simpler. People who are successful make decisions and choose to take action more quickly.  This increase their chances of success simply because they have tried more options.  They convince themselves to take on tasks they don’t want to do. Instead of avoiding them, they just power through them.  Inevitably this increases their odds of a successful outcomes. Just getting started in half the battle. Prioritization and focus also play a role.  Those individuals who are able to look down a list of to-do’s and quickly prioritize what is the most important, and then able to focus their attention on that task until completion, again increase their odds of success. Distraction is a key reason many people don’t succeed.  They choose to be a little bit accomplished in a number of different areas, but never follow through to the end on the one important goal.  Lastly, a big dose of positivity can go a long ways to accomplishing what you set out to do. People who are successful see themselves as successful at the beginning of the project.  They begin with the end in mind and have a good grasp on what success is going to look like.

Whether you believe success is driven by the fear of shame associated with failure, the amount of dopamine in certain centers of the brain or by the simple decisions you make on a daily basis, remember, if you are not willing to risk the usual, you will have to settle for the ordinary.  Jim Rohn

Measuring the Employee Experience

There are many tools on the market that purport to accurately measure the customer experience.  They focus on such topics as action management, customer segmentation, feedback management, sentiment analysis and trend analysis, just to name a few.  Then there are whole CRM systems whose goal it is to manage a company’s interaction with current and future customers. The CRM approach tries to analyze data about customers’ history with a company, in order to better improve business relationships with customers, specifically focusing on retaining customers, in order to drive sales growth.  If we want to understand the employee experience, we have to pursue it with the same gusto and metrics that we do our customer experiences. In general, great experiences don’t just happen, they have to be consciously designed.

We need to start with the belief that a strong correlation exists between the quality of the employee experience and work productivity, which ultimately drives engagement and, hopefully, the delivery of more value to your end customer.  However, there are challenges around measuring workforce experience because no single person, department or function owns the whole experience. Organizations use many tools to understand the experiences, positive or negative, their employees are having — pulse surveys like Waggl, annual employee surveys, quarterly or annual performance reviews incorporating self-reviews, weekly management meetings, talent and succession planning, town hall meetings and so on. The issue is that these tools and the feedback received from them can offer a fragmented and often misleading view of how good the employee experience is.

Forrester has a Workforce Experience Model that is worth reviewing.  It is built around Engagement, Productivity and Impact.  The only issue I would take with their assumptions is that I believe productivity actually drives engagement and not the other way around.  

Productivity

Being able to measure productivity assumes that you have done studies to understand what acceptable levels of productivity are by function.  It isn’t the measuring piece that is difficult, it is understanding and creating the “what” to measure and the scale that makes it challenging

Engagement

An engaged workforce willingly invests time and energy in the success of the business and the degree of engagement will impact business results. Everyone has discretionary engagement that they may choose to deploy at their job or elsewhere. Your mission is to ensure that it is deployed at the job to the benefit of the customers.  To my point, Daniel Pink’s secret to high performance and satisfaction  – the deeply human need to direct our own lives (autonomy), the desire to get better at something that matters (mastery) and the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves (purpose).

Impact

The positive business outcome of productive, engaged employees is a loyal customer. Customer-facing employees, customer service, for example, have the greatest potential direct impact on the customer experience and satisfaction. What about those employees that don’t usually engage with customers directly, like Accounting, Finance or HR, where the potential for positive impact on customer experience is harder to quantify? They know how the processes really work in your organization and may be the best ones to identify and rectify problems for customers quickly.

The conventional eNPS  (Employee Net Promoter Score)  is a standardized tool that you could benchmark your organization against year over year and,  benchmark your ratings against other companies of your size or in your industry. The issue is that it is one question and for most of us, does not really provide value when wanting to delve into the specifics.  There are also multiple surveys you can conduct through Fortune, OC Register or other organizations, but they are quite expensive and questions can be tailored so they do not provide an apples to apples comparison across organizations.  Eventually, it would be great to have an industry accepted employee engagement scale that could be used to drive the employee experience and, ultimately the customer experience.

Workplace Certifications

We recently embarked on a fact-finding mission around workplace certifications.  I felt strongly that we had done an amazing job internally creating a world class work environment for our employees who are spread out over 10 states and 19 different locations, but few outside of the company were aware of that.  In today’s competitive global job market, being a well-known organization or having a famous consumer brand name is not enough to attract and retain top talent. Organizations need to build an agile and connected workplace, create amazing employee experiences, nurture feedback and dialogue, actively focus on innovation, and embed their businesses into the future.

Types of certifications

Great Place to Work

This is a certification connected to Fortune. The survey is actually conducted by their research partner, Great Place TO work.  The survey is made up of about 60 questions and an additional lengthy questionnaire needs to be completed by Human Resources.  They tell you 4 hours, but we easily spent 5-10X that. Should be fortune- ate (😊) enough to be certified, this opens up the door for you to participate throughout the year in a number of other certifications including:  Top 100 Companies, Best workplaces for Diversity, Best Workplaces for Parents, Small & Medium companies, People’s Companies that Care Best workplaces for Millennials, just to name a few.

Aon Best Employers

The program salutes the achievements made by organizations that create sustainable competitive advantage through their people. Aon Best Employers program looks into the health of your organization from the inside, using the most objective measure possible – your employees’ opinion. Backed by more than 18 years’ worth of data on employee experience, Aon Best Employers program measures and recognizes extraordinary employers. It differentiates on people factors which are the key to success: high employee engagement, profound agility, engaging leadership and maniacal talent focus. Aon looks at 4 key areas:  Engagement, Agility, Engaging Leadership, and Talent Focus. They offer both a ready to use on-line survey, as well as a tailored engagement survey that you can customize.

Glassdoor Best Places to Work

Although considered a necessary evil by many to whom I have spoken, there is no arguing that prospective employees turn to Glassdoor to see what others are saying on the inside.  Glassdoor automatically selects those employers that obtain the highest average number of stars given in the reviews by their own employees.  I am proud to say we are at a 4.6, but 1/10th lower than we needed to be to win a Best Small & Medium Places to Work for 2018.  

Next time we will talk about the reasons why, both internally and externally it makes sense to participate in Work Place certifications.

Consciously Created Culture

Often times the task of “creating” the culture falls to the HR team.  The team struggles with not only how to architect the culture, but have a difficult time envisioning what that will look like in the context of their own organizations and what day to day actions to take to reinforce and embrace that culture. Should they focus on defining values, creating wrap around programs or instituting perks?  The answer is, as in many situations, it depends.

Perhaps the first place to start is understanding your external branding.  It is important that your internal branding around culture flow directly from your external branding.  It is difficult to create an internal brand exclusive of a complete understanding of an external brand.  Start here with your marketing team to fully understand what the differentiators are in the market and how they brand the company externally.  

Next, think about what is important to your workforce and the culture you want your employees to talk about when describing your company.

Comparably, is a platform to provide anonymous and comprehensive data on compensation, and insights into work culture. They give employees the knowledge they need to take control of their experience at work, to build awareness about workplace transparency, and to make work better.  Some of the categories they focus on are:

Diversity and Inclusion

Diversity and inclusion are important for every organization.  Diverse companies are more innovative. having employees from diverse backgrounds brings different ideas to the table, preventing “groupthink” and promoting innovation. A diverse workforce ensures that some employees will be analytical, while others will have more creative propensities. Diverse approaches to the same problem generate new insights and enhance efficiency. 80 percent of people in a recent Universum https://universumglobal.com/about/ survey (including 85 percent of women) felt it was important that an employer “engages in creating a diverse and inclusive workplace.

Professional Development

Employees today have an expectation of their careers providing not only a paycheck but an opportunity for growth and development as well.  A goal to shoot for “Training is always available, and you have the opportunity to work on projects outside your day to day role and grow your skill set. This is especially highlighted with career progression”.  Companies should shoot for at least 20% of their positions being filled from within as employee promotions. A lofty goal would be 50%.

Work-Life Balance

Flexible schedules, telecommuting and PTO can all contribute to a healthy work life balance.  However, employees need to see that the management team is modeling these behaviors before they are likely comfortable taking advantage of them themselves. Some other ideas include sponsoring events where employees family members are encouraged to join in, offering part time or job share positions.

Perks and Benefits

No conversation on culture would be complete without discussing perks and benefits.  Some of the usual benefits are on the list like company provided health insurance with affordable employee contributions and PTO ( but not unlimited).  Studies routinely show that employees do not like unlimited PTO because very few actually feel like they can use it. Wellness initiatives are another popular perk in 2019.  Most of these platforms provide gamification opportunities for bringing teams and workforces together in fun competition.

The most important aspect of consciously creating a culture is that you create one that is unique to your company and the employees you serve.  

Defensiveness

sherrie-suski-defensivenessDefensiveness is defined as the quality of being anxious to avoid criticism and/or the behavior intended to defend or protect.  Some have even defined it as reacting with a war mentality to a non-war issue. While none of us relishes criticism, it is a necessary part of growth.  To be able to see ourselves as others see us is a gift that allows us to leave old habits behind and adopt new, healthier ways of having relationships with others.  

An Open Heart

Changing defensive behavior stars with being able to listen with an open heart to what is being said.  Assume the person has your best interests in mind and is sharing something that you need to hear. Try and clear you mind so that you are truly listening and not rehearsing your next defensive statement in your mind while they are speaking.

Express Your Feelings

Being able to openly express your feelings is requisite to becoming less defensive.  Letting people know in a calm manner when they have upset you is not being defensive.  Lashing out with an inflammatory statement is. 

Building Trust

Working through conflict builds trust in any relationship.  It assures both partners that they can trust each other; they can be honest and acknowledge that any relationship is a work in progress, not fixed or defined on just one person’s terms or one moment in time.

Toxic Comments

Bottom line: if we don’t learn how to deal with our grievances head on, inevitably we deal with them indirectly, most often in more toxic forms: by teasing or making snide comments, holding grudges, or by growing more indifferent over time. 

Of course, it’s difficult to give and receive healthy criticism if we’re clinging to a defensive attitude. If you feel yourself become defensive, try to see if you can simply acknowledge it, and work through the conflict as honestly and generously as possible.

Self- esteem

Temperament, history, and, most importantly self-esteem can impact how we respond to criticism.  Some people have so much negative self talk occurring in their heads that they feel they just can’t accept any more from someone else.  Realizing that just because someone is criticizing one issue, does not mean you are a bad person overall is key to building better relationships

People who are more prone to defensiveness may perceive an attack in certain situations in which people with resilient and calm temperaments would perceive none. Experiment with viewing the situation from different vantage points.

Overall, defensiveness in life will hold you back from building better relationships and from growing as an individual

On-Brand Behavior

sherrie-suski-officePotential candidates are interested not only in what they may bring to a future employer, but in what that future employer may bring to them.  With the majority of millennials believing its management’s responsibility to offer development opportunities, this demographic is looking for employers that will invest in their future. But they’re not alone; training is a top priority for all workers, particularly those who will need to enhance their skills in light of digital disruption. While many companies have training or Learning and Development programs, not enough have specific training that is meant to drive on- brand behavior.

Programs that address this topic are a win-win.  Effectively communicating a brand requires multiple touchpoints and Learning & Development programs are the perfect opportunity to drive this behavior. Learning and development is the clear internal expression of an organization’s external employer brand. These programs should be representative of and demonstrate the company’s value system.

According to Paul Hagen, senior principal at West Monroe Partners San Francisco, customer facing employees represent the company brand with every interaction they have. Yet, most receive little or no training or development to help them understand the actions and mindset that will have the most positive impact on customers’ perceptions of the brand. Good companies understand the drivers of customer and employee experiences and ensure L&D initiatives include guidance on how employees can help deliver on the promises made by an employer’s branding, he explained; “Great companies take it a step further. They understand that happy employees make happy customers.”

Ultimately, it is about connecting your internal culture to your external brand in a way that is meaningful to both your employees and your customers alike.  It should be the natural progression of doing what is right for your employees and having them understand and do what it right for your customers.