Turning Your Employees Into Owners
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As leaders I think there is very little we can do today to impact today’s results. I would submit that leadership is managing change and preparing for the future. Leaders need to be thinking one, two or more years into the future. Our job is to prepare the company for the future opportunities and challenges.

This, according to Steve Jobs, is the heart of his approach to making decisions:

“You can’t connect the dots looking forward, you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something: your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. Because believing that the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart, even when it leads you off the well worn path” – Stanford Commencement Address, 2005.

In succession planning, our goal is to create as many successful paths to accomplish our objectives. Teaching our leadership team to manage into the future is a critical skill. I suspect as a CEO you have a well-developed gut to anticipate the future. How are you transferring the gut to provide your leadership the ability to make knowledgeable decisions regarding the future? If you are not developing this skill set in them – do you have a horse only you can ride?

Two of the most important decisions business leaders make are hiring and firing employees. Businesses succeed or fail largely because of their people, and the costs of having the wrong person in the job, or of having to hire and train for the same person over and over can be very high. So let’s take a look at how to make major personnel decisions intelligently and efficiently. We’ve already looked at hiring and educating, so now let’s look at the process for letting someone go.

In my career working with small businesses, I have seen many leaders make hiring and firing decisions based on emotion. Too often, I see people hire those they like and fire those they don’t without considering the employee’s actual value to the company. Conversely, many leaders delay letting go of unproductive employees for way too long because they feel bad for the employee. None of these mistakes are any good for anyone. Just as you need clearly defined hiring and educating processes, you need a clearly defined process for making an employee available to industry.

Define Success—and Failure–Clearly

A clearly defined metric of success makes it easier to get across to new employees exactly what you want. The other side of that principle is that you need to communicate your minimum standards clearly. What happens if someone fails to deliver? Under what circumstances will you let someone go? You want to avoid giving the impression of having fired someone for personal reasons. At the same time, you shouldn’t spend excessive time and money trying to turn around problem employees who are not going to get better. A clearly defined minimum standard and a consistent termination process ensure that any necessary changes proceed quickly and fairly.

Don’t Confuse Tolerance with Empathy

Empathy is good, even necessary, but putting up with unacceptable behavior because you feel sorry for the employee is not. Termination by a thousand cuts is not a gift. Delay often does more damage to the organization and prevents the individual from moving on and finding a more appropriate place to work.  When a change needs to be made, put a plan in place that focuses on the needs of the organization and stick to the plan.  Hope is not a strategy!

The truth is you can’t change anybody, but that does not keep most of us from trying. Occasionally, you can get someone to turn around, but it’s rare. On average, 17% of a supervisor’s time is spent managing poorly performing employees. Do you really want to spend that much of your time and energy with people who aren’t doing their jobs—and not supporting your champions? For the remedial employee, focus on accountability, with weekly standup meetings, for a maximum of 90 days. After that, if the situation hasn’t improved, it probably isn’t going to.

Act with Honor

Obviously, make sure you have the legal details covered and ready to go before you terminate someone’s employment. You do not want to be sued. But being ethically sound is just as important. Change needs to be implemented honorably, not emotionally. Use the golden rule; treat others as you would like to be treated.

At the end of the day, your business is not just a place of work, but also a community. Who belongs to your community is obviously critically important, but so are the processes by which people enter and exit the group. If your top employees are saddled with slackers who should have been fired long ago, or if they feel that people are let go capriciously or without due consideration, they won’t want to stay. You need the company to feel like a professional home, a place people feel comfortable, and that means making sure it is the kind of community you want to be part of, too.

Recently, Tom Foster introduced me to a tool based on the research of Eliot Jacques—whose premise was that people differ in the time spans across which they can anticipate and plan for change. A good definition of leadership is managing change, so these time spans have a big impact on the type of leadership role a person can occupy.

Like a lot of business leaders, I used to think I had some kind of God-given ability to identify which individuals would do well in the organization. But even at the best of times, only about 60% of my hires really worked out like I expected them to. Looking at resumes and doing interviews just wasn’t giving me the information I needed to accurately predict how people would perform in the job.

Eventually, I looked for ways to do hiring better. One popular approach was formal assessment tools so I could get a better idea of applicants’ skill-sets. Basically, I was trying to clone people. I’d look at the attributes of a person who was doing a really good job and then look for someone else with a similar profile.

For example, I remember interviewing an individual for a comptroller position. They had years of experience with this really unusual software we were using. I thought I’d won the lottery when I saw that resume come across my desk. How could it not be a perfect fit? Fortunately, I listened to good training and policy and dug a little deeper. Based on a profile assessment, I found out that they didn’t like repetitive tasks and didn’t like working all day in an office. This was contrary to what I had thought I knew about them and contrary to the needs of the position. This information allowed me to ask some new and better questions.

As it turned out, they hadn’t been a comptroller before. Instead, they had been training other people on the use of the software, always moving from location to location. So they didn’t really have the experience I was looking for–and when I told them more about the position, they admitted it didn’t sound appealing.

Hiring the right person often depends on asking the right questions. That in turn depends on finding new and insightful ways to think about what you actually need from an employee for a given position.

For example, some people can really only think a couple of weeks ahead. It’s not that they don’t know the future is coming, it’s not that they aren’t smart; it’s that they’re focused on the immediate. They might be very talented with production or customer service, any kind of position that involves responding quickly and well to the current situation. They may not be able to do as well with management tasks, such as hiring new personnel, that have to be initiated weeks or months ahead of time. For that, you need somebody who can look farther down the road and can anticipate the need for change.

Generally, the higher up the chain of command you are, the greater the time span you need. If you’re drafting business strategy for the entire company, you really need to be thinking about ten years ahead—or more. Very few people have the ability to do that.

This kind of planning ability is not related to experience or education. It’s part of a person’s thinking style. That doesn’t mean that someone with a very short time span for planning is doomed–it is possible to improve your planning ability to some extent, or to simply learn coping skills to get around the problem. But a person is just not going to be able to move from one end of the scale to the other. If you’re hiring for a leadership position, you need to look for a candidate who can demonstrate an ability to anticipate as much of the future as the position requires.

A job applicant is not going to be able to tell you straight out what their time-span is. It’s not the type of thing people are normally aware of. And, as with all other assessment tools, this isn’t something that can make the hiring decision all by itself. You still have to look at resumes and skill-sets and expectations for work-place culture and everything else. Each aspect of the process still has to be seen in context. Time spans are simply another lens, a way of looking at the requirements of a job and the abilities of an applicant.

But it’s a powerful lens, one that you need to make the right hiring decision reliably.

Four Requirements for Hiring:

  1. Capability: match level of work to time span
  2. Skill: technical, knowledge, practice
  3. Interest: passion, value
  4. Behavior: habits, attitudes








As a business leader are you working yourself into or out of a job?

In 1996, the CEO of Texas Instruments died on a business trip. The press reported after a dramatic, successful turnaround during his tenure, he left the company with a strong management team and a wealth of capable people. This CEO prepared his company for the unknown, and with his passing no significant change in stock price or operations was expected by the markets.

As a business leader, are you preparing your company for the future?  As a business leader you are responsible for the future of the organization even if you are not there. One CEO commented that he tries to make only 15 decisions a year and leave the rest to his management team. He chooses to focus intently on the strategic path with a 10 to 20 year horizon. While this may be considered unusual, it does illustrate the need not to confuse the urgent with the important.  The urgent is putting out today’s fires; the important is laying the foundation for tomorrow’s success.

These are your responsibilities as a business leader:

Vision:  Big Picture, Looks Ahead, Blue Ocean Thinking, Set Course

Mission:  Establishes Organizational Mission

  • Guides organization through leadership
  • Sets priorities
  • Drives tactical execution
  • Aligns corporate principles and values with tactics and tools
  • Head cheerleader

Organizational Values and Philosophy:

  • Sets values, tone, standards, culture and integrity of organization

Organizational DNA

  • Builds capacity through others
    • Gets the right people on the bus, gives them the best possible tools and information to execute their role in a timely, informed, and accurate manner
    • Everyone is paid to think
    • Coach / Team Builder: Celebrates and acknowledges successes
  • Restlessness:  Constantly focused on moving forward and accountability
  • Risk taker, eliminates road blocks, final decision maker
  • You can delegate authority but not responsibility. The business leader is ultimately responsible for the successes and failures of the business.

Captain of the Ship

  • Defines organizational structure, allocates resources and right sizes the organization.
  • Track business environment and trends
  • Has the pulse of investors, customers, and vital negotiations
  • Develops strategic relationships and alliances
  • Mediator, negotiator, judge, parent

The business leader does not do what another member of the organization should be doing. They should not get involved in the operational minutia, becoming the chief fire fighter or micromanager.  You should be doing only what you can do.

In a January 2015 article, Forbes outlined the premise that as we approach full employment, employees will have more options and employers will have fewer. The economic realities I discussed in a previous article have created a society of free agents. Millennials especially have adapted to an uncertain job market by becoming much more mobile; if today’s young people do not like their employer, they can and will vote with their feet.

As I have discussed before, Baby Boomers, like me, sometimes have trouble understanding how people in younger generations approach professional life—nevertheless, we, as business leaders, have to learn to adapt to the changing needs of the workforce. We have to focus on how we can create the work-place cultures we need to attract the best of the best.

Putting Our Knowledge to Work

So, now that we understand what many Millennials are looking for in an employer and how their perspective developed, how can we use that knowledge to keep our businesses successful? There are three main areas we can focus on when we think about attracting and retaining talent: work expectations; strong working relationships; and the cause.

  1. Work Expectations

In the old days, there was that 9-5, working five days a week, two-week vacation, a very ridged structure. That is no longer attractive. Millennials want to be trusted to meet their responsibilities at the time and place that works for them.

One of the things we can do is to stop thinking about blocks of vacation time and start thinking about flexible paid time off. We can also look for ways to give people even more time through unpaid time off, without hurting the company.

But with the blended lifestyle, it’s not uncommon for people to be Facebooking at work and sending professional emails from home at midnight. Now, I’m that Baby-Boomer, I’m used to looking for face-time, assessing productivity by how many hours I see somebody in the office–but with the rise of the Internet, that old time-card approach isn’t going to work anymore.

Now, obviously we need to maintain some kind of standard, we need to know who is actually pulling their weight. So we, as business leaders, need to be thinking about how we can measure output, not time. We need to redefine the metrics of a successful employee—we need to find ways to measure their contribution to the company directly.

  1. Strong Working Relationships

When younger professionals decide who they want to work for, they’re not necessarily thinking “which job will get me a McMansion.” No, many of them are thinking about which job will help most with their professional development.

Gen Xers and especially Millennials want to protect themselves against the downsizing they saw their parents go through—they want constant investment in their skillset so they can always land on their feet. They’re looking for that great boss who’s going to mentor them, help them continue to develop professionally, and they’re looking for a workplace culture where they can create networks both in the company and outside it.

Our challenge is to be the employer who can help the talented people we need to invest in themselves.

  1. The Cause

Millennials especially don’t just want to develop themselves. They also want to belong to something bigger, to help make the world a better place. There are a couple of things we can do to respond to that need.

We can think about ways to help our employees pursue their own causes, such as offering paid time off for volunteering. Or, we can think about how our company actually does make the world a better place—if we can’t think of anything, maybe it’s time to think about doing things a little differently.

Measuring Success                    

Are we getting this right? One way to find out is to measure retention rates and patterns—not just are people leaving, but are they following each other out? If one person leaves and their friends all quit at the same time, then we know we’ve got a problem—on the other hand, if a person leaves and everyone says “good riddance,” that’s not good, either. We can also look at the demographics of who is leaving and who is staying, make sure we’re not causing a problem for some specific group. Of course, you need to consult with someone on labor law before you use that kind of information, so you don’t get yourself in trouble.

In the end, as Baby Boomer managers, we don’t have to change—but we also don’t have to survive in business. So my challenge to you is to find ways to adapt to the ongoing changes in the workforce so you can continue to find success in the years to come.

Key Takeaways

  • Success in business depends on adapting to the changing needs of the workforce
  • Look for ways to measure employees’ output directly, rather than number of hours on the job
  • Look for ways to help employees develop themselves professionally
  • Consider whether your company makes the world a better place. Perhaps it should?
  • Assess how well you’re adapting to the needs of your workforce by looking at retention rates and patterns.

This is the third blog in a three part series.  The are links to the other posts:

I Practice Age Discrimination; I Don’t Hire Anyone Under 40

Why Millennials Work Differently



In a recent post ( “I Practice Age Discrimination; I Don’t Hire Anyone Under 40”) I talked about differences in professional attitudes and priorities between generations. I called the misunderstandings that develop a culture clash. But these different professional cultures did not come out of nowhere, and understanding why younger workers do what they do is key to building a company that can bridge the generation gap.

The Boomer Perspective

When I was growing up, I learned that if I got a good job and if I kept my nose down and worked hard, then I could look forward to a long and rewarding career. When I noticed colleagues from younger generations coming to work with a different attitude, I admit I problem with it.

Gen Xers wanted to go home at 5 pm whether the job was done or not. They didn’t seem like team players to me. Millennial employees wanted flex time and assumed their supervisors should act like coaches. I’d always thought that you either take a job or you leave it—you don’t tell your boss how you want to be supervised. It was hard for me to realize that my expectations were not their expectations, and that their expectations had merit.

My professional expectations and priorities reflected the economic reality of my youth. Income disparity was relatively small, the economy was growing, and there was opportunity everywhere for those who wanted it. People from younger generations grew up in a different reality.

Millennial Economics

Rightly or wrongly, people who came of age around the year 2000 have a reputation for being both demanding and idealistic. They want meaningful work, interesting coworkers, flexible hours, and supervisors who act like coaches, but they also expect to change jobs frequently. But many Millennials aren’t actually being demanding—the economic reality is that the rewards for hard work that I looked forward to just aren’t widely available anymore. So today’s young people look for different incentives.

The last twenty years or so have seen employers rely increasingly on temp positions and contract work. Real wages have fallen against inflation in many industries, even as the cost of getting an education has risen. The result is a widening gap between the those who can attend the best schools and graduate with a lot of opportunity and a much larger group who graduate deeply in debt, with no immediate prospects for long-term employment.

The reality is that this second, larger group of Millennials don’t expect to be able to earn a gold watch for twenty years of service to a single firm—they are lucky to stay anywhere for five years. They look for rewards they can access now, such as a meaningful work experience and the coaching they need to compete successfully in an extremely tight and fluid job market.

Bringing It All Together

The Millennial approach to professional life is, in part, an intelligent response to a tough economic situation. The employer who recognizes this fact has an opportunity to compete well for top talent, not just by providing the perks many Millennials look for, but by being the kind of company this generation has learned not to bother looking for. That means not just expecting hard work, dedication, and loyalty but offering it, too.

Give a Millennial a reason to stay, and he or she just might stick around and earn that gold watch.

Key Takeaways

  • Millennials approach work differently than older employees because they are beginning their careers in a different economic reality.
  • Millennials often look for “extras,” like coaching and flex time, because they don’t expect more traditional rewards, like good pay or job stability.
  • Employers who understand where Millennials are coming from are in a better position to compete for top talent.

I had a client say that to me recently—that he won’t hire young people. He thinks most people in the Millennial Generation are lazy brats. He’s wrong, but discrimination against the young is legal in most states, so it’s his prerogative. But what’s he going to do a few years down the road when Millennials dominate the workforce? If he can’t learn to adapt, he’ll watch all the top talent go to work for his competitors.

People from different generations approach work differently. It’s a kind of culture clash. In subsequent posts I’ll talk about where some of these differences come from and how business owners can attract and retain good people from all age groups. For now, let’s look at what these groups are and how they work.

The Baby Boom

This is the generation of most business leaders today—and almost a third of everybody in the workforce. Many older Boomers are actually retired or semi-retired, but there were 71 million people born between 1945 and 1964, so there are still a lot of them on the job.

If You’re a Boomer, then You Probably…

  1. Were raised to work hard, to be loyal to your employer, and to expect their loyalty in return.
  2. Were raised to expect to work in the same field, for the same company, for most of your adult life.
  3. Want an employer who appreciates your hard work and rewards you financially for it.


Generation X

These are the children of the social upheaval of the 1960’s and 1970’s. They also came of age during a recession. They’ve often been derided as selfish, cynical, or apathetic, but really a lot of them are just cautious—they need a safety net for themselves and their families. Gen X is small, but none have retired yet, so they form nearly a third of the workforce, too. As a group, they are notably well-educated.

If You’re a Gen Xer, then You Probably…

  1. Work hard during work hours, but go home at quitting time, because you, too, deserve a life.
  2. Want a job where you can further develop your skillset—you know you might get laid off at any time, so you want to be able to land on your feet and get a new position as soon as possible.
  3. You don’t feel much loyalty to your boss, but you don’t expect to be taken care of, either. You’re self-sufficient.


The Millennials

Millennials get their name because they came of age around the millennium. They’re also called Generation Y. They’re technologically savvy, often idealistic, but without any illusions about financial success. They might despair of ever paying off their college loans, but they fully expect to change the world.

If You’re a Millennial, You Probably…

  1. Don’t expect to stay anywhere very long or get paid very well—two years at the same job is actually a pretty good run. But you do expect fun, meaningful work.
  2. Want a boss who can act as your mentor or coach, as well as a collaborative, creative work environment
  3. See your job, ideally, as a way to further your personal mission. So you’ll definitely stay up till midnight answering work emails from home or telecommute from your own vacation if it helps the cause. But you also see no reason why you shouldn’t check your social media accounts from the office—work is part of life, so life is part of work.


Bringing It All Together

From the perspective of a Baby Boomer, a Gen Xer who insists on going home at five o’clock (even if a deadline is looming) looks selfish and a Millennial checking Facebook at work looks bratty. But the Gen Xer has kids to pick up from daycare and the Millennial will happily answer work emails from home. Both bring their own expectations and gifts to the workforce, just like Baby Boomers do. They’re just different.

Baby Boomer business leaders don’t have to adjust themselves to the changes that younger generations bring—but they don’t have to stay in business, either. Keeping up in today’s business world means finding a way to bridge the cultural divide between generations.

Key Takeaways

  • Each generation expects different things from employers and each offers different things. All can be excellent employees
  • Business leaders need to adapt to changes in workforce expectations
  • Leaders who tell younger workers to take it or leave it will find themselves left behind.

As CEOs, we often find ourselves pushing for change. We believe our organizations must constantly grow or else stagnate, shrink and die.  And you want to provide a dynamic, vibrant, and expanding organization that people will want to join. So as CEO’s, we’re restless. We’re constantly looking for opportunities to expand our reach.

But as a company grows, it gets exponentially more complex, putting more pressure on the middle managers.

Sometimes we try to protect our colleagues from the extra work. Sometimes it just seems faster and easier to do it ourselves. But if our people don’t get opportunities to develop new skillsets, they won’t be able to keep up as the company grows. Eventually, they’ll become a drag on the business if we don’t let them go–but these might be loyal employees of twenty years’ duration.

As CEO’s, we have to do what’s best for the company, but we also have to do it in an honorable and ethical.   A generous payout or a transfer to a more appropriate position might help take the sting out, but there’s no really great way to let a good person go. The honorable thing is not to create the bad situation to begin with.

As a CEO, your job is to coach and develop your team, not to run with the ball yourself. Sometimes that means delegating and teaching. Sometimes it means sending someone out for formal classes or to get a bachelor’s degree or an MBA. By proactively offering opportunities for middle managers to step up, you ensure you won’t outgrow loyal and capable employees.

Key Takeaways

  • Real leaders get things done through other people; they don’t jump in to the nitty-gritty work themselves.
  • When you delegate responsibility, you give others an opportunity to develop as professionals.
  • Not all bad situations have good solutions. By thinking ahead, you can avoid the problem in the first place.


Most new businesses fail–mine could easily have been one of them. Obviously I survived, but I learned a lot of valuable lessons from my close calls and you can, too. And you don’t have to repeat my mistakes to learn from them.

  1. I Bit off More than We Could Chew

On our first strategic planning retreat we got a little too motivated. We wanted to improve our organization’s ability to perform, so we agreed upon 13 different strategic goals. We meant well, but we couldn’t do it all at once. We were setting ourselves up for failure without realizing it.

Fortunately, we were able to realize the problem in time to course-correct and re-focus on just a few key areas. Once we completed those, we were free to give our full attention to our next set of strategic initiatives.

  1. I Tried to Do Everything Myself

In the beginning, I tried to facilitate our strategic planning meetings myself. I was concerned about cost and I felt I could be more effective than any outsider.

I ended up so busy facilitating that I couldn’t fully participate in the conversation—yet the other team members felt disempowered because I was talking so much.  When I finally hired an outside facilitator I was free to really get involved. Because I could talk less, the others felt free to get more involved, too.

  1. I Almost Stuck to the Plan—When Circumstances Had Changed

In the mid-to-late 2000’s we were experiencing explosive growth. We decided to put our strategic plan on hold for six months to focus on serving our clients. We almost didn’t make this decision—and that would have been catastrophic because we wouldn’t have been able to perform either task well. As a CEO, sometimes you need to be that leader and make tough decisions about how your team spends its time.

  1. I Trusted Our Memory Too Much

I remember during the first strategic planning meeting feeling very clear about what we had discussed and what we wanted to do. Then, over the next five or six months, that clarity faded. Some of our written goals started to just seem like something unimportant we had to check off. Others changed in our minds until we were off-track without even realizing it.

Eventually, I realized we had to revisit the plan a week or two after the retreat to make sure it really said what we meant—and make sure that the wording left no ambiguity that could lead to confusion or mission-creep later on.

The Bottom Line?

All of these early mistakes involved not really understanding my limitations or those of my colleagues and employees. I was inexperienced and overconfident—confidence is good, and it’s one of the reasons many of us are successful in the first place, but not when it leads to potentially dangerous mistakes. The fact of the matter is success does not come from enthusiasm alone. You also need to know what resources and abilities you have available and what your current situation demands—and does not demand. Learning how and where to invest your energy, and that of your colleagues and employees, is part of your role as a business leader.

Key Takeaways

  • Less is more – work on only 3-5 strategic initiatives at a time
  • Don’t be “penny wise, pound foolish” – Do not hesitate to hire outside help when you need it
  • Everybody plays – do not dominate discussions. Give others plenty of room to speak.
  • Don’t confuse the urgent with the important – Your job is to prioritize, even if that means setting aside important projects when the situation changes.
  • Always review written goals after the fact, to be sure the wording is clear and unambiguous for everybody. Do not trust yourself to remember what you meant six months later.

Many CEOs try to hand-pick a successor based on some personal idea of who would be good for the job. Sometimes the choice works out well. Sometimes it doesn’t. But the truth is that great leaders are found, not anointed.

I recommend using the strategic planning process to identify the people with the will and ability to lead.  When you assign responsibility for different strategic goals, do not tap people based on their titles alone. Instead, give those who show potential the opportunity to prove themselves.

Letting potential leaders prove themselves also gives your candidate the chance to earn the trust and respect of their peers. Then, when you decide to give someone increased responsibility, the others won’t feel left out or passed over. They understand the decision and they can see that the person earned the new position.

If someone has the will but not the ability, then you can teach them how to do the job. If they have the ability but not the will, sometimes you can motivate them. But do not try to groom someone for promotion who shows neither the ability nor the will. Find another candidate to help you achieve the goals and objectives of your organization.

In the end, this gets back to something I’ve been saying, directly or indirectly, in most of my posts; great businesses rely on the talent, resources, and innovations of the whole team. Your job as CEO is to develop leadership wherever you find it and let the cream rise to the top.

Key Takeaways

  • Choose a successor based on demonstrated will and ability.
  • Use the strategic planning process as a way to empower new leaders and let them prove themselves.
  • You can train the willing and you can motivate the able, but those with neither ability nor willingness you should let go.