Want Your People To Work Inspired? Be An Un-Leader

For many people, work is just a job. A way to pay the bills. A trudge to the next weekend. A no-fun way to mark days off the calendar. After all, they seem to think, that’s why it’s called “work.”

It doesn’t have to be that way. Seriously. It really is possible to create an atmosphere where people are not merely “satisfied” with their employment, they are energized and even inspired.

That’s what you find at Kronos Incorporated, a global provider of workforce management cloud solutions. Every day, Kronos serves more than 40 million people across 35,000 organizations in more than 100 countries. Among its many distinctions, the company’s best practices have been recognized as one of Glassdoor’s 100 Best Places to Work.

The vigilantly managed Kronos culture produces enviable performance as measured by recruitment, retention, customer satisfaction, innovation, and overall performance.

None of this came without a few bumps along the road. The journey is chronicled by CEO Aron Ain in WorkInspired: How to Build an Organization Where Everyone Loves to Work.

Ain talked with me about the principles and practices that have made his company a showcase of employee engagement.

Rodger Dean Duncan: Early in your tenure as CEO, your company had decent employee engagement scores but was having trouble attracting and retaining the best people. How did that wake-up call affect your focus as a leader?

Aron Ain: When I became Kronos CEO in 2005, our engagement scores were about on par with other global technology companies. We were average, middle of the pack. But who wants to be average? Other companies were winning those “best company to work for” awards—so why couldn’t we? I knew building a workplace where employees felt fully engaged, inspired, and supported would allow us to create better products and deliver better services for our customers. That would lead to great business outcomes.

Our journey gained momentum in 2010 with the hiring of a seasoned, quantitative-minded executive to head up human resources. We partnered by codifying our culture, branding it, enhancing our benefits, and taking many other steps discussed in my book. I also focused with new vigor on my own leadership behaviors, modeling values that mattered to employees—like transparency, trust, and humility. The results and progress to date are considerable, as reflected in our high engagement scores—yet we are by no means perfect. We continue to work hard on improving our culture and enhancing our attractiveness as an employer.

Duncan: A lot of C-suite executives talk about organizational culture. What does culture mean to you and what do you see as a leader’s role in reinforcing cultural norms implied in an organization’s values?

Ain: Creating an inspiring place to work is not something a CEO should delegate—and I don’t. Our corporate culture starts with me. We’ve branded our culture WorkInspiredand define it around three core competencies: character, competence, and collaboration. These competencies correspond to a number of specific behaviors we want employees—or Kronites, as we call each other—to adopt in their daily work. The more Kronites exhibit these behaviors, the more we can inspire innovation and the better we can serve our customers. It’s no coincidence that at the same time our global employee engagement scores increased our revenue nearly tripled.

Leaders at all levels play a critical role in reinforcing a strong culture. If you don’t live the culture, modeling it enthusiastically for others, how can you expect employees to buy into it? I strive to behave each day in ways that inspire employees to love where they work—by showing humility, trusting others, over-communicating, making time to connect personally with employees, having fun at work, projecting a sense of authenticity, and so on. Whether you run an organization of 500,000 or manage a team of five, you’re the culture’s chief caretaker and proponent.

Duncan: You use the term “Un-Leader.” What kind of behaviors should we expect to see an Un-Leader exhibit?

Ain: Un-leaders are humble. They put employees first. They downplay the status that comes with their titles, preferring to put team members on the same level as they are. They show basic respect. They admit when they don’t know the answer to a question. They solicit feedback. All of this is not to suggest that Un-Leaders are “people pleaser” types who shrink from making tough decisions. Quite the contrary: Un-leaders know how to step up and exert their will when they need to. On a deeper level, though, they understand that real power and influence come not from status and a sense of superiority, but from the affection, admiration, and respect we’re able to engender in our team members. Un-Leaders get results by inspiring others to pull together as a team and put out their best work all the time.

Duncan: What advice do you have for people who seem to define themselves by their professional titles?

Ain: I would respectfully suggest that they take a step back and put their titles in perspective. Is this really how they want to define themselves? Is a title ultimately what you want to be known for? And does a focus on title and status really inspire people to work their hardest for you and your customers? I argue that doing away with some of the psychological distance that titles create will produce even better results for everyone.

As an experiment, try forgetting about your title and behaving with more humility for a day or a week. Listen to employees more. Grab lunch or coffee with employees you don’t know well. Solicit their opinions. Admit you don’t know something. Above all, listen. See how people react. See how you feel as a leader. If you like the results, keep doing it. I’m not suggesting that a more egoless style is the only correct way to lead. There are many paths to success.

Duncan: Kibitzing, you suggest, is an important ingredient in a user-friendly work environment. What does kibitzing look and sound like in day-to-day practice?

Ain: Imagine that you go into your local plumbing supply store, and the proprietor spends 10 minutes chatting with you, asking about your life, your family, your hobbies, just about anything. He’s friendly, funny, and, when you speak, he really listens. That’s kibitzing—and that was my father when I was growing up. I saw him kibitz all the time. Today, as CEO, I think of myself as kibitzer-in-chief, and I look for any opportunity I can to have these casual yet important conversations. When I ride the elevator or stand in line at the cafeteria, I’ll make a point of chatting up employees and listening hard to their answers. Since our company is global, I also take casual conversation to the masses, using our internal collaboration platform, mass emails, and video blogs to generate friendly conversation and project a personal presence. It’s not the same as communicating face-to-face, but it makes a difference nonetheless.

Duncan: Your company uses a “Courage to Lead” model for training its managers. What are the components of that model?

Ain: Courage to Lead includes three behavioral areas.

First, we ask managers to be both bold and humble—that means trusting others, assuming competence, holding honest conversations, and solving problems proactively, even when this means making tough decisions.

Second, we ask managers to simultaneously challenge and support their people. We want them to communicate a strategic vision for their teams, empower people to take risks in support of that vision, create opportunities for people to develop in their careers and as people, and create environments in which everyone feels comfortable participating.

Finally, we ask managers to disrupt and connect during interactions with team members. That is, they are to challenge norms, build relationships across silos, put the company’s interests first, and behave in ways that ensure an exceptional customer experience.

All of this is a tall order, but vitally important. As I like to say, every employee deserves a great manager—they really do! To help managers deliver, we measure their progress in cultivating these behaviors and offer extensive training, coaching, and other support.

Tips on becoming an Un-LeaderMCGRAW-HILL

Duncan: A well-conceived strategy, you note, is critical to an organization’s success. What are some keys to “evangelizing” the strategy so people are genuinely engaged in its implementation?

Ain: Strategy, when clearly communicated across the company, helps employees feel engaged and love where they work. If you know your company’s strategy and understand how you personally contribute to it, your work takes on new meaning and importance in your mind.

Recognizing this reality, we go all-out every year to evangelize our strategy among Kronites. Along with our leadership team, I spend months discussing the strategy at department and team meetings. Managers discuss the strategy with their teams, “cascading” it through every corner of the organization—and then connecting employees’ individual goals back to the corporate strategy. We also brand the strategy to further evangelize it, including collateral that Kronites can post in their workspaces. In addition, we resource the strategy. If one of our key initiatives for the year is not being supported by funding, activity, or people power, I’ll ask, “Are we not serious about this goal?”

Duncan: Kronos has hundreds of “boomerang” employees—people who left the company to work elsewhere, then returned. How do you lure those people back, and how does your company benefit?

Ain: We welcome boomerangs back because we believe in one core philosophy: We don’t own our employees’ careers. If they have a great offer, we support their decision to take it. Sure, we’d love to retain them and do everything in our power to do so, but if they choose to leave and they were a high-performer, we let them know that the door is open if they want to come back home.

It makes great business sense to court boomerangs. Contrary to what many people think, these employees tend to be more loyal than other employees—they have experienced other workplaces and appreciate what our company has to offer. Boomerangs also bring new skills and experiences back into our company. Some, for instance, join startups. Upon their return, we gain the benefit of their entrepreneurial spirit. Others go to work for our customers, enriching our teams with that perspective upon their return.

Welcoming boomerangs also benefits Kronos by garnering us considerable goodwill among employees. They like that we respect employees’ career ambitions enough not to hold a grudge when they leave. In many cases, Kronites leave our company for family reasons, so when we welcome them back, employees sense that we truly care about employees and their happiness. Guess what? They’re right! All of this helps build engagement and a sense among our employees that Kronos truly is a wonderful place to work.

Duncan: Most people can see the value in having an “attitude of gratitude.” In your company’s culture, what are some successful ways of saying “thank you” to people?

Ain: First, it’s vital for leaders to show gratitude, both at formal events and in daily conversations with employees. I thank Kronites in virtually every speech I give—Kronites are probably sick of hearing it! But gratitude shouldn’t just come from the top. It’s important to give employees opportunities to recognize one another, something we do through a formal peer recognition program where Kronites can acknowledge each other for demonstrating behaviors we’re trying to cultivate.

We also encourage teams and departments to maintain their own recognition programs, we put programs in place that allow employees to recognize their managers for doing a great job, and we thank employees as a group by holding large special events, such as our annual employee appreciation picnic or Thanksgiving luncheon. In order for gratitude to become a norm, everyone must have a chance to practice it, and it must flow in all directions.

Duncan: If you had to capture in a 140-character tweet what you’ve learned about helping people love their work, what would that tweet say?

Ain: Businesses thrive when people love where they work. And building an engaged workforce is deeply joyful for leaders. #GoKronos! #WorkInspired!


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