How To Make The Employee All-Star Team

“If we must be a slave to habit, let us be a slave to good habits.”

-Og Mandino, Author

We all want to do well, get noticed, be appreciated and get rewarded for our efforts at work. Yet, too often, we see our peers getting promoted before us. They, in my words, have been selected to the employee All-Star Team. In some cases, we ask ourselves “what do they have going for them that we lack?” Is it that they’re smarter? Or, perhaps, are they better connected? Do they work harder? Is there some sort of nefarious conspiracy to keep you down? What the hell is their secret? These questions flash across our mind every time we read the Organizational Bulletin announcing the promotion of a peer. Well, after years of being in the corporate work arena, I think , just maybe, I have cracked the code. The Organizational Bulletin says nice things about the person, but rarely speaks to what they have actually done to earn the promotion. So, allow me to pierce the veil of secrecy surrounding what it takes to become an All-Star employee.

First, understand that the process an organization uses to identify an All-Star employee is not an exact science. In fact, the process is equal parts science and equal art. The art of identifying potential stars is based on a number of factors including personality, poise and presence. A person can be the undisputed subject matter expert in his or her field, yet exhibit a quirky personality. Similarly, the person might appear to be easily rattled under pressure. Personality characteristics that make colleagues and peers uncomfortable will always be a barrier to upward mobility. During my years of observing the potential All-Stars, I noticed that there was a quasi-science applied to making the determination of who should be in the pipeline for promotional opportunities. This quasi -science is based on observable and consistent behaviors demonstrated, over time, by the employee.

For purposes of discussion, I have reduced these observable and consistent behaviors to a list of 7 good habits one must develop and practice consistently. So, here are the 7 good habits to cultivate:

Habit #1: Develop Your Competence. Work on becoming really good at what you do—technically strong. Every day learn from your boss (read what he/she is reading), your peers, and outside experts about what “good looks like” in your profession or job. Read professional or technical journals, join professional organizations and remember that you must always strive to do your job right. Why is it that we “don’t have time to do it right, but we always have time to do it over.”  Your next job depends on how well you do in your current job. As they say in professional football, “if, on every play called, each player dominates at their respective position, the team will flawlessly execute and win the game.” Being competent is foundational to success.

Habit #2: Speak Truth:  Growing up Catholic, I learned a lot about discipline and how to comport myself in various situations. One lesson the nuns drilled into us was that a lie was a lie. In our little world, there were two types of lies—lies of commission and lies of omission. Either you admitted you did something (commission) or you conveniently forgot or chose to remain silent (omission) about some transgression. Forgetting or remaining silent would fall into the category of lies of omission.  The dynamics of the workplace give us ample opportunities to commit either  lies of commission or omission. Spin control is just another way of lying. Always speak the truth as you know it—based on the facts before you. The beauty in telling the truth is simple—you don’t have to keep track of truth. However, if you lie, you must remember who you lied to as well as when and where. Fudging or not disclosing key facts about a sales report or progress against goals is a form of lying. Truthfulness is a core competence.

Habit #3: Build Trust:   Trust is the characteristic that allows people to believe in you, to rely on you and to have confidence that your word is, truly, your bond. While there are many behaviors that might annoy or irritate your coworkers, they don’t rupture a relationship. You can be habitually late or an occasional jerk and people will make accommodations for these shortcomings. These traits will surely slow down your ascent to the next level. However, the quickest and most sure fired way to derail your career is to be deemed untrustworthy. Once you are labeled as untrustworthy, people might still interact with you (because they have to), but never invest confidence in anything you say or do. You become an organizational leper—isolated and avoided. My mother had a saying about how she dealt with an untrustworthy individual. She would say, “I wouldn’t feed him with a long handled spoon.” Being trustworthy is an asset when being considered for a promotion.

Habit #4: Be Helpful:  The workplace is made up of jobs, tasks and assignments. Each employee hunkers down and attempts to do the best job possible. Yet, if you are to be good to great at your job, you’re going to need help from someone else in the organization. At any given point in time during the day, we are either a supplier or a customer. In other words, we or someone either up or down the organizational structure needs something from us or we need something from them to complete a task or an assignment—or, put simply, to do our job. Real work is actually done in the white space between jobs. The potential All-Star employee is boundary spanning. He or she is willing to help and assist fellow employees to look good and do a better job. Helpfulness deepens the relationship bond between employees. It creates what I call relationship equity. While relationship equity is not transferrable to another company, it is real currency at your current company. When senior management in a company is considering who is ready to move up, your fellow employees view of you is a major consideration. Being helpful may not be a guarantee for promotion. Yet, not being helpful can be viewed a major negative. To be an effective team member, you must be helpful to others.

Habit #5: Network For Knowledge:  Networking is more than seeking face time with senior management or kibitzing with peers and other co-workers. Networking is a conscious effort to seek organization knowledge. Effective networking skills will garner not only knowledge but, also, mentors and advocates. Mentors can be very helpful, if you come prepared with specific questions. Based on either their position and/or their seniority, they can serve as a sort of ‘Sherpa’ guide to help you negotiate potentially treacherous passages while climbing the organizational mountain. An organizational advocate is someone who has either influence or power. Specifically, an advocate is someone who speaks up for you when you’re not in the room.  Advocates may or may not be mentors. Often times, the advocate has observed you from a distance. Perhaps, one of your mentors is a respected member of his/her team and shares with the advocate your potential. Whatever the case both mentors and advocates are shrewd investors with the time. If you stagnate or fail to grow, they typically will withdraw their support. It comes down to return on investment (ROI). In speaking to the concept of networking,   Linda A. Hall, co-author along with Kent Lineback, of “Being the Boss”, says it best, “Who you know determines what you know and what you know determines how far you go.”

Habit #6: Act With Integrity:  Years ago, the New York Times newspaper published a full page insert that stated, “If you’re good when nobody is watching, that’s integrity.” Integrity, according to the dictionary, is adherence to moral and ethical principles; soundness of moral character. Peter Drucker, the wise business sage declared, “there is no such thing as business ethics—either you are ethical or you’re not.” Every day, our integrity is challenged. These challenges never cease. We can act with integrity 99 out of 100 times. Yet, one moral lapse can destroy an impeccable reputation that took years to build. To paraphrase the great football coach, Vince Lombardi, integrity is not a sometime thing, it’s an everyday thing. Some people put six figure jobs and promising careers at risk to cheat on their expense reports or as my father would say they are, “Stepping over dollars to pick up pennies.” Others manipulate data to hide embezzlement, steal from customers or take credit for another employee’s work product. Integrity is non-negotiable. If you want to be considered a safe bet, always operate with integrity.

 Habit #7: Follow Your Personal Vision:    A vision should be aspirational. It is a strong desire for something. Your vision should be clear, compelling and achievable given a consistent investment of time and energy. As they say, “if you can conceive it, believe it, you can achieve it.”  So, before you get to your desired destination position you must mentally project yourself into that future state. Daily manifest your intentions. Expect delays, disappointments and detours. Your personal vision must have a stretch component built into it. You will have naysayers, doubters and detractors along the way. Although these types first appear as obstacles, they are really the incentive you need to persist in your journey. Nothing is more satisfying then proving doubters wrong.  Remember, “obstacles are what you see when you take your eyes off your goals.” Each day, meditate on and affirm your vision. Affirmations are belief statements about the future stated in the present tense. In other words, don’t say “I want to be a Director, VP or CEO—rather say, I am a Director, VP or CEO.” You must first unequivocally state your intent to bring about the desired event. There is something electric and energizing about an individual with a personal vision. She/he is driven and focused. If you are willing to work hard, others take notice and want to help you reach your stated goal. Treat failure like a temporary glitch on your screen of life. An old African proverb states, “To stumble is to move forward faster.”

Note: Talent Trumps is a trademarked entity of The Salter Group LLC.

Lessons in Leadership

Most of what I have learned about leadership, I learned by watching good and bad leaders in action. Sure, I read some deep and profound books and articles, attended some amazing and inspirational workshops and seminars and even had one- on- one conversation with reputed good leaders. Still, as I reflect back over the years, it was the day to day behavior and actions of so-called leaders that had the most lasting impact on me. In this piece, I want to share with my readers the following lessons I learned and daily tried to practice.

Avoid the “iceberg of ignorance”:  More specifically, you should not isolate yourself from the people in the trenches. Your line of sight from the tip of the “iceberg of ignorance” creates blinders and obstructs your vision. You don’t see what’s happening underwater. The Titanic, a majestic ship, equipped with the most advanced technology of its time, sank because they miscalculated the massiveness of the iceberg underwater. What they saw and attempted to navigate around was the visible tip of this monstrous iceberg. While Management By Walking Around (MBWA) may feel like a dated or antiquated concept in today’s digital world, practicing it will help you keep your ear to the ground. You will hear the rumbles and feel the organizational tremors before a full-scale earthquake shakes the enterprise apart.

Practice Situational Leadership. In other words, learn to know:

A. When to stand up and when to sit down. In my view, when things are going well and team goals are being met, the leader should sit down and direct all praises and kudos to the team. On the other hand, when the team stumbles or misses opportunities, the leader should stand up and take “the bullet.” As a leader, you can still hold the team members accountable without subjecting them to public humiliation. This leadership posture builds loyalty and trust.

B. When to lead and when to follow. A good leader is first and foremost a good follower. She/he recognizes that they are not the keeper of all insights in the universe. The smart leader realizes that his/her team members are smarter in certain areas of expertise. Sometimes, all the team needs from the leader are the necessary resources to do their job both effectively and efficiently. In the literature this would resemble the ‘servant leadership’ style. In fact, any good leader is first and foremost, a situational leader. Situational leadership intuitively knows when it is appropriate to tell, sell, join or consult with their team. As Will Rogers put it, “We are all dumb, just on different subjects.”

C. When to be boss and when to be buddy. Anyone who has been promoted out the team ranks to lead their team often struggles with ‘making the shift’ from buddy to boss. Believe me, it is not an easy shift to make. Part of the problem is that as a team member we often grumbled about, criticized and second guessed the former boss. Collective carping is often the glue that holds the relationship between the worker bees together. Now, we are the boss and know how the team really has felt about being lead. This is not a disadvantage. On the contrary, it is a key advantage. Never, ever, pretend that you can no longer socialize, time permitting, with your former associates. Your first official meeting agenda should address the topic head-on. You have a new job with new deliverables and expectations. Tell them that demands on your schedule as boss might create some social distance. However, emphasize that you, intimately, know what they expect from their leader and you plan on meeting their expectations. Going forward, you should plan to have lunch, periodically, with each team member as a one-on-one debriefing and upward feedback session from them to you.

Learn from Bad and Good Bosses:  If you have been fortunate enough to have had only good bosses, good for you. However, in most careers, you will have a ‘bad’ boss or two. He or she can be surly, controlling, intimidating, aloof or just downright mean-spirited. I could list the specifics behaviors a bad boss exhibits, but to enumerate is to limit. Suffice it to say that they sap you of energy, cause you to become paranoid and/or play employee against employee. So, what can you learn from such miscreants? What I took away from my bad boss experiences was to never emulate them. In stressful times, we are tempted to become dictatorial, overly demanding or just nasty, always remember how you felt when under siege by a bad boss. One motto that I live by is “No one is completely useless; they can always server as a bad example.”

In summary, while technically and grammatically a noun, leadership in my mind is an action verb. The whole purpose of leadership is to unleash the energy, creative spirit and talents of those whom we are entrusted to lead. It’s a big job and small minded people need not apply.




Off To Work We Go!

“Heigh Ho! Heigh Ho!

…It’s Off to Work We Go”

By Kwame S. Salter

As dusk begins to fade into dawn, millions of people are rudely or gently awakened by the sounds coming out of either their alarm clocks or smartphones. These programmed noises represent a clarion call for us to get our butts up. To these devices, it doesn’t matter how well you slept. They are programmed to get our bodies out of bed or off the couch. Some leap up as though startled by an intruder. Others, after finding the snooze button, simply roll over and snatch another few minutes of ‘shut eye’. Regardless of our ritual, we roll out of bed—stretch, yawn and at a certain age clear every orifice in our body of the buildup of overnight fluids. It is time to go to work. The office, the hustle, the job awaits us. For many, the motto is “I may rise, but I refuse to shine.” And, it is this attitude that they bring to work.

According to the literature, today’s workplace is not a very energizing place to go every weekday. Social scientist report that conflict is on the rise; that communication is impersonal and mechanistic, relying almost exclusively on emails; that meetings, for the most part, are timewasters. An annual study by Workfront reveals the following:

  1. Workers spend less than half their time [45%] on their primary job duties. The other 55% of their time, according to this study is consumed by administrative tasks [12%], some useful meetings [9%], interruptions [8%], wasteful meetings [7%] and everything else [6%].
  2. When asked what keeps them from getting things done?, workers list the following: Wasteful Meetings [59%], Lack of Process [36%], Excessive Oversight [35%], Excessive Emails [43%], and Poor Prioritization [35%].

The above stats are even more disturbing when you realize, according to Workfront that “for full-time workers, the mean hours worked per week is 44.3 hours.” Think about this for a moment. Assuming we are ‘alert and about’ 8 hours per day for seven days, our time at work would constitute 78.5% of our ‘alert and about’ time. No wonder, for many, the weekend is a recurring holiday. Yet, even the weekend cannot protect us from the workplace. According to the survey, “Nearly three fourths (72%) log into work/work email on the weekend.” When asked why they work beyond their standard hours, they replied “to get ahead of their work (52%) or because they have too much work to do (39%).”

I believe we have been misled by the experts who promote the ‘flavor of the month’ tips and techniques’ strategy. We are lead to believe that if we implement the latest process improvement technique or the latest leadership style/strategy that we will improve the climate of the workplace. Ultimately, it is not about efficiencies and effectiveness. It is first about harnessing the creative energy of our employees—everything else follows. What we must do is look at how the energy of our workers is being drained. When energy is low, creativity is low. When creativity is low, profits are low. We must remove those people and processes that function as ‘energy vampires’. Ideally each morning, an employee can get out of bed singing the Dwarf’s Marching Song—Heigh Ho! Heigh Ho! It’s Off to Work We Go!

The Martial Arts Approach to Discipline

Congratulations, you have been promoted to a position of management. In addition to the modest spike in pay, there is also an increase in both prestige and power. And, if you never have to deal with a low performing or difficult employee, the new position would be ideal. However, eventually, you will have to performance manage or discipline one of your direct reports. Sometimes, no matter what a boss does or how compassionate s/he might be towards their staff, there will come a time when performance management and/or disciplinary actions are unavoidable. It is at this point that the realization of having power over someone reveals the unbearable heaviness of supervision.

As the boss you must be exceedingly careful. If you don’t handle your enormous power both carefully and correctly, a wrongful discharge suit may very well be in your future. You have to keep a paper trail, just in case of potential litigation. Yet and still, you cannot ‘set the employee up’; you must give the person every opportunity to correct the performance deficiency and bring their performance back to an acceptable level. Now performance management is different from misconduct breaches, like stealing, falsification, fighting, et al. In the case of misconduct, there are instances where the employee is immediately terminated due to the gravity of the offense. However, in cases of substandard performance, the issue is not so black and white. The employee may be a good person who is trying very hard, but just isn’t “cutting it”, so to speak. In fact, the person could be a former peer who you’ve socialized and commiserated with on prior occasions. But, now you are the boss and others are watching to see how you handle this and other performance management issues. Well, in the HR world, we employ what is called “Progressive Discipline.”

Progressive discipline insures that, at the very least, procedural due process is accorded the employee. What this means is that you follow certain procedure steps to insure that the employee gets a fair shake. Although procedural due process is necessary, it might not always be sufficient. For example, simply creating the optics of procedural due process, when the decision to terminate the employee has already been made—and there is nothing they can do to change your decision is a failure to provide substantive due process. So, what’s a boss to do? Well, I always kept an open mind and told the employee on a performance improvement plan (PIP) that nothing would please me more than their proving my assessment of them wrong.

I employed what I called my Zen approach. My Zen approach took the elements of trained martial artists and applied them to performance management. In reality, my Zen approach was really Progressive Discipline interpreted in the way a Kung Fu practitioner would deal with a potential encounter. Therefore, I recommend using the following steps:

  1. Observe the person’s behavior (performance) before assuming anything,
  2. Warn before confronting (a face-to-face review of expectations meeting)
  3. Confront ( verbal warning) before injuring ( written warning)
  4. Injure (written warning)before maiming (performance improvement plan-PIP)
  5. Maim  (PIP) before you terminate employment
  6. Terminate before you belittle or shame
  7. Respect their efforts, to insure a dignified exit

In summary, what Progressive Discipline consist of is 1) a verbal warning, 2) a written warning, 3)  a performance improvement plan (PIP) that is SMART—i.e., Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time bound, and,4) a decision to retain or release.

HR’s Role: Advocate, Agent or Strategist?

“To often, HR’s role in the organization is to come in and shoot the wounded.”

-Kwame S. Salter

Over the past 20 years or so, HR’s role in the organization has gone through seismic changes. Before becoming Human Resources, we were Personnel; before we claimed we were a strategic function, we were satisfied with being administrative; and, before we sought to be respected as “partners in the business”, we were generally viewed as ‘aides- de –camps’ to the business leaders. In fact, in many organizations, the HR function was viewed as the final resort for employees who had plateaued or deemed incapable of making it in the metrics driven world of business. In fact, during interviews HR applicants often cited “getting along with people” as their primary qualification for the job. Granted, prior to technology taking over many of the processing and recordkeeping tasks, the HR function was primarily consumed with what I call ‘administrivia’. According to several experts, HR is still seen by many line managers as “clerical and lower level administrative aides to the organization.”

Yet, HR has always had three major roles in the organization—administrative, operational and strategic. Again, of the three major roles associated with HR, the administrative role was dominant. The operational role consisted of two conflicting realities that begged to be balanced—being an agent of the company and an advocate for the employees. Too often, the role of employee advocate consisted of setting up sham grievance procedures—be they 3 or 5 steps. While these grievance procedures were designed to satisfy ‘due process’, the outcome was often predetermined—the employee would lose. Instead of functioning as an honest broker in the process, the HR professional always knew who ‘buttered his/her bread’—the company. Thus, employees begin to take a cynical view of the process and the HR professional. With the administrative and operational roles being so prominent, there was little interest shown in or time left for addressing the strategic role.

However, in recent years the HR function has attempted to repurpose it’s role as more of a strategic contributor to business success instead of simply the organization’s cat’s paw—concerned, primarily, with administrivia and keeping employees in line. Metrics have replaced morale as the measuring stick for a successful HR function. Today’s HR professional should be more focused on “devising and implementing strategy” rather than policing the employee base. Being strategic does not mean abandoning the administrative and operational roles of HR—it means rebalancing the time, effort and resources of the HR function to achieve business results.

Put another way, HR—if it wants to become a real partner in the business—must be clued in and contribute to the stated business objectives and goals. For example, if the organization has determined that new products and innovation is needed to survive and prosper, the HR function’s strategic role is to attract, select and place employees with the necessary skill sets and qualifications. This may sound simplistic. Yet, so often HR often lags behind the organization’s shift in strategy. As Peter Senge, author of the 5th Discipline, stated, “the only sustainable competitive advantage a organization has is the ability of its employees to learn faster than the competition.” Therefore, the HR function/practitioner must be agile, nimble and responsive. Also, I might add, the HR practitioner must be business savvy, independent thinkers and courageous.

This brings me to my beef with current HR practices. Today, too many HR practitioners are more concerned with pleasing business leaders versus challenging them; with being flunkies instead of being independent thinkers; and, with rubber-stamping bad decisions rather than reversing them. To be strategic means to be fearless when moving into uncharted territory; it means to do what’s best for the business versus what’s best for maintaining a relationship with the business leader you support. HR may have gained a seat at the table—but, also has the potted plant sitting in the middle of the table. The effective HR professional must earn the right to be heard and respected or be relegated to being a silent partner. To avoid the fate of being a silent partner, HR practitioners have to establish themselves by:

  • Improving their business acumen
  • Taking the long view and becoming proactive
  • Sourcing the right type of employees needed execute business strategies
  • Employing the right metrics that drive business success

In regards to metrics, let me share a thought from Albert Einstein, who once observed, Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted.