Breaking Glass is Celebrating Three Years

Amidst these very tumultuous and challenging times across the globe, it has become increasingly difficult to find reasons to celebrate and give thanks.  I have lots of reason to give thanks this week.  Three years ago I said goodbye to my corporate HR career and put out my Breaking Glass sign.  The main drivers were to create more balance in my life by spending more time with my family as well as continue to do the work I love to do, just perhaps a little differently than over my 25-year HR career.  It was a scary change to make after having a very successful in-house HR career and not having any clients lined up to kick off my consulting business, but it just felt like the right time. Shortly after making the jump, I found myself an unplanned empty nester, in the truest sense of the term – my daughter moved back to our home town of Halifax to attend University that fall (that was planned!) but my husband unexpectedly left our marriage at the same time.  That left me wondering if I should abandon my dream and go back to the corporate environment given the uncertainty and the need to pay my bills.  However, I was committed to and excited about Breaking Glass and decided that this was what I was meant to do, so I decided to stick with it!  But it was scary.

My first three years as Principal of Breaking Glass have been amazing.  I learned a lot about myself, about being an entrepreneur, and about other people throughout this journey.  I thought I’d share a few of those learnings:

    • It’s ok to not know what you’re doing all the time. When I received the first request from a prospective client for a proposal, I said with my outside voice, “Sure I’ll get you something by tomorrow”, but my inside voice said “I have no idea how to write a proposal or what to charge”.  There are so many resources out there that helped me set up my business, create a website and make many more decisions along the way.  Both online resources and even more valuable, friends, peers and colleagues that were happy to share their experiences and tools.  I went from being the one everyone counted on to have the answers, to accepting I won’t know all the answers and became more comfortable reaching out for help.  So, it’s ok to not have all the answers.
    • Networking is not a bad word.  I used to always hear the term networking when people were in transition and looking for work and often wondered if they were really networking or trying to sound busy.  I realize I love networking as it gives me the opportunity to reconnect with friends, colleagues and business partners that normally I’d be too busy to reach out to.  The three degrees of separation is amazing – everyone is so willing to meet for a coffee, give you ideas, and introduce you to others in their network that they think might be helpful.  I cannot say thank you enough to everyone I’ve connected with who took time out of their busy day to meet with me.  After three years in business, I’ve yet had to do any marketing or cold calling, as all of my business has come from my network.  So, networking works!
    • Be true to your mission, values and trust your gut. I learned this as I incorporated as some of my mentors and colleagues advised me against naming my company Breaking Glass.  They felt people will automatically default to the assumption of “breaking the glass ceiling” and pigeon hole what my business represents.  For my entire HR career, I found myself always offering the same advice to HR practitioners and business leaders – sometimes you have to break some glass in order to affect change.  It therefore felt natural that Breaking Glass would be my company name.  Granted I may need to explain that sometimes, but when I do, I get a very positive and encouraging response.  With that, the intent of Breaking Glass was always to partner with CEO’s, Presidents and business leaders to help them find the courage to make the tough decisions in order to drive the change they are seeking in their business.  I wanted to be able to focus and specialize in this executive level HR partnership and leave the specialized, more tactical (yet no less important) work to those functional experts such as payroll, health and safety, and even recruiting.  And that’s exactly what I’ve been able to do.  So, know what you want to be known for and stick to it.  Trust your gut.
    • Believe in yourself. As I grew in my career, I often received feedback that I was not “a typical HR practitioner” for many reasons.  My decision-making, my style, my approach, my business acumen, and even my sense of humor seemed to stand out amongst other HR practitioners.  I’m not sure I understood that or more importantly realized that could become a competitive advantage when I embarked on my own HR consulting business.  I continue to hear how unique I am and I actually now believe that!  As a result, I’ve gained the confidence to believe I can do this and make a difference in the working lives of so many people.   I also know there is still much I don’t know and I will never hesitate to reach out for help, or bring in subject matter experts who may know more than I do in particular areas to provide my clients the best counsel they deserve.  So, believe in your uniqueness and accept your weaknesses.

I’ve had my share of ups and downs in the past three years, however, when I hung up the “corporate” hat and put on the “entrepreneurial” one three years ago, I have never looked back.  I have also never been happier.  I have appreciated the lessons I’ve learned, and most importantly I have appreciated the support from so many friends and colleagues, old and new.

As so many businesses are gravely affected by the recent pandemic, I too am not immune to those affects.  I’m choosing to take this opportunity to pay it forward – offering support to as many businesses as I can who may not have the HR support to help them navigate through these difficult times or just need another perspective.   We are all in this together.  While I’ve learned to accept a level of uncertainty in my three-year journey so far, one thing is for certain – this crisis will pass.  If I can do anything to help now or in the future, please don’t hesitate to connect with me.

Thank you – please stay safe and be well.

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Creating Fun in the Workplace

While the workplace is aptly named based on what is expected while we are there – to work – it’s also critical that we encourage having some fun while at work.  Fun can come in many forms and can be  subtle gestures or grand occasions.  Whatever method you support , without having some fun in the workplace you are destined to have high turnover and/or less engaged employees.  Over the years I have seen and participated in so many ways to bring some laughter/happiness to the work day  so I thought I’d share some of them.  Some may be applicable in your workplace, or they may inspire ideas that could work for you.

    • Celebrate Halloween with costume contests and have the executive team be the judges (they must participate as well)
    • Have candies/chocolates on your desk and have an open house to invite employees to your office – sometimes employees need an invite to come or they stay far away!
    • Decorate office space for birthdays
    • Wear fun socks or shoes to provoke dialogue
    • Bring home made cookies/cupcakes (preferably that you made yourself) and pass them out
    • Have a putting green set up in the office and charge $1/3 balls with money going to charity
    • Take employees away for a fun day – indoor volleyball, baseball game, etc..
    • Give back to the community by having teams participate together
    • Ensure at town halls, or other opportunities in front of the organization, the leadership team show the camaraderie they have with the rest of the organization – have some laughs during the presentation
    • Create a video to tell all employees they are getting new office chairs where the President is the star of the video demonstrating the features of the chair (seriously, we did do this)
    • Provide ice cream to employees working in hot conditions during the summer – for a “wow” factor, drive in an ice cream truck and serve the ice cream yourself (that’s me in the photo above!)
    • Televise big sporting events or news features on TV’s – if no TV’s, bring some in
    • Have theme days – launch of a movie, sport jersey days, Hawaiian dress, etc.
    • When launching a new program, do it with a splash – have cake, music, entertainment…
    • Talk about your pets, children, travel – show the team you are human too!

As leaders, we set the tone by our own behavior.  If we aren’t caught laughing and having fun at work, your teams will assume it’s not OK.  If necessary, schedule time in your calendar every day to walk around and find ways to make someone laugh or smile.  It doesn’t take much time but will be remembered for many years.

If you want some help generating ideas on how to create fun at work,

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The Three Most Important Words a Leader Can Say

To follow up on my previous article about the importance of communication, and for those of you that have worked with me in the past, you know how passionate I am around these three very powerful words:

“WE HEARD YOU”

What do those words say to someone?  That you listened, that you cared, and that you did something about what they said.  If you want to improve engagement and communication in your organization, seek ways to genuinely use these words.  Genuine being critical – as powerful as these three words are, they can be equally destructive if you say them but have no evidence that you actually heard them.

Let’s use employee engagement surveys as an example.  I am a huge proponent of reliable, valid and relevant engagement surveys as they provide a means of encouraging feedback, gathering insight, and if executed well, affecting change in the organization.  When I hear either HR practitioners or business leaders speaking negatively towards these surveys, its invariably because they didn’t execute them properly in the past and ended up with the destructive result I refer to above.  Multiple times, in multiple businesses, I used the same process for engagement surveys.  The survey tool used is not as relevant as is ensuring you use an external vendor to gather the information.  Trust and confidentiality are critical in getting relevant feedback and employees don’t view internally managed surveys such as Survey Monkey as confidential (even though they very well may be).

If you follow this process with engagement surveys, I am confident you will see great return on your investment:

    1. Choose a trusted partner/vendor to execute the survey.
    2. Ensure questions are relevant and tailored to your business.
    3. Communicate the heck out of the launch of the survey.
    4. Ensure your HR team is fully knowledgeable on the process and tools.
    5. Send teaser notices to employees that the survey is coming.
    6. Try to brand the survey. For example, at Workopolis, we called it “Workopinion”.  At Dell, we called it Tell Dell.  At Cardinal Health we called it VOE (Voice of the Employee).  At a plastics manufacturing business we called it MyVoice.  I’ve sometimes created contests with employees in helping name the survey which helps drive awareness of and engagement in the process.
    7. Send an invite communication from the CEO, stating his/her support for the survey and encouraging participation.
    8. Throughout the participation period (usually two weeks) send reminders encouraging employees that their voice matters and you want to hear from them. I’ve created intentional competition between different departments or business units by updating the leaders where they stand on participation so they can drive participation in their businesses.  The higher the participation, the more relevant and diverse the feedback will be.
    9. Send another CEO communication at the close of the survey, thanking everyone for their participation, announcing the participation rate, and advising of what they can expect next. Remind employees their voice matters.
    10. Upon receipt of feedback, plan for and conduct mandatory feedback sessions where all employees (max 20 at a session) attend a session. The local manager and HR practitioner will share the feedback specific to that group (surveys will allow you to drill down to feedback usually when you have at least five participants from one group complete it – less than five would roll up to the next level manager for confidentiality purposes).  It is imperative at these sessions that you seek insight into what the results are – ask probing questions so that you understand why a score is particularly high or low.  This is where the most insight comes from and allows for more relevant action planning going forward.
    11. One of the most critical steps but the least used, is creating action plans. Go to the lowest possible level in organization that the survey will allow, and have plans for each department or division.  This needs to be created and owned by the individual departments and their leaders and not at the senior level.  Hold them accountable for creating meaningful action plans based on their feedback/results and execute against those throughout the coming year.  Actions taken coming directly from the feedback equates to We Heard You.
    12. Communicate to the entire organization progress against these action plans and presumably positive outcomes. Again, saying We Heard You throughout these steps reminds employees that their voice mattered and any change is as a result of their feedback, and not random or irrelevant change.
    13. Do it all over again a year later.

If you follow these steps, the net result should be a positive change in scores as employees will now believe their voice matters and “We Heard You” was genuine.  Being able to attach these three words to any changes made in an organization facilitates the change management process, gains buy-in to the change, and holds employees accountable for the feedback they provided.

For help in how to genuinely say “We Heard You” in your organization,

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If there was one simple answer to how to improve your culture, what would it be?

Communication.  

I could end the article now as I’m guessing you know what I mean, but I’m told one-word articles don’t have enough impact!

As I reflect on my last 27 years as an HR Business Partner, I can put all of the feedback, suggestions and ideas I have used in every business and industry I’ve worked into a funnel, and out from the end of that funnel comes one word – communication.  Think about it.  As an HRBP or CEO, you have likely met multiple times and spoke about the importance of some or all of the following:

    • Performance feedback/reviews
    • Engagement surveys
    • Round tables
    • Town halls
    • Recognition programs
    • Conducting 1×1’s
    • Timely team meetings (be it daily huddles, weekly meeting, monthly reviews, etc..)
    • Update emails to the organization perhaps at year end or in challenging times
    • Progressive discipline
    • Training and development
    • Lunch & learns
    • Etc…

All of these have one common denominator – communication.   If I was given a magic wand to solve any organization’s people challenges but was told I only had one strategy to use, without a doubt I’d focus on improving communication.  I’ve never met an organization that communicates too much or too often.  I don’t believe there is such a thing as too much communication.

The most impactful areas to focus on in an effort to improve communication are:

    • 1×1’s – ensure every manager (right up to the CEO) conducts, at minimum, bi-weekly 1×1’s with each of their direct reports. I always tell my employees that this time slot (usually one hour) is their undivided time with me so they set the agenda.  I prefer it not be a debrief of what they are working on but rather a coaching/mentoring opportunity for them to bring challenges or concerns and we talk through ways to manage them.
    • Town Halls – I like to see a quarterly cadence wherein the leaders of the organization stand up in front of all employees and provide updates on the overall business and the key priorities for that quarter. Notice I said leaders and not leader?  The CEO definitely should be the featured act, however, giving exposure to the other members of the leadership team and even beyond that, to employees that have lead a key project, or are looking for some public speaking experience, or you are grooming to be a leader, are great to profile during these town halls.  For businesses that can’t gather all employees live at the same time, then simply record each town hall and distribute to employees or remote locations to make available for viewing.
    • As I’ve learned through Lean Six Sigma or Continuous Improvement practices, brief huddles (15-30 minutes) daily with employees from every function is a great way to have everyone marching to the same beat and focused on the most relevant imminent tasks. This keeps everyone informed, brings them together on a regular basis, and often builds better camaraderie and communication between departments.
    • Announcing new hires – I’m a huge fan of announcing all new hires, regardless of department, title, etc. I ask for a photo in advance of them starting (obtain permission to distribute of course) as well as a few sentences that describes the new hire personally (e.g. family, interests, hobbies, etc.) that they would be comfortable sharing.  We’ll take care of the relevant work experience portion of the announcement.  The new employee feels very welcomed and special, and existing employees know who to have a look out for on their first day.
    • Announcing terminations – contentious I know! In every organization there is great debate around this one.  Since transparency is so important to me and is a foundation of trust, I am a firm believer that organizations should announce when someone has left, regardless of the reason.  You don’t have to announce the reason if it’s not appropriate, but too often we become victim of the rumor mill or even worse creating productivity issues when someone leaves the organization and we failed to communicate it.  I believe you can never go wrong with transparency but you can if you hide or avoid sharing relevant information, such as departures.
    • Be present – instead of sending a text or an email, consider picking up the phone, or even better, walk over to the person you want to talk to. Too often we are caught behind our phones and computers and the face to face communication has become much less prevalent.  Find time every day to walk the office, facility, store or wherever the bulk of your employees are and say hello.  Too often employees keeping the company running every day don’t even know who the senior leaders are much less ever talk to them.  This may require some effort to schedule time in your calendar if it’s not natural for you to do, but trust me, 30 minutes of this a day will significantly improve communication flow as well as what employees communicate about you.

Communication – critical for engagement, easy to do, transparency is critical, often is not often enough, and to quote George Bernard Shaw, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place”.

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Differences Between an HR Manager and an HRBP

(This is not about these two job titles per se, it’s about the differences in how HR practitioners act – I am assigning the two titles for this discussion).

Many business leaders are not familiar with, much less buy into, the Human Resources Business Partner (HRBP) model.  My experience has shown that this is because they don’t understand what it is.  Let me try to explain the HRBP model and why I think it is misunderstood.

Depending on the industry you work, HR may not have evolved as quickly as a function to gain the respect it is meant to have.  When I ask CEO’s what keeps them up at night, I always hear one or both of these responses – capability/culture and/or the P&L/costs.  That tells me the two most important partners to the CEO are the HR leader and the Finance leader.  You’d be hard pressed to come up with one decision that is made for the business that doesn’t impact both people and money.  So how a business leader does not have their senior HR person at their table at all times like they do their Finance leader baffles me.  Nowadays I do see HR at many tables, but it now becomes a matter of how effective that HR practitioner is while in that seat that affects the reputation of HR.

Here are some examples I see of the different areas of focus between an HRBP and an HR Manager:

HRBP:

    • Strategic partner to CEO/Leadership team
    • Organizational structure
    • Total rewards
    • Talent acquisition strategy
    • Talent development/succession planning
    • Employee retention
    • Engagement measures and strategies
    • Change management
    • HR systems advisor
    • Complicated employee relations issues
    • Executive advisor on HR issues
    • Legal issues
    • Business impact of HR decision

HR Manager:

    • Source of HR information/guidance to business
    • Sourcing/interviewing/hiring/onboarding
    • Compensation and benefits management
    • Management of employee records
    • Policy and procedure management
    • Performance management
    • Engagement strategy execution
    • Training and development
    • HR systems administration
    • Day to day employee relations issues
    • Health, safety and wellness
    • Legislative compliance
    • Compliance to HR policies and the law

An HRBP understands the business priorities, takes into consideration the strategic objectives of the organization, considers how the business leader would want to execute on something, THEN assesses the options based on the HR policies, programs and employment laws and comes up with the best business solution.  The HR Manager typically thinks linearly, focusing mostly on the policies, programs and laws.  Sadly what I tend to see a lot of is the HR practitioner operating as a Manager, not as an HRBP.

Let me share an example of how I saw this come to life in an organization.

In an operations/warehouse environment, an employee collapsed with a stroke while at work one evening.  Colleagues performed CPR to revive him and emergency responders transported him to the hospital in a conscious state.   The night shift crew were naturally very shaken and concerned for their friend.  Early the next morning when the day shift arrived, a rumor had circulated that this employee had passed away the night before.  The HR Manager and Senior HRBP were speaking in the office when a colleague of the employee came to the office in tears, asking if the rumor was true.  The HR Manager  didn’t want to call his wife too early in the morning to get an update on his condition.  The HRBP wanted to call his wife, get an update, then gather employees together to share the update and alleviate the concern.  The HR Manager would not agree on the basis she is not authorized to speak to employees about an employee’s medical condition.   The HR Manager was steadfast that no one from the company can speak to employees and share anything related to this employee.  The HRBP was adamant that the employees deserve an update and suggested in order to protect privacy they wouldn’t share details beyond he was alive and stable.  There didn’t appear to be a common ground.

So who was right? Does the employee’s right to privacy trump alleviating concern amongst peers?  Technically the answer is yes, so the HR Manager was not wrong in her approach.  However, as an HR business partner, we have to think about the impact of the 80 employees on the floor worried, thinking their colleague may have passed away, and what impact that has on the productivity of their day.  Understanding the business issue (employee productivity and concern), weighing the risks (employee privacy) and coming up with a recommendation for the business leader is what HR is there for – if we fail to approach most issues this way, and simply react based on what the “book” would tell us, then we are not doing the business or the employees justice.   The business leader, after hearing the risks, decided he wanted employees to be brought up to speed on his condition and they contacted the wife for an update then gathered employees together to share that he was doing well.

As effective HRBP’s we often have to look beyond the linear, technical answer and create a solution that satisfies the business need.  I’ve made recommendations that would create some legal exposure, but the decision was still better for the business overall.  Thinking linearly, literally, and within confines of the “rule book”, or think broadly, outside the box, and with the business needs as the priority (without breaking laws of course).  I would argue the most effective HR practitioners are the latter thinkers.

One other area that sets HRBPs apart from HR Managers is influence skills required to adequately support senior leaders.  Being an effective HRBP requires courage, to speak openly and candidly with the business leader, especially when it may contradict the leader’s thinking.   HR often gets a bad wrap because we will simply execute what the business leader thinks we should do, versus have the courage to provide opposing views and solutions.  Speaking from experience, the last thing a business leader wants is simply for their team to do what they say.  Very few employees have the courage to challenge the leader of a business – I believe it is the HRBP’s responsibility, not only to the leader, but to the business as a whole, to ensure they have all the information, think about all the options, and consider contrary views.  Someone just has to be willing to help them do that – and I see that someone as the HRBP.

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A New Year – time for reflection, gratitude and optimism

As we begin this new year, new decade, tradition has instilled upon us the need to reflect on our past, think about what lies ahead and what we may choose to do differently as a result. If I may, I am going to make this slightly more personal than previous and future articles, mostly because I can (😊), but I promise to relate it back to the work environment along the way!

This week I will host an annual family brunch that we do every year. This tradition started many years ago by one of my cousins who sadly passed away far too early at the age of 49. At times we’ve had up to 65 family members attend (my father was one of nine children and I am the youngest of their 22 offspring) and it is filled with stories, traditions, laughter, memories, pictures, piano and singing. It is a great reminder to me and my now 20-year-old daughter of the importance of making time for family and reflecting on memories and building new ones.

A few days after that I’m flying to England to take my daughter for her semester abroad exchange program at Oxford University. Watching her build her path to success and excellence over the years fills me with pride and warmth. She has shared with me how I and her father have acted as significant role models for her in achieving success, setting and going after her goals, treating others with respect and kindness, and enjoying the fruits of her labour.   This often causes me to look back over the years and wonder how did we do this? Here’s my attempt at an answer for that.

The field of HR found me when I began my MBA back in the early 90’s. Upon graduating with an HR concentration, it was clear to me then that HR was what I wanted to do. After my first few HR jobs, I was determined to someday be the head of HR for a large Canadian business, and I set the course to get there. Throughout the years I had to make some tough choices, as while my career was extremely important to me, so was being a present and supportive mother to my daughter. Often times those desires clash and if I had a dollar for every time I coached both leaders and employees on the importance of work life balance I’d have retired and moved to Hawaii years ago.

For most of my daughter’s life I was a single mom. Work life balance was quite a challenge for me, especially in some of the organizations I worked – fast paced, demanding, strong work ethic, etc… Add to that my work ethic – hands on, in the field, accessible to business partners and my team, etc… I was determined to do the best job I could at both – my career and being a mother. So, here’s what I have learned and shared as perspective over the years on work life balance:

    • First and foremost, work life balance is what you make it. Most companies will take whatever you will give. I’ve rarely had a manager say “No, don’t be silly, I don’t need you to put in that extra effort right now when things are so crazy around here”.   It was up to me to determine how much I give to my work, when to say “sure” and when to say “no”. Don’t leave it up to your organization to define that for you. You own your work life balance.
    • Find ways to incorporate the two (work and family). I had the great fortune of hosting our key talent from Workopolis at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver as winners of our top recognition award that year.  Seven employees, along with a guest, spent 3 days attending Olympic events. Everyone brought their significant other. I brought my 10-year-old daughter.
    • In every role, every business, my colleagues all knew not to schedule meetings with me after 5:00pm if they needed me physically present. I made a deliberate attempt to be home for dinner every night, especially since I often travelled for work. When I was in my home town, dinnertime was very sacred to me. That didn’t mean I had the luxury of only working 8-5, it simply meant I packed up every day in time to be home for dinner, and after my daughter went to sleep, I’d often open up my laptop.
    • As I evolved in my career, I learned to be very deliberate in the organizations I joined to ensure the values were akin to mine. As I took on more senior roles, where I was responsible for molding the clay of the culture of the organization, naturally the values were aligned. As employees saw me balancing demands for myself, and supporting their demands wherever possible, the culture evolved to one of trust and respect. If work life balance (beyond stating it in a job posting) wasn’t a “thing” in a company, then I wasn’t willing to join. Simple as that.
    • Finally, finding a manager or business leader to act as your mentor, friend, and sometimes moral compass that you can count on to support you in your endeavor for balance is key to success. This is a two-way street though – you have to build the trust and prove you can be counted on to get the job done and meet/exceed your goals and expectations in order for your manager to support you. I have been SO fortunate in my career to have had worked for great leaders. At times of personal need, whether it be a sick parent, a child who sprained her ankle at a volleyball game mid afternoon, a school assembly when your child is being recognized for outstanding student of the year, or a dog’s surgery, when I’m needed as a mom, without fail, I will be present. But I never let my organization or my boss down – I always found ways to be there for both.

As we ring in a new year, a new decade, and we think about things we want to do differently, I encourage my HR colleagues to think about how to achieve balance both personally and in your organization, and also business leaders to consider the tone you set for your organization so your teams know while jobs can be replaced, family cannot. Creating a culture of trust, respect and accountability equates with a culture that supports career and personal life.

I’d like to wish all of my colleagues, clients, friends and family a very happy and healthy new year. I hope this new decade brings you success, laughter, gratitude and optimism. A special wish to my remarkable daughter as she embarks on another one of her many experiences of a lifetime. I am so proud of you and can’t wait to see what lies ahead for you!

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Living Your Company Values

In my last article, I discussed what Values Based Leadership (VBL) was and why you should practice it.  No theory, no recommendation, no principles matter if leaders aren’t prepared to “walk the talk”.  Similarly, with VBL, if leaders aren’t prepared to live the values every day, VBL will never succeed in your organization.  But what does walking the talk, or living the values, look like?    I will share a couple of real examples that have stayed with me over the years where I watched VBL in action.

One example:  An entry level employee had decided one day to violate a company policy and then come to management and complain that they suffered some damage to their personal property while violating the policy and wanted compensation for those damages.  In review of the complaint, not only was it impossible for the damages to occur during that activity, but even more importantly, the employee did not have permission to do what they did and it clearly violated a written policy.  The manager denied compensation for the alleged damages.  This employee was naturally frustrated, went home that evening and took to social media to share his feelings not only about his manager, but about the company.  He made derogatory remarks about both.  The following morning, the marketing manager who oversaw the company’s social media sites, brought the post to our attention.  We brought the employee to the wall where we had our values proudly displayed, which included:

    • …”a positive mindset coupled with an unrelenting work ethic…”
    • …”we will succeed by working together as one team…”
    • …”we accept accountability for our actions and our results…”

While facing the values wall, we asked the employee to share with us which one of our values does his post from the night before align with.  Dumbfounded, he just stood there staring at the wall.  Then the manager said “you’re fired”.

Another example:  I received complaints about a member of a leadership team whom employees were fearful of.  He spoke aggressively, intimidated employees, didn’t work collaboratively with other departments, and overall created an atmosphere of hostility in his department and other departments that worked with him.  We conducted an investigation and while he denied the allegations, the language in our values were very clear:

    • …”we are genuine, open, direct and respectful…”
    • …”we are inclusive and work together with confidence and trust…”
    • …”we are trusted to do the right thing…”

While this leader was integral to the daily operation of the business, as well as a pending physical move to a new location, the President came to the conclusion he had no choice but to terminate this leader to ensure the organization understood we live the values, no matter what.

Another example:  On a scheduled day off, an employee walked into the company which had a small retail section on premises, and openly took $400 worth of product.  Two employees at work at the time witnessed this.  The next day one of those witnesses came forward to tell us what he saw.  We conducted an investigation, including reviewing video footage and interviewing the witnesses and it was clear the employee took the products.  The easy decision was terminating the one employee who stole.  One of the witnesses (not the one that came forward) said he did not see anything.  Video surveillance suggested otherwise.  The manager decided to also terminate the second employee who witnessed the theft but wouldn’t come forward, for not living the values:

    • …”we stand for honesty, loyalty and humility in everything we do…”
    • …”what we do when no one is looking defines us…”

These are all great examples of walking the talk – leaders having the courage to live the values and set an example to the rest of the organization that they mean what is written on the walls.  Every decision like these contributes to molding the clay of the culture you want to create.

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Why Values Based Leadership Works

I wish I was smart enough to say I deliberately began practicing Values Based Leadership (VBL) during my first Vice President role in 2007…but I’m not! I didn’t even realize this already had a name until I started Breaking Glass in 2017 and began doing research. Here’s my story on how I became so passionate about VBL.

I considered Workopolis an HR start-up when I arrived in 2007, as they had the same HR policies and practices that their then-parent company, The Globe and Mail, had. Yes that’s right – a young .com company adopted a conservative newspaper’s HR practices.   I was handed the final version of a draft employee handbook for review before launching and after page three I literally threw it in the garbage. It felt wrong – it did not sound like the way we would want to talk to or even treat our employees. How do I begin to develop the HR programs and policies for this new and growing environment? I was missing something really important – the answer to “what do we stand for and who do we want to be as a company?”.

We then set out to create our mission, vision and values statements. We held focus groups with employees to understand what was important to them as valued members of the company. From that insight we were able to create The Workopolis Promise (aka our mission, vision and values statement). Despite some leadership books at the time telling me that you shouldn’t have to put your values on the wall for everyone to see, that they should be inherent, I vehemently disagreed with that approach and we proudly displayed our Promise on computer backgrounds, walls, mousepads, every town hall meeting… so that every employee would see it each and every day. That’s how the Promise became part of everyone’s heart and soul.

Now I had a place to start to develop HR programs/polices.

Over the next few years we developed several HR programs, including performance management, reward and recognition, compensation and benefits, onboarding, engagement surveys, and an employee handbook, all at the same time as tripling our employee base and taking on expansion of new office space. All of these program were created AROUND the Promise. For example, performance reviews were weighted 50/50 – 50% based on one’s objectives (which I call the “whats”) and 50% based on the values (the “hows”). Rewards were issued monthly based solely on catching team members exhibiting the values. Bonuses were paid based on company results and results from the performance reviews (don’t forget that half was based on the values). Employees were interviewed and hired based on the values, they were promoted or fired based on the values. The design of our new office space was based on our values. Get the picture? Every decision became easy once we were all clear on what was important to us. Leadership became much simpler.

I decided to test this theory that I happened upon with the Workopolis experience in several subsequent companies I have worked with and without fail, every time, we increased engagement scores, we reduced turnover, we improved communication, we improved our employment brand, we made sound decisions because the answer was staring us in the face every time we looked in the mirror and saw our values.

What I have learned over the past 12 years of practicing VBL is that leaders will gain:

  • Courage and creativity in their decision making
  • A source for sound and consistent judgment
  • Authenticity and trust with managers and employees as they all know what to expect
  • Organizational focus on the important stuff without wasted energy on decision making that should be easy
  • A sense of personal alignment as their values and the organization’s are aligned
  • A guidebook for managers to live and learn by
  • Validation that they were right to go with their gut all along
  • A strong sense of fulfillment and job satisfaction

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