Faces of HR

No-Nonsense HR for a No-Nonsense World

If a 3-year-old child can spot when someone’s being fake, why risk being fake to your workers? They’re just as likely to know when you’re not being genuine, and this fakeness has lasting repercussions on your organization. I recently spoke with one expert who shares her “secret sauce recipe” for clearing the corporate clutter in your organization to help engage and retain your top performers.

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Meet Amy Leschke-Kahle, Vice President of Performance Acceleration at The Marcus Buckingham Company, an ADP company.

You’ve mentioned that you were an engineer. I always ask interviewees how they got started in HR; it seems like a particularly relevant question for you.

I get asked all the time, and as you know, I work for The Marcus Buckingham Company, an ADP Company. Marcus Buckingham has spent his career studying strengths and positive psychology and employee engagement. We always talk about strengths as an activity that makes me feel strong, so people often automatically assume when I say I started off as an engineer that I must have discovered that I didn’t like engineering. In fact, “I loved it.”

My transition into HR was through working at a College of Engineering, where I ran a career services office. One day, a client customer said, “Hey, do you want to come in and help us do talent acquisition?” Which I knew nothing about, by the way. So I learned the ins and outs of talent acquisition including designing an applicant tracking system. Remember paradox databases? That’s how long ago it was!

The organization needed to meet some regulatory requirements, so I designed a database to ease the administrative hassle. Then I helped start up its first corporate university, and it just evolved from there. That’s how I got into HR. But people will say, “Well, you must not have liked chemical engineering,” but to me, it’s all the same process. My head works the same way solving problems in a paper mill as it does now when I’m thinking about how we help people do better work.

One of the things I did as a chemical engineer was to analyze why one of my client’s paper mills was seeing variation in their finished product. I ran a frequency analysis to figure out there was a splotch of gunk on one of the dryer rolls. Weirdly, it’s the same approach I use for employees. For example, let’s say an employee shows up for work late every other Monday. Why is that? Well, I don’t know. Let’s go ask the person; let’s find out. It is opening the door for curiosity. It’s the same thing. It’s just different contexts.

So that’s how I got into HR, and I always worked for large, mostly global organizations. The last place I worked, before I came to work with Marcus, was at Kohl’s department stores. At Kohl’s I had the amazing opportunity to be a client of The Marcus Buckingham Company (TMBC).

One day, Marcus called me and asked if I was interested in working with him and a short time later I was helping to build the next generation of our technology product that helps people do more of their own unique best work or play more to their strengths.

Even though I didn’t have product development experience, Marcus trusted that my technical background combined with my HR experience would help TMBC create a one-of-a-kind tool to help team leaders. That’s how I got here. I never thought I would work for a vendor. And it’s the best, most fulfilling risk I’ve ever been able to take. It’s just been amazing, absolutely amazing.

I imagine it’s exciting to be able to jump into something like that. I always try to say yes to whatever opportunity comes my way, and most of the time, it doesn’t really work out because that method means you have to take a lot of risks.

Yeah, it was definitely a risk. I went from a big organization with all the stability, and at the time, TMBC was not a big organization. We had fewer than 50 employees. But what it’s allowed me to do is break those “walls and barriers” I ran into as a practitioner. I led HRIT, HR analytics, learning and development, and several other talent related practices, so I’ve run into plenty of walls in my time.

We have a tool called the Standout Assessment. It’s a strength-based situational judgment test, and my top role is pioneer of that assessment. It allows me to pioneer my outlook with data and research to answer the question: How do we help work be a better place, with no BS, because our employees deserve it? Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do as HR folks?

HR and talent practitioners are supposed to make work better. Don’t make it harder; make it better, easier, and more conducive to you doing more of your own unique best work. To be able to smush all that together and help clients actually go do that by being, I guess, provocative, edgy, and disruptive, and have research to support that work, not just make it up. It’s not a “kind of, sort of” thing. It’s “here’s what this organization did,” “here’s what that organization did,” and “here’s how to rethink what you’ve done—how to help create a culture of attention.”

I get to take all of that experience and intelligence and help organizations make work better. I can’t even put into words how lucky I am to be able to do this work with so many amazing clients all over the world.

It sounds really exciting. I like the “no BS” part. How did you arrive on the “no BS” concept then, and how did you integrate that into your work?

Now as I think back over the last 10-ish years or so, one of the things I have started realizing, while owning a very large budget for a very large organization, was what are we getting out of these expenditures, or unfortunately not getting? I was doing all the things I thought I was supposed to do. I was doing all the things the professional organizations told me I was supposed to do. I was doing performance management, and big engagement surveys and designing and delivering complicated, expensive leader development programs.

So many of the development programs available are great content in and of themselves; however, they just are not applicable to everybody. I was doing all of those things, and yet the organizations, at least the ones I worked at, were still full of mediocre-at-best leaders.

So I started to put my engineering hat on and approach these people challenges like an engineering problem and said, “You know what? Maybe some of these vendors actually don’t know what they’re talking about. Maybe they’re wrong.” What if we started to assume they’re wrong, and do over? What if we think about what the critical few things are that people need in order to be proficient at their work, and how do we help people do more of their own unique best work?

It’s sometimes hard in the corporate world to really dig into those questions and do the work to answer them. You can do little bits and pieces and little experiments but it’s hard to tackle the bigger questions head on and to do that work quickly.

I think that Marcus knew just enough about how I was challenging some of the HR conventions and together with his amazing research and knowledge and a fabulous team at TMBC, we were able to start to rethink how HR does some of its core practices like employee engagement and performance management. The “no BS” part comes from reasonably skeptical and not believing everything you read.

I do keep up with what’s being written, but there are so many things that sound more like someone had an idea and called it real, rather than a proven practice. We’ve spent decades buying things and doing things that just haven’t made any difference at all. So I stopped getting sucked into the convention and started thinking about the real world of work before, and how the real world of work “works” and how we help people be human at work.

Work is an emotional thing. It’s not a robotic thing; it’s an emotional thing. What does that all look like? Again, I’ve had the great privilege of helping our clients rewrite and reengineer and rethink about how they do work. And it’s been amazing.

It’s funny because at some point, I realized kind of a similar thing. What most people need is a little bit of objectivity.

Yes, and there’s actually very little of that, right? I mean, objectivity in the world of work—there isn’t much of it because it is emotional, it means it’s also very subjective, which means stripping all of the preconceived notions about work off the table. If you stop and focus on the critical few, all of a sudden, the power question becomes, “What are the critical few things that people need in the context of the real world?” If you really think about this question, at least for me, you can’t help but take the current norms and push them to the side.

We need to move beyond the ideal world and solve for the real world. Leader development is a really good examples of this, Jim, because you think about the hundreds and thousands of books that have been written on leaders and leadership. I can’t tell you how much money I have spent, particularly as a talent practitioner, on those books searching for the answer. What is that right model? What are “the right” leader competencies? And Marcus is so right, there is no magic leader model.

We, well at least I, did this. I would buy a program, or an assessment, or a tool, or design one to fix “broken leaders.” Number one, there’s no model to be broken against. And what we’ve done is we’ve gone around telling people the 27 ways they’re broken against a model that doesn’t even exist. That’s nonsensical.

Oh, it reminds me a lot of motivational speakers. When you listen to motivational speakers, they’ll always say, “Look at the success that I have, and you can have that success, too.” And what it is a self-fulfilling prophecy, right? They did get successful, so they have had success. The lie, or the misdirection, is that that’s transferrable to other people.

Exactly.

And just by the sheer fact that these speakers are talking to the people at that company in a way that the people at that company don’t talk to them, they’re finding success because that’s what’s really missing; it’s the conversation, the no BS conversation that you can only get from an objective standpoint. And they say, “Look, it was successful. It must be the program, right?” But no, it wasn’t. It wasn’t a program. It was just that they took the time to sit down and talk to some people.

Yeah, and it’s exactly what we find and so much of the work I do. It’s not fancy. How do you create a culture of attention? And that’s exactly what you just said. What we know from our research, as well as from working with our clients, is that the secret sauce to those things we are trying to do—the secret sauce to what leaders already do—is: “How do we help create this culture of radically frequent attention between an employee and his or her most important person at work,” which is the person’s boss or bosses? How do we do that?

You must hyper focus on that practice, which is what the best leaders do. Most of us are not the best leaders. Most of us are reluctant leaders. We became team leaders or managers—call them whatever you want. I’m not talking about a leader hierarchically. I’m talking about someone who provides support, guidance, and direction to someone else at work.

So many of us became team leaders because it’s the only way we started to get more money and a better job title. That’s the reluctant team leader, and most of us are reluctant team leaders, including myself. If you take those realities that we know, like attention is the secret sauce to engagement when engagement is defined as the emotional precursor to extraordinary work, you find that the secret sauce to engagement, to productivity, to performance, to high-quality work, or to less shrinkage in your retail organization is attention from the most important person to you at work, which is your team leader.

When you’re outside of work, that secret sauce to you being the best version of you, is attention from your most important person or people. Again, work is an emotional thing, and if we weren’t talking about work, we would call it love. Love at work is attention.

Too true.

The challenge to operationalizing the fundamental truth of attention is how do you create that ritual? How do you start to create that ritual and embed it into the fabric of how organizations do work? How do we create a sustainable culture of attention? For us, it’s an approach as well as a technology product. It’s evolving HR strategy to include talent activation. And “how do you create space for that most important, critical ritual in the context of the mess that we’ve created?”

My favorite quote comes from a CEO of one of my clients. I said to him, “You’ve been doing this for a couple of years now, and you’ve done great work. What’s the most surprising thing to you about what we’ve done?” We helped the client remove a bunch of stuff from their HR work: annual performance reviews, traditional engagement surveys including heavy action planning, training – lots of check-the-box stuff, unless it’s compliance-related; of course you should do that..

I said to him, “You’ve done all this work with your CHRO, and you’re really leading the charge. What’s the most surprising thing?” And he says, “It feels different here.” How do you make it feel different? Work is an emotional thing. It feels different. How do you do that? You do that by creating and embedding this ritual of really frequent, weekly, attention into an organization.

That is the secret sauce: helping organizations remove the crap and the noise and create that culture of attention where we see each other for the best of each other. We call that being strengths-based—“I see you for the best of you.” It’s also, by the way, the best inclusion strategy I’ve encountered. To create and have a strengths-based culture is to have an organizational approach that helps people see each other for the best of them.

Of course, we’ve all got our stuff that drives other people a little bit crazy. You’re never going to fix that. You are who you are. How do you see through that and see into the best of each other? Let’s do that! Let’s help organizations do that—create a culture of attention and see each other for the best of each other. And guess what happens? Innovation increases; productivity increases; performance increases; and, of course, engagement increases.

We measure engagement super regularly. Again, we do it through the StandOut Engagement Pulse, the eight items that TMBC has found to be most predictive of extraordinary performance. We know that when team members are paid attention to, engagement goes up. And people feel more connected to the mission of the organization. They feel known. They feel seen. You see it in the data. The wonderful thing about this, Jim—the most amazing thing is how fast it happens. This is not a “1- or 2-year cultural journey” or a “5-year culture strategy blah, blah, blah program” we’re talking about.

If you pay attention to people really frequently for 12 weeks, one you’re going to see incredible growth in engagement. If you focus on only one thing, it’s frequency of attention. I think one of the pieces as practitioners that we have been missing is the power of frequency, not the power of fluff and stuff; it’s the power of frequency.

Because how do you get someone to trust you? Our HR people have identified that there’s an issue with everyone being remote. And now, you have to communicate with the people you haven’t been communicating with and try and show them you care. But if you hadn’t been doing that and you don’t do it right, it looks hollow and empty.

Yeah, it feels faked.

I always say this, but it’s like my little 3-year-old daughter knows when I’m being fake. It’s not an advanced skill. So when a company tries some BS, it’s so obvious. Everyone knows, even if they don’t know how to vocalize it; they all know. I don’t think you’re doing anybody any favors with that.

The most important thing from my perspective is if you don’t have throughput, the ability to follow up, keep true to your promises, set benchmarks, and then hit them, I mean, you’re just looking like a fool.

Yeah, kind of sort of. I’ll tell you what we’ve learned, and we’ve seen this now recently with clients through conversations with them. We don’t have a ton of data yet because we’re in the early stages of this global disruption. But a couple of things we’ve learned with our clients around that is yes, it can feel fake.

The best way to remove that feeling of fakeness is to talk about the work. For us everyday, reluctant team leaders— which is probably the majority of team leader who never had a life-long ambition to lead people; talk about the work and keep it light touch. I’m comfortable talking about the actual work of the work. I’m not always so comfortable talking about some of the softer things. Because I’m genuinely excited about the work that we do together, the conversations around that work will be genuine.

I love the work of the work. It’s the work of the leading people stuff that’s hard. If you tell team leaders, “Hey, just go talk to your people about their work,” “What’s the most important work you need to get done this week?” “Do I/do you need anything from me?” It doesn’t have to be an overly coachy conversation, nor HR fluff and stuff. It is straightforward: what are your priorities for the week? And how can I help? And it’s in the context of now.

This notion of big, long-term goal setting and the complicated processes we put in place to support that—that’s all BS. What team leaders should be asking is, “What are your priorities? How can I help?” That’s what attention at work sounds like. The surprise amplifier of great work is applying a strengths-based lens to the conversation. If you, as a team leader, can help team members start to see what extraordinary work looks and feels like for them, you can help more of that extraordinary work happen. And today, the beauty of having technology is that we can nudge people to connect, to pay attention and therefore we can create a sustainable practice.

Another benefit of using technology to support the practice of attention is that we can ask team members some stuff they probably wouldn’t tell us in person, like, “What did you love this week?” Once you tell team leaders what the best team leaders do and teach them how to do it, the overwhelming reaction from everyday team leaders is “I can do that.” That’s all I have to do? Yeah, that’s it.

Just talk to people about the work they need to be doing this week. Make sure you’re aligned with their priorities, not bringing up some big goals you think you might want to get done 6 months from now. It’s the frequency almost more than the quality. And I’m not saying quality doesn’t count, but it’s the frequency that’s the needle-mover.

I think one of the things that has gotten us in trouble as HR folks is that we’ve driven to the wrong metrics and compared the wrong benchmarks. We should be monitoring the frequency of attention metric, not necessarily overall engagement or performance ratings or so many other metrics that we treat as KPI’s today. We know that engagement is going to vary. It’s going to go up and down. Of course, we want it to go up. Yes, we do, but employees are going to have different experiences over time.

Right now, we’re going through this major disruption. Engagement’s going to go down—not a big surprise, but we all know that. It should, if you’re using a good instrument, by the way. I think there’s another rethink we need to make around our HR scorecards which are way too long. We should be measuring things that are truly indicative of the state of the organization and the actions that sustain and grow it. Frequency of attention must be one of our key performance indicators (KPIs), one of our very few KPIs.

It certainly explains why engagement has been a problem for 12 or 15 years ever since people started using that term. The company will say, “Oh, right, engagement! That’s something we should think about,” and then it puts out an engagement survey once and is like, “Oh, well, they’re not very engaged. Let’s check in next year.”

Yeah, and then it’s the in-between stuff that is incredibly problematic. HR launches this survey with 60 or 70 or 80 items on it, and 2 or 3 months later, you get the survey back. (This is, again, what my experience was like leading this work.) And then you have to go through all the data, and you cull the data, and then you rack and stack your managers.

And then you go, “Oh, this manager’s great, and this manager is not that great because he or she is on the bottom of the list.” And then finally, 3 or 4 months later, you take the data to the actual managers. Then you have focus groups, and then you make action plans, and then you do a whole bunch of work against the action plans.

And 9 or 10 months later, you find out the same thing you found out the previous times you did a survey. When I do speaking events, I talk about it this, and I say: “Those of you who do engagement surveys, let me just take a guess at what you found. Your communication’s bad; your managers aren’t the best leaders, and people want to get paid more money. They want more work/life balance and they don’t get recognized enough. Every time, it’s the same. That’s what you find out. It feels like you just spent a lot a lot of money to find out the same thing you did last year.”

When you step back, use engagement as the example—just like when we talked about leaders. You step back and you ask yourself if these investments make sense. The investments are very well intended, but they’re not producing the impact we hoped for.

So, it starts with “What the is engagement in the first place?” It’s the emotional precursor to extraordinary work. What are the experiences individuals have when they are doing that extraordinary work and when they are more likely to have an extraordinary experience?

What are those things? What are those critical few things? And you know what they are—we all know what they are intuitively and the research supports that. The most powerful one is at work, I have a chance to use my strengths every day—in other words, at work, at least a little bit every day, I get to do something I love. Another factor is recognition “I know I will be recognized for excellent work.” By the way, recognition is so fascinating, Jim. It’s amazing. That recognition thing that we’ve all been chasing by building programs and giving away prizes isn’t the answer.

That whole recognition thing is not “I am recognized for excellent work.” It’s “I know I will be.” It’s “I know that the most important person to me at work (think about this in the context of home), sees me for the best of me, and I know that person is paying attention to me.” That’s what moves the needle on recognition, and it’s attention. It’s such a great example of how we’ve solved the wrong problem. Recognition programs are really nice, by the way. They’re super nice. I’m not saying we shouldn’t have those programs. We should. They’re very nice. Those programs just don’t move the needle on recognition itself.

You’re entirely correct though. It’s always nice to be thanked for something, but it’s always much better to be doing something knowing you will be thanked. Absolutely, because why do it otherwise? It’s funny—when you were saying that, I was thinking about that whole argument against Millennials and their need for constant recognition.

Yeah, what they’re really craving, just like the rest of us, is attention.

It’s every person. Who wants to be in a thankless work environment? Are there people who really enjoy that?

I’m not saying there aren’t some perhaps subtle differences between the generations. I’m not saying that at all, but when you look at Millennials or Generation Z or whomever, they’re just being human and probably haven’t gotten stepped on enough yet where they still feel like their voice matters. So the challenge for us, again, as talent practitioners and folks who have some responsibilities in organizations around this is how we help each and every one of our employees feel seen and heard for the best of himself or herself.

When it’s systematized and embedded, we call that the culture of attention—the secret sauce. No matter what door you walk through in terms of organizational challenges that have to do with human performance, the answer is almost always the same. And it is: “see me for who I am; pay attention to me,” whether it’s inclusion or how you develop the best leaders or recognition or confidence in the future of the company. We have to help leaders figure out how to lead in the context of the best of themselves, not in the context of the best of someone else.

In the context of “me.” How do you help people be more productive? You help them figure out where they’re at their best and how you can get them just a little bit more in that place. And I’m not just talking about knowledge workers. One of my best examples of that comes from my time in retail. We trained all of our leaders, lots of them, including store leaders, around this concept of strengths, understanding your own unique best work.

There was an assistant store manager and one of his direct reports who worked in the jeans department. The assist store manager said—I can see his face telling me this story about his direct report—”she just couldn’t keep things organized and together, and it was always a mess.” And when I went and talked to her and watched her, I learned her department was a mess because she kept talking to people. She was a always talking to someone, most often customers. And customers loved talking to her too. She was approachable and personable. What the manager eventually asked and figured out was, how do I take advantage of what she loves, talking with people? He put her on the customer service desk, and now, that’s the best customer service desk rep he’s ever had in his store. So, it’s not just a knowledge worker thing; it’s a thing for every employee.

It’s also important to note that sometimes, you can’t make it happen. We don’t live in a utopian world where everybody gets to do everything he or she loves. That’s not it at all. We pay you to do a job—do your job. That’s proficiency. If we can just get a little bit more of that secret sauce on the table, and that’s not only an individual differentiator, but also a team differentiator—it’s an organizational differentiator.

Imagine that if we can do that at scale, we can help people do just a little bit more of their own unique best work at scale. How did we do that? How do we implement what the research tells us and what the data so clearly points to at scale? Thankfully we have technology to help us. Technology in and of itself is not the answer, but it is the critical tool to support and sustain the practice across organizations.

So when you put all of this together and change your mind-set, the willingness to stop some of the, as we’ve been saying, noisy BS that is not really adding any value to the organization; hyper focus on a critical few things, and then support and sustain that ritual of the best team leaders. embedded into the fabric. This is just what we do as an organization: We put our expectation to people. Pay attention to each other for the best of each other.

When you do that, that’s how you get the “Oh, it feels different here.” That’s my spiel. That’s what I get to do every day, which is amazing.

It’s a pretty good one.

Again, it is—and I say this, but I don’t mean it to be corny—such an absolute privilege to do the work I do, and I literally pinch myself every day. I still pinch myself when Marcus calls me. I mean, it’s Marcus Buckingham, right? I mean, the guy who wrote all the books, and it’s still like, oh wow, he’s calling me and asking me my opinion. I’m a small-town girl from Wisconsin. I grew up in a small town.

I live in a small town, and I can’t believe I get to do what I do and work with the people I get to work with. And I can’t believe I’m talking to other people I’m talking to. Thank you, for helping to share our work, our story. It’s absolutely amazing.

You can always tell how an organization operates its business based on what kind of a client it is, and it has always been a really good client.

Yeah, we’ve got an amazing leadership team. Every day, something happens almost when you go, holy cow, this company to be so progressive, so human. It’s real people, doing real work, and making a difference and caring about employees. It feels different here at ADP too.