Kronos CEO Aron Ain: “Stay Humble to Create a Fantastic Work Culture”

Stay humble. I call it being an “un-leader” — doing everything I can to put myself on the level of employees. Any manager can do this. Forego the perks. Spend more time with employees. Let them speak first in meetings. Highlight their accomplishments, not your own. Listen to their ideas. Thank them for their contributions. Thank them […]

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Stay humble. I call it being an “un-leader” — doing everything I can to put myself on the level of employees. Any manager can do this. Forego the perks. Spend more time with employees. Let them speak first in meetings. Highlight their accomplishments, not your own. Listen to their ideas. Thank them for their contributions. Thank them again. Show basic respect and courtesy. It’s not rocket science, but it takes effort and focus.

As a part of my series about how leaders can create a “fantastic work culture,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Aron Ain. Aron is the chairman and CEO of Kronos Incorporated, a workforce management and HR software company that has become widely recognized as a best place to work by sources such as Fortune and Glassdoor. Since becoming CEO in 2005, Aron and his team have focused on employee engagement as a growth strategy and have seen employee engagement scores increase dramatically while revenue nearly tripled. The company is privately held with $1.4 billion in revenue and has nearly 6,000 employees who affectionately call themselves “Kronites.” Aron has been named to Glassdoor’s Top CEO list for three consecutive years, among many other accolades. He is the author of a new book, “WorkInspired: How to Build an Organization Where Everyone Loves to Work.”

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

It was by no means predetermined that I would become CEO [of Kronos]. I joined the company right out of college at 21 and was one of the first employees. Kronos was still very much in start-up mode, which I found invigorating. You know the guy who stops by the office at 2 a.m. when the security alarm goes off? That was me. I also hit the streets and sold, installed, and serviced our product and did anything else that needed doing.

As the company grew through the 1980s and 90s, I grew with it, moving into management and eventually taking on leadership roles in almost every corner of the organization. I was never gunning for the CEO job. But in 2005, I was granted the honor of succeeding the long-standing founding CEO. I’ve been here ever since, and absolutely love it. I have focused on growing the company, building on our culture, and creating an organization where people love to work.

Can you share the most interesting story of what has happened to you since you began leading your company?

That’s a tough one — every day is interesting and filled with incredible experiences. What energizes me most about my job is our employees, or Kronites, as we call ourselves, and the opportunities I have on a daily basis to engage with them. It’s the human connections that matter, that really stick with me. I’m talking in particular about the casual conversations I have with Kronites in the elevator, in the cafeteria, or while strolling the hallways. I use a Yiddish word to capture these conversations: kibitzing. I’m a born kibitzer, or as I like to say, our company’s kibitzer-in-chief. Through casual conversations, I learn all sorts of things about our workforce and their families, our customers, and our business. I learn what about our culture works, and what doesn’t. I also get a chance to bounce ideas off people — sort of impromptu focus groups. These conversations become part of my own intellectual process as a leader, and I find them endlessly interesting.

Ok, lets jump to the main part of our interview. According to this study cited in Forbes, more than half of the U.S. workforce is unhappy. Why do you think that number is so high?

In my opinion, it’s because leaders and organizations don’t pay enough attention to their people. We talk about doing right by our employees, but we don’t actually do it. I believe people are an organization’s greatest asset. I don’t just believe it — I know it. We can’t serve our customers well if our employees aren’t highly engaged and devoted to Kronos, and they won’t be highly engaged if we don’t treat them well. Taking care of our employees first isn’t just the right thing to do — which it definitely is — it’s a business imperative.

I suspect that many companies don’t see their business this way. As a result, they don’t work as hard as they might to create workplaces that are warm, inviting, engaging, nurturing, and supportive. They don’t take care of people in times of crisis, and they don’t spend enough time and resources helping them advance in their careers. They don’t make work fun. They don’t give people the time and space they need to take care of what’s most important — not the organization, but their families. And they don’t give employees the great managers they need in order to thrive on the job. Again, most organizations and leaders probably take some action in these areas, but they don’t go all in. So, it’s no accident that workers are unhappy.

Based on your experience or research, how do you think an unhappy workforce will impact a.) company productivity b.) company profitability c.) and employee health and wellbeing?

Let me turn this question around. I know how a happy workforce impacts productivity, profitability, and employee wellbeing because we’ve seen these effects play out over the past decade at Kronos. Since 2010, we’ve aggressively pursued a strategy of building a culture in which people love to work. We started really paying attention to data from our annual employee engagement surveys and making changes based on that data. We defined our culture, connecting it with the core competencies of character, competence, and collaboration, and gave it a name: WorkInspired. We began pegging a portion of employee compensation to behaviors that reflect our cultural ideals.

But that’s not all. We implemented a range of new policies designed to improve employee health and wellness and make their lives easier, including an innovative open paid time-off policy. We also began measuring our managers’ performance, holding them accountable for improving their skills, and giving them the support they need to improve. All of this work has paid off: Our employee engagement, which was already above the norm in our industry, went even higher. Because our people are happier at work, they stay with us longer, and we have a strong pipeline of talented people applying for jobs. Meanwhile, our business has grown, with revenues growing to $1.4 billion in 2018. In our experience, the connection between employee happiness and wellbeing and our financials is obvious. Taking care of employees really is great for business.

Can you share 5 things that managers and executives should be doing to improve their company work culture? Can you give a personal story or example for each?

1. Over-communicate. Don’t hole up in your office all day. Get out there and talk to people. And don’t just talk — listen. Ask probing questions and pay attention to the answers you get. Can you imagine how cool it is to employees when you run into them a month or two after an initial encounter, and you ask a follow-up question about a project they were driving, their family, a recent vacation, or their favorite sports team? It shows that you care — and in my case, I really do!

2. Communicate the organization’s strategy. Don’t keep it a secret. People want to do work that’s meaningful, and any job becomes more meaningful when managers and leaders explicitly connect it to the strategy. At Kronos, strategy-making is a months-long process every year that includes extensive “evangelization” of the strategy by senior leaders, and the “cascading” of strategy through various management layers down to every corner of the organization.

3. Stay humble. I call it being an “un-leader” — doing everything I can to put myself on the level of employees. Any manager can do this. Forego the perks. Spend more time with employees. Let them speak first in meetings. Highlight their accomplishments, not your own. Listen to their ideas. Thank them for their contributions. Thank them again. Show basic respect and courtesy. It’s not rocket science, but it takes effort and focus.

4. Improve yourself as a manager. You might be working hard to improve your team’s performance and business results, but how much time and energy do you spend improving what you do as a people manager? Are you constantly working on your skills? Do you query team members about your interactions with them, listening hard to their feedback? Do you track improvements in your performance? Even if your company doesn’t have a formal system in place, you can set up your own, informal improvement program. Your people will notice.

5. Have fun. It’s harder for your people to have fun at work if you’re not having fun. And by having fun, I mean be yourself. Let your hair down a little. It might be a little scary at first if you’re used to more formality, but give it a try. I once used the word “Yikes-a-roo” in an interview with a major newspaper to describe how I felt about something we were doing at work. Not necessarily the most professional utterance on record, but who cares, I was expressing how I felt at that moment.

How would you describe your leadership or management style? Can you give us a few examples?

Some of my previous answers apply here. I tend to be extremely communicative, curious, and engaged with people around me. But let me also mention a word that means a great deal to me: trust. It’s a concept central to my management style and my broader philosophy about leadership. It’s hard to form a strong team or build an engaged workforce if a strong environment of trust doesn’t exist. I trust my own team by giving them wide latitude over their assignments, and team members give me their trust in turn.

We’ve worked hard to instill trust deep into Kronos and our WorkInspired culture. It’s baked into what we do in so many ways — just look at our open time-off policy, which gives employees and their managers the freedom to determine how best to schedule time off. We don’t dictate strict rules. We trust them to get it right.

Another good example is a story I wrote about in my book, where I wrote a whole chapter on trust. A member of my leadership team had a very attractive job offer elsewhere. He came to me, his boss, for advice, because he trusted me, and he trusted our relationship. He trusted me to not freak out or hold it against him. He knows that I genuinely care about his welfare first, and Kronos second. Not surprisingly, he hasn’t left Kronos, and has declined multiple offers to become CEO at other companies.

Because senior leaders at Kronos incorporate trust into their leadership style, others see it and become more trusting, too. Trust spreads through the organization, becoming what I can only describe as a treasured cultural norm.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful toward who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

My parents were amazing, and their lessons stay with me to this day. Both of them cared about other people in the community and gave back in ways that in retrospect seem incredible. On more than one occasion, my parents opened their home to friends or relatives in need, letting them live with us. In my book I talk about how my uncle became my roommate for a time when I was young. My parents also became strong supporters of organizations that helped those in their community that needed a helping hand. Their time, expertise, resources, and leadership. They saw a need in the community and felt moved to give of themselves. That made a powerful impression on my siblings and me. In my case, it has led me not merely to support causes in my personal life, but to try my best to make kindness and caring for others a central part of our culture at Kronos. It’s no exaggeration to say that Kronos is a far warmer, more caring, and more humane place because of the lessons I learned from my parents while growing up.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I firmly believe that everyone deserves a great boss. And it’s a privilege to manage people. The best, most talented people would rather have a bad job working for a great manager than a great job working for a bad manager. If I could inspire a movement, it would be that organizations train and coach managers, and hold them accountable. For organizations to not only help individual managers, but create a climate of continuous improvement. People might run from bosses they hate, but the converse is also true. If you combine a great job with a great manager, you’ve hit the jackpot. Morale improves. People engage. Our lives improve. Anything becomes possible.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you continued success!

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