Empathy — Among all the leadership traits that people are clamoring for right now, with what is going on today, empathy ranks at the top. I used to think early in my career that you should not bring your “problems” to work. Check them in at the door so to speak. However, as I became more experienced as a manager and in the HR field, I realized that is virtually impossible. And now, today, especially with COVID, we have a completely different sense of that. In the new world, the new manager (which I don’t even think we should use that title anymore) needs to understand more about what is happening with each of their team members and put themselves in the shoes of everyone. It doesn’t mean you accept unacceptable behavior but understanding what might be causing that behavior will more likely lead to a resolution or change than ignoring the underlying cause. Try to know what is happening with them mentally as well as behaviorally.
As a part of our series about the five things you need to successfully manage a large team, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sandi Knight. She helps small to medium size companies including startups who have not had an HR presence. She analyzes the business to find areas needing improvement and attention and specializes in identifying areas of inconsistency, ensuring the organization is fully compliant. Sandi has seen it all, from union organizing and strikes to disaster preparedness such as hurricanes, tornados, and other assortments of issues in the workplace. She is passionate about helping organizations create a culture of great employee experiences for them and their family. As an Executive Coach for the corporate management sector, as well as individuals aspiring to transform their lives to be extraordinary, Sandi helps executives improve their career strategy, leadership, and executive presence.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?
I started out in life as #10 of ten children, with #9 being my identical twin sister. As you can imagine, I learned at a young age about the survival of the fittest. Unfortunately, my mother died young and left my father with, mostly, the last 6 girls to raise! I began to understand soon after that, if you wanted something or wanted to go anywhere, you better do it yourself. No one was going to really show you the ropes. Well, except my twin sister, who was 6 minutes older and was always 6 minutes more mature. She was always trying something first, so I got the benefit of learning quickly if I wanted to try that as well. As life went on, I knew by high school that I wanted to have a career in business. The problem was people were telling me to be a secretary! I tried that in high school and knew very quickly, no way. I knew there had to be more. I loved going on business trips with my father, visiting him in his office, and generally talking about business when I could catch him for a moment. I ended up going to school for a few years after high school but going into my third year of college, I decided to take a break as I really didn’t know what I wanted to do. Long story short, I ended up in my first management position as a store manager. That is when I truly began starting to learn about how important it is in how you treat your team, your employees, and peers as well. This company moved me around 3 states in 4 years when I ended up in California. Soon after arriving, they went into Chapter 11. I left and went back to finish my undergrad and my master’s degrees. I stayed in California for almost 20 years. Practicing HR in California was quite the challenge as you can imagine. When I came to Texas, the first year, I kept asking “you can do that?!”
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
It really started in the very beginning of my career. I was finishing up my master’s degree in Educational Psychology, when a friend who was consulting for a steelworker unionized manufacturing company, called me about an opportunity. He told me it was an HR manager role, but it was really going to be about 80% labor relations. I told him he was crazy, I knew nothing about unions, but sure, I will talk with them. Only one problem — I didn’t even know what a collective bargaining agreement was, much less how to even deal with unions. I learned early in life though, go for it, you are no worse off than where you started. As it turned out, they had never hired anyone without a labor background. They liked my degree and wanted someone who would work differently between management/union relations and offered me the job! You can imagine my surprise. I stayed with this company until they shut down the plant 3 years later. That job ended up teaching me so much that I would carry on throughout my career. “Know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ‘em” so to speak. That is, know when to settle and get to a win-win and know when you must pursue further for the principal of the situation. As a result, I only lost 3 out of 14 arbitration cases over my 3-year tenure there.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I worked for a company that had onsite daycare. We received an allegation of physical abuse by one of the parents. The parents had taken pictures and given them to me. I was requested to bring the pictures up to the Chief Administrative Officer’s office where I would meet with the General Counsel and Chief Human Resources Officer as well. As I was about to walk into his office, I realized the pictures were gone! You can imagine my sheer terror as I thought about those pictures being on the ground in the hallway where other employees could find them. I hurriedly and frantically started backtracking my steps and remembered I stopped at the restroom first. I opened the door to the stall where I had been, and there were the pictures in the toilet! I couldn’t believe it and, of course, retrieved them immediately and laid them out on the counter where I frantically began drying them in order to bring them back to the meeting. As I was doing this, I just started laughing hysterically! I realized I could laugh or cry and just started laughing. As I was walking back into the office, I was still laughing and could hardly tell my story. When I finally did, we all laughed hysterically for several minutes. Lesson learned, don’t take things too seriously, things happen and sometimes you just have to laugh at your mistakes and move on.
Ok, let’s jump to the core of our interview. Most times when people quit their jobs they actually “quit their managers”. What are your thoughts on the best way to retain great talent today?
More than ever, creating a culture of inclusiveness, strong values, and great employee experience is critical. Create leaders, not managers. Live and breathe the values you have established, no matter what. Also, you must hire to the culture, even it means leaving the position open until the right person comes along. For example, Southwest Airlines receives up to as many as 7000 applications for one position. However, they take their time to ensure they have the right candidate for their environment, which we know is all about “LUV.”
How do you synchronize large teams to effectively work together?
How I would have answered this before COVID may have been slightly different as I would have said first and foremost meeting in person, face to face, having groups gather together from the moment they onboard. Today, it is not that much different in terms of the what, but the how is quite changed. Getting people together on video today and attempting to create that camaraderie that happens when you actually see a person standing across from each other in a group is hard. What I recommend is to utilize zoom break out rooms. If you don’t use zoom, whatever video method you use, should have breakout rooms. They can be highly effective for getting to know each other, perhaps from an onboarding perspective, or a group working on a project together. I have heard feedback from some, that by utilizing this function, they have met people they otherwise would not have met in the normal course of their day to day activities while in the office.
Here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your personal experience, what are the “5 Things You Need to Know To Successfully Manage a Team”. (Please share a story or example for each, Ideally an example from your experience)
- Coaching and Mentoring — Everyone needs a mentor! David Clutterbuck has been emphasizing that statement since 2001. I learned early that when you lead people, it encompasses the whole person. As leaders, we are not just managers who direct and delegate or hire and fire. Today, even more so, it is imperative to teach your leaders how to coach and mentor. Coaching and mentoring have similarities but definite differences as well. Both are ways of helping someone learn and grow.
Coaching as defined by the International Coaching Federation is “partnering with your team members (client) in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential.” Coaching is more about utilizing active listening skills and asking powerful questions. Questions that are open-ended and evokes discovery.
Mentoring on the other hand is where usually a higher-level leader in the organization works with another in the organization and shares their experiences to help that individual learn. Every mentoring relationship is different and the role that a mentor plays is also different, depending on the situation and needs of the mentee. The mentor imparts general knowledge and experience; teaches a particular skill set generally in an area in which she/he is more experienced or skilled, acts a sounding board, gives the mentee a reality check on their ideas, solutions and strategies. They might also make introductions and/or connections to people in different departments and across levels, giving them exposure to other business approaches, etc.
I am sure most reading this have had a mentor along the way, someone that really believed in them and taught them the “ropes.” I recall one boss I had, who made sure he brought me to every meeting, whether invited or not, because he thought I would learn from or have input about the topic. He always explained what he was doing and why. That always stayed with me and I made this a part of my leadership style. As a result, I have received many notes over the years from former team members thanking me for my mentoring and coaching along the way and things they learned from me. It is the highest compliment I can receive. It is, also, the main reason I decided to become a certified coach.
2. Empathy — Among all the leadership traits that people are clamoring for right now, with what is going on today, empathy ranks at the top. I used to think early in my career that you should not bring your “problems” to work. Check them in at the door so to speak. However, as I became more experienced as a manager and in the HR field, I realized that is virtually impossible. And now, today, especially with COVID, we have a completely different sense of that. In the new world, the new manager (which I don’t even think we should use that title anymore) needs to understand more about what is happening with each of their team members and put themselves in the shoes of everyone. It doesn’t mean you accept unacceptable behavior but understanding what might be causing that behavior will more likely lead to a resolution or change than ignoring the underlying cause. Try to know what is happening with them mentally as well as behaviorally.
3. Listening and Communication — Simply asking employees throughout the organization or as a member of your team “what do you think” goes a long way. Often leaders assume they have the right answers. I remember working on implementing an HRIS system and when it was rolled out to the field locations, it was a disaster. No one asked the leaders in the field “what do you think,” and as a result, there was a system issue no on realized. After all, that time spent and work that went into this, the IT department had to create a workaround. Having to customize a new system from the outset is not a great way to start.
When you start a meeting or a conversation with “what do you think,” not only may it give you ideas you had not thought of, but it also creates buy-in. These 4 words can foster deeper engagement and more alignment in the team when everyone is asked about their ideas and thoughts. People tend to support what they help to create.
They also need you to tell them why. Understanding why a decision was made, or why something will be directed toward a particular strategy creates trust. If your team doesn’t trust you, it is difficult to have them follow your direction.
4. Understand What They Do and How They Do It — During my career, I cannot tell you how many people have come to my office frustrated that their boss knows nothing about what they do. Yet, they tell them how to do it. You don’t have to be an expert or know every little detail of what they do, but you need to understand to a level that you should know if something is going great and if something is going wrong. Think about the recent Ellen Degeneres scandal. While Ellen claimed that she didn’t know what was happening with the leaders below her, which may have been true, it was still her responsibility to understand what they did and how they were doing it, including how they were treating other people. If she took the time to talk with people and listened as mentioned in #3, this may not have taken the turn that it took. Another example is when I had a situation in which both payroll employees were let go. I, fortunately, had taken the time to understand what they did for the most part and by hiring a payroll system temporary employee, the two of us got it done.
5. Recognition- Not that this hasn’t always been critical, but it is even more critical in today’s COVID times of the remote workforce. Employees are feeling isolated and disconnected. During COVID, it has been difficult for managers to recognize employees with traditional programs. Where you used to be able to have face-to-face conversations, now you have to have face-to-face zoom, but the same principle applies — public recognition is usually well-received. I will caution you to know your team though, there are some who are quite introverted and do not like public recognition. For those personalities, recognize them privately, or in a written email. I, also, can’t say enough about the simple words of “thank you.” When employees feel appreciated, they not only work harder, they trust each other and their leaders more.
What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?
A desk is a dangerous place to view the world. I would normally say walking around is really important, now it’s important to meet with people one on one or meeting with small groups on video frequently during COVID — I cannot say enough about how much more employees are engaged when they know the senior leadership cares enough to say hello and thank you. At the end of the day, people just want to feel appreciated and that their work is meaningful.
Over-communicate with honesty and as much transparency as possible. This is a time of uncertainty and you must communicate, communicate, and then communicate. When you show you care, your employees will care too.
Create meaningful values and align your culture to support those values and your strategic goals.
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 would have to say more diversity at the CEO level, both minority and women. Create a culture of learning and development, so that all have a chance at advancement. We have all heard of the “mail clerk” who worked their way up and led the company. Everyone should have that kind of equal opportunity to grow. Also, every organization should be reviewing their promotional and pay practices each year.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Worry looks around, sorry looks back, faith looks up.” When I start to question and worry about the “what if’s” or look at things from just past experiences, I can get caught up in things that have either already happened and are over, or things that may or may not happen. In fact, when I get stuck in “what if’s” and I look back, the thing(s) I was worried about, usually never even happened. When I stay in the present and just have faith that things will work out, they usually do. Not always the way I thought I wanted, but they usually work out for the best.
Thank you for these great insights!