Monday, February 21, 2011

Balancing hard and soft measures, managing the future of a business

One of the biggest learning that I’ve got from the last organization where I worked with, is how to treat employees with a heart. It sounds lame, and cliché. But until now I still thank that organization (which unfortunately has been banished from the face of the earth under the name of merger), for being a good model for me to learn how to manage people.

It truly was an organization that put its people at the forefront. I still remember the interview I had before becoming the General Manager (yup, though it could have been an internal promotion, but they treated it very carefully, still). The last question, and apparently was the determining question that convinced them to promote me, was: what motivates you to take this job?. My answer was: I owe it to my colleagues to make it work, I believe in them, and I believe that we can continue the journey and even make it better.

I knew a year after that it was that answer that got them convinced. That I would act and behave with the interest of the people at heart. That while business achievement was important, all the hard measures of revenue and all, but without attention to the employees, we would achieve nothing. And for me that question lingers till now - it sticks to my mind.

Years after that interview, they taught me more about how to fulfill that expectation. How to balance business and people decisions. Because like it or not, we are in the industry that is so people heavy. We do not have products to sell. We have people’s skills to develop so it can deliver the best research solutions that clients can get. So in many ways, people should be put at the fore front of our thinking about our business. I know that it is true in many businesses. But in service industries, I think that becomes even more critical.

That is why it always saddens me to see organizations which fail to realize that attention to its people, is as important as attention to business measures. Yes it is hard to measure achievement with people, or what we used to call the soft measures, but it doesn’t mean it’s not measurable. Soft measures, I believe, determine the hard measures or how strong the hard measures can be maintained. Without the soft measures, often times hard measures like revenue and profit, are just fake numbers. Numbers that can lure us to believe that we are successful, but actually have no foundation to keep it growing and becoming stronger.

Sadly, there are people who believe that hard measures can take care of everything. That when money’s at hand, everything else will be fine. Hmmmm…maybe they just don’t understand the saying that money doesn’t buy happiness. And in the case of the working world, it often is very true.

Sometimes the euphoria of achieving financial targets can cover other things which make employees still unhappy about conditions at the workplace. Unfortunately, this kind of euphoria often resides with those who are responsible to manage the business, and who actually are very responsible to take care of the people. It covers up the necessity to look at things with a helicopter’s view, and these managers become myopic and limited in evaluating the actual result of the company. Soft measures are no longer important, and put under the rug. And at the end of the day, forgotten, believing that ‘we are doing just fine’.

And in this current world where options are almost unlimited, I think business managers should even become more careful in NOT to limit themselves to only look at the hard measures. Because what happens when people are unhappy? They leave. And often times, the reasons for leaving an organization is not so much about money.

I have encountered many instances where the reason is most often revolve around how the organization manages its human resources – be it on training and development, day to day work management, conflict management and other issues. Many elements that should actually be included in the soft measures of what a company should achieve, year in, year out. I can safely say that if we are talking about white collar workers, only 1 out of 5 reasons will be about money, the hard measure so highly regarded by many business managers.

In my believe, both hard and soft measures are equally important. Because it is like a cycle: when we are taking care of the people who do the work for the company, then we are taking care of the future of the business because the wheels that need to be moved, will be moved by the right people getting the right treatment. And that will be shown in the hard measures, year in, year out.

And in a service company, this should be strengthened a lot more. Because it relies a lot on how people deliver the high quality service that it needs to deliver in order to achieve the hard measures. And people will deliver high quality work if they feel that they are equipped and rewarded well. And in ‘reward’, we should also look at the ‘softer’ ones.

A pat on the back, sometimes, is what people need to feel that their contribution is acknowledged. The right training, is continuously needed to make them feel that they are ready to face the growing challenges. The right attitude from their managers, is often crucial in making sure that employees feel comfortable in doing their work, and that they are getting the right support that they need. Especially when competition is growing which often times also means hard measures are also getting tougher to get.

The question is, are we ready to balance the two. Of course, it is always easier to keep up with the financial targets. But that often creates a feeling that people need to work more. And if we are asking them to do so, then in actual fact, we need to be ready to provide them with a reason: what’s in it FOR ME if I have to work and achieve more? What can the organization provide?. And if we are relying only on the hard measures, it will become tougher to manage because a company’s financial resources are also limited. And sometimes giving more is not enough when work pressure is increased. This is where I always believe the softer stuff can be done.

We need to audit ourselves and see if our managers, who are in daily contact with the workers, are equipped well to give the kind of reward and appreciation that people need as they face the day to day work pressure. We need to be convinced that these managers are ready to provide the right support. And that, is the responsibility of a handful of people who should be managing the business with the short and long term business vision in their hands.

We need to realize that often times it is the company who needs its people. Yes people need jobs, but there are many options that they can take. And if an industry is known for resource scarcity, arrogance from the side of the company is just going to kill its future. And a manager’s over confidence of the strength of its resources is also going to back fire. Because it leads to one thing: complacency, that everything LOOKS fine, while the fact may not be that rosy.

What we need to do now is to continuously be alert of both: the growing competition which may mean difficulty in achieving the financial results, as well as the options that employees have in hands when it comes to getting satisfaction from in and out of the organization. Because a balance look at these, will help us determining what we should do to make sure that we can achieve the financial target without sacrificing the employees’ happiness and work satisfaction.

I believe that only then, the future of the business can be secured. Because at the end of the day we are still dealing with human beings who have a heart and mind. Until, maybe, there comes a technology which companies can use to control people’s mind and soul. But I for one is praying for that to never happen.

(R I R I)

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