Author: Bill Weeks, SVP and CIO at SquareTwo Financial
The other day, I was having lunch with a friend and we started talking about employer branding and how to hire the right people. It is especially tough in a tight employment market like we have in Colorado. There is a joke here that IT unemployment in Colorado is 1% and they all have the same title: CIO. All jokes aside, in this market the only way you attract and retain talent is to create an environment and a culture where people want to work. That desire to work for your company is a big part of your employment brand.
I feel we’ve been very successful at building a great team and a great culture at SquareTwo Financial. I then started thinking about how we’ve built that team of “A” players, and how we’ve been able to keep them together. So, if I were to move on to a new company and had to do it all again, who based on previous work experience would I hire? But then I started to think: It’s not just who I would hire, but it is just as important to ask who would hire me back as their leader? How do you earn and keep the respect of employees in a tough job market like we have in Denver? Here are a few ways that I believe help me be a better leader which in turn, helps the company retain quality employees.
Building relationships with employees is key to being a good leader. Your team needs to understand that you are a human being, and like all of us, have strengths, weaknesses, challenges, feelings and yes – sometimes you make mistakes. Some relationship building is a result of formal communication but a lot of it is informal. I never wanted to be the scary CIO down the hall with the door closed. I like to walk the floor, talk to my employees both about their challenges at work and, with those that are comfortable with it, have casual conversations. The key here is knowing that not all employees are comfortable with casual conversations and the most you might get out of some when you ask how their weekend was is, “Fine.” But that is OK, every person is different. I try to break through that mentality of a chain of command an employee thinks they must go through to talk through their concerns. I have an open-door policy and I want all my employees to know that I really mean that. Like all things, there is a balance here. It’s great to be open and accessible to your team, but you also can’t undermine the authority of your management team. Trust is an important quality here; you want to earn the trust of your employees and your management team. Sometimes maintaining that trust requires a great deal of finesse both in your leadership and communication style.
Another way I lead is by having quarterly town hall meetings where we communicate the strategy of the company, celebrate accomplishments and recognize employees for great work and for tenure. Building a great team is not solely about hiring – it’s about recognizing the great talent you already have inside an organization and then developing people to their full potential. We have two types of leadership development at SquareTwo Financial – Formal and Informal. On the formal side, we sit down annually and identify key leaders who we want to develop through our leadership development program. We limit this group to a finite number of people, truly recognizing them for their contributions. We don’t want a leader selected for the program to look at the person in the seat next to them and ask “Why are they here?” Although this is great for our key leaders, it does not always go deep enough to address development of high performing individual contributors who, with the right development, could develop into those key leaders. So, we created an informal mentoring program where we’ve asked each of our Sr. IT managers to identify one or two people on their team whom they believe to be aspiring leaders. We designate a leader of that group and then we ask that person to facilitate a regular scheduled group mentoring session. After discussion with the team, the facilitator works with me and we find the right person in the organization to lead that discussion and help these employees potentially grow their career. As with all things, people get out of it what they put into it so results may vary.
You can’t please everyone, and you are doomed for failure if you try. You must be true to yourself, every day. I recognize that there are some employees who are never going to engage in extended conversation with me, but it isn’t about me. Some people don’t enjoy social interaction and I would never force an employee to be someone they aren’t. If you do that – they might quit and you may lose a good worker. What I do with people who are uncomfortable with social interaction is create opportunities and space for them to go at their own pace. I treat everyone the same, and remain as humble, candid, and open as possible. Do I connect better with some employees over others? Of course, sometimes you just have matching personalities with some people but you take that for what it is, and never treat anyone differently.
It is dangerous to play favorites. But as a leader, you do understand who the stronger players are on your team and you want to nurture those. But you also want to ensure you nurture those who might not be performing well and find ways to help them too. But always behind closed doors – those aren’t conversations you have on the floor.
If I want my employees to be happy, positive, and passionate, I have to exemplify it first. If I walk in the door with hunched shoulders and a bad attitude, people will automatically assume they have done something wrong and there’s bad news coming; and then the rumor mill starts. Obviously, there are hard decisions to be made every day in any leadership position… Like everyone, I have good days and bad days. Be aware that your employees are watching, and if you can present a positive demeanor with both your language and behavior, your actual mood doesn’t have to affect the rest of the company. Are you putting out a “shadow” that people want to follow?
It is especially important to project a positive leadership “shadow” in difficult times and when making big transitions in process. When I began at SquareTwo, we were using a traditional development methodology where it took longer to write our design documents than it took to code most of our product. This was leading to big lags in production and even though the designs were time consuming they weren’t yielding a quality product. So, I introduced agile development and after a couple of years people really started to get it. It wasn’t an overnight success and I had to ensure that I put out goal posts and positive encouragement for people to follow until we got into the groove of things. It’s all about putting your best foot forward and the rest of the company will follow.
Volumes have been written on the subject of good leadership, employment branding and how to hire and retain the best talent. We’ve certainly just scraped the surface here. The important point here is the converse of what any good HR professional will tell you about why people leave companies: they don’t like their management or leadership. If you can be a leader that people want to work for and create an environment they want to work in, that will go a long way to attracting and retaining great talent and creating a positive employment brand for your organization.