We’re All in the People Business: Three Strategies You Need to Know to Maximize Workforce Performance 

When he was appointed CEO of aluminum manufacturer Alcoa, Paul O’Neill devoted his first public appearance to discussing worker safety. You see, O’Neill believed (correctly as it turns out) that focusing on his company’s people was the key to success. By the time he retired 13 years later, the previously ailing company had more than quadrupled its annual net income.

The Alcoa case demonstrates that every business is, in the end, a people business. Whatever your company does, you rely on your workforce to make it a success. Yet many organizations continue to use workforce performance management strategies that are based on the outdated industrial mindset of keeping the assembly line moving, no matter what.

Focusing on your people isn’t just about altruism or having a good public relations story; it can have a serious positive impact on your bottom line. Organizations with high employee engagement are 21% more profitable and have 20% higher sales than rival businesses. Companies that do a great job at engaging, motivating and developing their talent are also preparing them to address tomorrow’s business challenges, while fulfilling each individual’s own career goals.

With that in mind, here are three ways to make your organization more people-focused and ensure your employees are engaged and motivated to drive growth for your business.

1. Implement a Performance Process That Looks Forward, Not Backwards

Annual reviews remain the typical performance management strategy for most companies. Once a year, employees are judged on their performance over the past 12 months, given feedback on what could have been done better and maybe given a promotion or pay raise. Not only is this backwards-looking process stressful and time-consuming for both manager and employee, the feedback given around events that happened nearly a year ago is often too late to be useful.

87% of millennials and 69% of older employees say that “professional or career growth and development opportunities” are important in any job. That demands a change to a more continuous approach to performance management, anchored by far more frequent touchpoints between managers and their reports. These conversations should look ahead at how an individual can have an impact on the organization, grow their skills and further their career. Conversations should happen regularly throughout the year and be based around developmental milestones that are updated to reflect the changing goals of the individual and needs of the business. With the higher volume of critical conversations, using an HR technology solution like Betterworks to support your continuous performance program becomes essential. In this way conversations are documented and recorded, not only to ensure that they actually happen but also to ensure that key learnings can be catalogued to provide future insights. 

When managers spend more time talking about future development instead of reviewing past results, employee performance increases. And continually focusing on development will drive tangible business results while enhancing your organization’s overall potential for agile growth.  

2. Help Your Managers Become Better Managers

People managers play an outsized role in motivating their employees, improving overall workforce performance and retaining top talent. And the more senior the leader, the more their job typically becomes about using the skills and experience of their team to generate results. Yet too often, managers don’t appreciate the other side of that relationship: employees want their leaders to help develop their talents and show a genuine investment in moving their careers forward.

In a people-focused organization, it’s critical that every manager understand that coaching individuals is one of their primary responsibilities. Some will push back because they are busy trying to achieve other goals, but as an HR leader I constantly reinforce to them that developing employees is important and explain how it benefits them.

Most managers will not only understand the importance of development, they’ll crave it for themselves. While 90 percent say they want to improve their skills and abilities as coaches, less than half of managers in the US believe that their development needs are being met.

The company is responsible for ensuring that managers are trained to align their teams around the organization’s most important initiatives, maintain progress with continuous coaching and feedback, recognize each individual’s progress and contribution to the business and develop a career plan for every employee.

Think of this coaching as an upfront investment on your part that will pay you as an HR professional huge dividends down the road. Your managers will be more productive, and they’ll be better at their jobs which will trickle down to their teams. This in turn means you will have to do less on your end, and so the upfront investment while potentially difficult will have a huge long-term payoff. 

3. Give Every Employee a Sense of Purpose

Having a purpose is a major motivator for all human beings, from Gen Zers and Millennials to baby-boomers. Sometimes this comes from what your company does, but not every business has a genuinely world-changing mission. That’s why it’s also important for purpose to become personal to each of your workers. When your employees feel that they can grow, learn and develop, your company will benefit from the sense of purpose this brings.

Some businesses are reluctant to invest in developing talent that may not stick around long enough for the company to reap the rewards. But while it’s true that the average length of time people stay in one job is declining (to just 2.8 years for 25-34 year-olds), if your company is unable to compete on salaries or lacks the appeal of high-profile brands you’ll always lose those people who want more money or renown. But that’s all the more reason to give your employees a great reason to stay.

93 percent of employees say they would stay at a company for longer if the business invests in their career. When people feel they are constantly learning new skills and can see a pathway ahead for continued progress, they remain engaged and motivated. That means they are more likely to stay with your organization, perform at high levels and develop new talents that will benefit your business in the future.

The Knock-on Effect of Looking Ahead

One of the smartest things about Paul O’Neill’s strategy at Alcoa was that improving worker safety forced the company to communicate more effectively at every level. Reports about injuries had to get from the factory floor to the head office fast and solutions had to follow quickly. Eventually, the company reaped the benefits of improved communication about all aspects of the business, not just safety.

A forward-looking performance process can create a similar sea-change for your business. Employees will have an increased sense of purpose, managers will want to become better coaches and eventually all aspects of your business will feel the effects of this continual drive for progress and improvement. 

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Tim Bridges

Tim Bridges

Senior Vice President and Chief Talent Officer, Opera Solutions

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