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Fix It Now—and How: Improve Company Reputation by Empowering Your Best Brand Ambassadors (A.K.A., Your Employees)

With lifelong customers cutting up United Airlines’ affiliation cards, politicians introducing new legislation, and cable news pundits vigorously debating the company missteps in the wake of the recent passenger removal incident, a firestorm of questions have been raised about how a high-profile global company both treats loyal customers and should best respond to a such a reputation-damaging incident.

But there is an additional and perhaps equally important question being given little airtime: what if there was a way to avoid such blunders altogether by creating a culture of employee empowerment uniquely attuned with your customers’ needs? In other words, what if United Airlines had taken a different tack—one of allowing their front-line employees to use their good judgment as opposed to strict adherence to policy? 

Make no mistake, the ambassadors of your brand are everywhere in your company. Consider your last hotel stay. Did the bellman assist with your baggage? How did the front desk handle check-in?  Was the concierge correct with the coordinates of your meeting?  Did housekeeping respond to your request for a turn down?  Was your room service order correct?  Each of these individuals is charged with delivering the hotel’s brand, and any of them can influence your stay as well as your opinion of their property.

They are all likely empowered toward the same goal—to make sure their customer-related decisions come from a place of generosity, thoughtfulness and kindness. In other words, treat people “as they would want to be treated.” It seems like common sense, doesn’t it?

It also seems like good advice for beleaguered United Airlines CEO, Oscar Munoz, who should strongly consider the upside (he’s already very familiar with the downside) of empowering his brand ambassadors—all 86,000 employees—to make an immediate shift in this direction while he makes a cultural one within the company.

It wasn’t just the widely-reported passenger incident that has sent United Airlines into this spiral. Recently, there was the soon-to-be-married couple en route to Costa Rica, tossed from their flight because they wanted to sit in (and were willing to pay for) Economy Plus seats. And just a few days ago, a passenger was stung by a scorpion, of all things, lurking in the overhead bin. Flying the friendly skies, are we?

Creating a program or policy—the right kind—that instills a “pay it forward” or “random act of kindness” sense of empowerment in brand ambassadors would go a very long way in putting out the United Airlines fire, which currently shows no signs of slowing with the overbooked flight fiasco that will keep the airline’s general counsel busy, and awake at night, handling the inevitable lawsuit coming their way.
What would such a program mean in practice?  Well, for the future newlyweds, why not “comp” them Economy Plus and give them champagne to celebrate their upcoming nuptials?  This action would have cost little, provided a memorable experience for passengers and demonstrated a very different kind of reaction and customer value proposition. And, the individual who was stung by the scorpion—instead of initially saying that the injury was not serious and downplaying the incident, why not offer the passenger a note from the captain extending him complimentary drinks and free entertainment? 

These examples of United Airlines putting themselves in the shoes of their customers would have resulted in positive experiences rather than reinforcing negative ones. While it may be too early to tell what the long-term fallout will be for United Airlines, taking the high road to positivity in all customer interactions may be the most immediate—and relatively easy to implement—way to turn the fleet around.

Any company that finds itself dealing with a reputation issue that has the potential to eradicate its customer base, torpedo its share price, and cause what might be irreparable harm to its reputation has an opportunity to handle the situation in a way that can effectively mediate the events and avoid further damage to the brand. 

Putting yourself in your customers’ shoes is a good place to start.

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Using Customer Insights to Drive Ethical, Profitable Growth

By Sean Williams

The recent Wells Fargo settlement—to the tune of $185 million—has given business leaders pause to examine the contributing dynamics. A combination of aggressive cross-selling strategy, insufficient employee monitoring, and incentives misaligned with the best interests of customers set the stage for a massive employee fraud in the creation of unauthorized accounts driven by the desire to earn bonus compensation.

Hardly unique, Wells Fargo is one of many companies placing aggressive goals on customer-facing employees, most in a direct position to inadvertently do harm, and they must carefully evaluate the strategic, legal, and reputational risks.
Clearly, substantial changes are often necessary to remain competitive as employees adjust to new ways of interacting with customers to deliver profitable growth. While post-Wells Fargo activities may include new value statements and requisite hours of training, actual employee behaviors are much more difficult to monitor, and frequently fraught with blind spots.

But how is a leader to know if employees are upholding and reinforcing company policies and standards rather than potentially destroying value by pursuing individual goals at the expense of customers? 

One source of safeguarding against these risks is to employ something many companies already have: a voice of customer program. 

How could a voice of customer program help a bank address its blind spots in employee behavior?  Obviously, customers will not know—at least not immediately—if a bank employee opened an account for them without their permission. But a voice of customer program employing outreach to recently-opened account holders asking for customer feedback on the sales process—a common activity—can illuminate such a disconnect.
But such an approach is not foolproof in that this type of feedback is solicited only from the small number of customers who have opened accounts, and many will routinely decline the interview for reasons that have little to do with unethical bank behaviors (e.g., customers commonly believe there was a mistake). Beyond customer declinations however, it may be likely that either the email address or phone number designated to the new account is bogus.

However, if the question was asked of any customer conducting any transaction on an active account, it would provide a broad data sample that could easily be used to monitor and evaluate employee behavior, notably illuminating any discrepancies between the customer’s assertion that they have not opened an account and bank records indicating otherwise. More importantly, these disconnects will reveal potential problems in branch locations where new goals have been rolled out, strategies implemented, etc. 

Such dynamics transcend the financial services industry, certainly, and an effective voice of customer program can be useful for managing risk from employee behaviors in any company. For example, many automobile manufacturers reimburse dealer service departments for the parts sold for repairs, but not for actual car repair. This creates a subtle mismatch between the ideal activities of the service personnel (repairing cars) and the service for which the manufacturer is paying (installation). Such a disconnect creates easy opportunities to “game the system,” which in turn creates clear risk for the manufacturer.  

When a customer returns for the same service on the same vehicle, the manufacturer can safely assume that the repair was not correctly performed on the first attempt. But the manufacturer may be unaware if service personnel created duplicate entries for the same repair, if repairs sold were not required, or if the customer had repairs performed elsewhere.
These blind spots can be easily addressed by asking the right questions of customers. For example, inquiring with a customer as to when the last time a specific repair was performed may indicate if service personnel unnecessarily replaced parts not yet past their lifetime expectancy.

In the insurance sector, companies that are increasing pressure on claims can install new processes and due diligence, but the clear potential to harm claimants means that insurance companies should be auditing customers to ensure such processes are being followed. Manufacturers changing warranties and retailers modifying return policies could also better manage risks by more frequently surveying the customer experience.
Of course, collected customer data may never be perfect—and will be effective only insomuch as the customer remembers interactions. For example, in the earlier banking illustration, the customer could incorrectly remember opening an account, when such a transaction in fact occurred, or inaccurately recall the bank, if they do business with more than one. 

But this random noise will not change significantly over time or vary much by location, which are exactly the indicators a bank should be seeking. And the voice of customer data can provide vital information exactly where there are few other options for examining employee behavior. To realize monitoring value of voice of client programs, the programs should be integrated into the strategy implementation and risk management processes.  Consider the following five steps:
1) Examine the new strategy with the appropriate cross-functional team of leaders from strategy, sales, marketing or human resources. Identify where the new strategy unintentionally incentivizes employee misbehavior toward customers. Eliminate as many of these incentives as possible.

2) Explicitly list any remaining potential avenues for employee misbehavior. The more specific about the different ways this misbehavior could manifest, the better. 

3) Work with the data and analytics function to map out which of these manifestations can be identified today, and which could be monitored through existing infrastructure with some additional work. Think through the analytics and reporting that would be necessary to ensure that what can be seen, will be seen. The remaining manifestations of employee misbehavior are the blind spots.

4) Work with the voice of customer program to shed light on the blind spots, by asking the right questions of the right customers at the right time. Make sure that the voice of customer program and the data and analytics functions work together to produce integrated reporting for the leadership on the manifestations of misbehavior, including rates, trends, and locations.  Establish baseline values of customer responses before rolling out the new strategy, goals or incentives.

5) Make sure there are no remaining blind spots. If blind spots remain, or new blind spots are identified later, consider adding a customer survey or other data collection mechanism as necessary to address the new blind spots.

This approach helps ensure that problems are identified before they become widespread, which will help put both executives and regulators at ease while minimizing situations where employees may feel encouraged to act against the best interests of the customer, mapping and monitoring such behaviors to course correct when required.

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Are Your Customer and Employee Value Propositions Aligned with Your Business Strategy?

Like the eternal question, “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” marketers are asking, “Which comes first, the customer value proposition or the employee value proposition?” 

By Aneysha Pearce and Aaron Sorensen

By customer value proposition (CVP), we mean a persuasive statement that captures the reasons why someone should buy a particular product or service. The employee value proposition (EVP) constitutes the most compelling reasons an employee would choose to join an organization and choose to stay.

Best-in-class CVPs and EVPs are distinctive and create the “magnetism” to attract the type of people you want associated with your organization. Both are a critical link to the business strategy and key drivers of long-term profitable growth.
GE provides a great example of CVP and EVP alignment. In September 2015, GE launched its “What’s the Matter with Owen?” campaign on late night TV. Andy Goldberg, global creative director at GE, explained to Ad Age: “The goal is to set up the promise of GE being a digital industrial company, bringing this idea of big iron and big data together under one roof.”
The campaign positions GE in competition with the likes of Google, Facebook, and others for millennial tech talent. That’s important, because as explained in GE’s 2016 annual report, they are investing heavily in “disruptive innovation.” Each spot includes the taglines: “GE. The digital company. That’s also an industrial company.”
That alignment between CVP and EVP is critical because GE needs high-demand talent to execute its business strategy.
In addition to alignment, another important characteristic of great CVPs and EVPs is a deep understanding of their audiences. In some instances, potential employees are also potential customers. But for many B2B companies, their audiences are different (millennials building tech solutions purchased by Baby Boomer COOs and plant managers, for example).
The last thing you want to do is create uncomfortable cognitive dissonance in the minds of either customers or potential employees. So how do marketing and HR make sure that the company’s CVP and EVP are ultimately serving the strategy? Here are some ideas to consider:

1. Reputation roundtable — At least once a year, get the leaders of marketing and recruiting, and any creative resources, in the same room to discuss creative strategy and tactical implementation.

2. Message assessment — Are there any inconsistencies in your messaging?

3. Channel alignment — Compare notes on the use of channels, particularly social media, and identify areas of overlap.

4. Audience analysis — What are the personas of your respective audiences? How can value propositions be tailored to appeal to customers and future employees without losing the essence of the brand?

5. CVP/EVP messaging playbook — An internal guide that illustrates how messaging is altered between customers and employees so that relevant differences are made without compromising the important connection between the two audiences.

Marketing and Human Resources/Talent Acquisition are key players at the strategy table and coordination amongst the groups is a must in driving alignment between the CVP and EVP.  The reality is that your organization already has a CVP and EVP whether or not you have gone through the effort of documenting it.  This is your reputation and employment brand.

However, the likelihood that the CVP is aligned to and enables the strategy and brand is low if you haven’t taken a close look at it in awhile. Further, an EVP usually has a “shelf life” of 5 years, sometimes less, if your talent portfolio is changing.  Progressive companies look at the EVP before it becomes stale and ensure it is consistent with the CVP.  Many organizations take advantage of a brand refresh to develop or refine the CVP and ensure the EVP is aligned.

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Data Rich, Decision Poor

Awash in data, firms struggle to develop and leverage insights—but getting them right can have tremendous upside

By Mark Masson and Sean Williams

Data is everywhere. Insights? Not so much.

Looking for deep intel on customer or client needs? To target new markets? Understand performance? Any firm or company today pursuing profitable growth may ignore, at its own peril, the role of data in this strategy. If business transformation is the key to your growth model for tomorrow, leveraging your existing data for insights into key drivers should be a mandate.

The availability of data is set to increase at lightning pace. The volume of data created annually is expected to reach 44 trillion gigabytes by 2020, an increase of nearly ten times just since 2013. And yet only a fraction of that data is actually helpful—37% of that 44 trillion gigabytes is expected to be useful, and only after it is analyzed (1).  Inundated by seemingly useless data, you may be wondering whether investing in your organization’s analytical capabilities was worth it.

And you wouldn’t be alone. The majority of big data and analytics-building efforts fail or are never completed. Just because the capabilities are built doesn’t mean they truly add value. One recent study (2) found that three-quarters of businesses extract little to no advantage from their data, including many that have invested heavily in building analytics capabilities.

The problem for most organizations and leadership teams is that simply having more data—or software or even data analysts—doesn’t directly lead to answers. The good news is that our experience shows that nearly any level of investment in analytics can generate surprisingly large value. Realizing that value often requires understanding what barriers leaders are encountering, and then addressing the (sometimes surprising) root causes.

Assessing Your Unique Challenges

Leaders understandably focus on dealing with the most obvious causes—bad data, bad analytics, or even bad analysts—but while these are the most obvious, they are not necessarily the most likely to be the real problem. You should also make sure the business processes that touch analytics are not getting in the way, that you manage the cultural challenges to acting on analytics, and that you align on what is needed, from the C-suite down to the analytics teams.

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To fully realize the value from analytics, leaders must understand and activate all of the elements that support a data-driven firm.

  • Alignment : Aligning leadership (Senior Team and key leaders) on the most critical decisions to be made, and analysts on the knowledge and data required to make them; sizing the gaps between the current level of insights and information provided and the strategic needs 
  • Means : Evaluating the adequacy of means (processes, technology and data-related interactions) that lead to decisions
  • People : Assessing the current type and level of analytic and decision-making capability within the firm 
  • Processes : Measuring whether current business processes enable decision-making from insight or get in the way 
  • Culture : Highlighting and removing cultural weaknesses around or barriers to data-enabled decision-making

Finding Value in Your Data

Unsurprisingly, we find that each organization has strengths and weaknesses among these elements, but few are capable of objectively identifying them or knowing what levers to pull to change the situation. Successful ones, however, do not become data-driven by throwing more data at the problem. Rather, they work to first understand their gaps related to these elements and find solutions to close them, leveraging the natural strengths of the organization.

Complacency around your data will ultimately impede business transformation. But eliminating company barriers, aligning critical elements and making investments in analytics is an assured route to future growth. Every organization today, regardless of size, has potentially game-changing insights sitting right in its very own data, and the value is significant. Understanding and delivering on client or customer needs you’re missing or that other organizations can’t “see” makes getting this equation right worth full percentage points to your firm’s bottom line, competitive advantage and continued livelihood.

(1) EMC Digital Universe Study, 2014

(2) Seizing the Information Advantage, 2015

Mark Masson advises senior leaders of major law, accounting, and consulting firms. He specializes in firm and client growth strategies and effective execution by aligning and engaging leadership teams, boards, and partnerships on strategic growth priorities. His work blends the nuance and experience of professional service firm leadership with cutting-edge business analytics.

Sean Williams helps clients craft insight-based and data-driven solutions to their business problems, with experience in analytics and predictive modelling in a variety of industries, including financial services, hospitality, and manufacturing. He works with clients to build their analytical capabilities and to ensure they closely support strategy, and to help clients overcome their cultural and organizational barriers to realizing the value of their analytics.

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Avoiding Wells Fargo’s Reputational Crisis at Your Company

By Aneysha Pearce

The commonly-held sentiment that the more things change, the more they remain the same, certainly applies to some recent, high-profile and quite surprising leadership missteps we have seen play out publicly with Wells Fargo. The well-documented reputation crisis includes the termination of 5,300 lower-level bank employees who had opened over 2 million customer accounts to meet aggressive cross-sell targets set by Wells Fargo leadership. While such brand-tarnishing stories are not uncommon, it is truly perplexing to see them occur within a company placing high strategic importance on reputational efforts, and one that until recently had been the darling of Wall Street. In today’s social media spinning world, a breach of customer trust of this magnitude is all too easy and can rapidly compromise even the most highly regarded corporate reputations.

Not surprisingly, corporate reputation strength is based on the anchors of trust, admiration, respect, and the good feeling stakeholders have for a company. These drivers don’t change all that much, yet reputational performance does change—and quite dramatically— based on specific events and the relative alignment of the firm’s strategy, organizational model and talent.

The misalignment between management and staff can also be striking and may not be apparent until it is too late. For example, Wells Fargo’s now former CEO, John Stumpf, claimed that the bank’s situation was a result of “wrongful sales practice behavior” and that it “(went) against everything regarding our core principals, our ethics, and our culture.” But one only need to ask Stumpf’s front-line sales associates to hear a different story—one of a sales culture so intense that some workers (even in their San Francisco headquarters and branches) felt pressured into employing deceptive sales practices to make the lofty cross-sell goals. Such an atmosphere, said the associate, “Completely contradicts what (Stumpf) is saying.” The employee described a sales push called “Jump into January,” where associates were expected to sell 20 products a day. “We were all miserable, and it was soul-crushing to walk in every day,” said the associate. It seems obvious that the pressure to achieve such targets created an intense environment.  

What can other firms learn from the decline of Wells Fargo’s reputation? A useful way to answer that question holistically is through the lens of Axiom’s “Reputation Management Framework.” Our model begins with the end in mind and is based on years of experience leading this type of work for global clients in highly-regulated industries such as energy, healthcare, financial services and automotive, to name a few.

The model is intuitive, with reputation heavily influenced by the importance of company performance measured against the following dimensions: innovation, products/services, citizenship, governance, workplace, leadership, and financial performance. 

Wells Fargo’s decision to put unrealistic pressure on its retail banking team had a cascading effect on the entire organization. To add some dimension to the gravity of the situation, we fielded a study with 500 U.S. general consumers about their perceptions of Wells Fargo’s (and nine other companies’) reputation given the events of late.
From a reputational performance standpoint, Wells Fargo’s current reputation is at the “poor” level with a score of 58 (out of 100).  Compared to its retail banking peers, JP Morgan and Bank of America are in the “leading” to “average” range with scores of 76 and 70. respectively.  Further, key drivers of Wells Fargo’s reputation from the recent events are putting downward pressure on its overall reputation – with Leadership (49), Products and Services (55), and Corporate Citizenship (52) all either at or well below the “failing” performance threshold.

Recovering from this crisis will require more than a band-aid. It will take a reexamination of the entire organizational model including roles and accountabilities, decision authority, performance measures, work processes and information flows. We often recommend that companies take a step back and analyze their organizational model for reputational vulnerabilities and create an organization design to support behavior that builds reputation, not tears it down.

It will take time for Wells Fargo to unwind the damage done and, most recently, it appears to be taking the right steps to correct its actions—including leadership changes at the top, a new public campaign taking responsibility for wrong-doings, a roadshow to internally communicate the work to be done and, importantly, the realization that it is a long road ahead to rebuild trust with its customers AND employees.
Aneysha Pearce is a Partner at Axiom Consulting Partners, a strategy consulting firm focused on helping clients transform their businesses through a deep and thoughtful understanding of strategy, organization, and talent. Aneysha has over 20 years of experience supporting clients with their growth strategy efforts having partnered with many of the F500 clients in a wide-array of industries including energy, financial services, retail, consumer packaged goods, technology, and healthcare. Aneysha is a frequent media resource, commenting on business, brand, and reputation topics for publications such as Fortune, MediaPost, and 24/7 Wall Street, and has been interviewed by San Francisco KGO Radio.
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Caring for the Chronically Ill: Axiom/Vizient Research Institute Playbook

Caring for the Chronically Ill


The Vizient Research Institute and Axiom Consulting Partners collaborated on a breakthrough research report, the Vizient Chronic Disease Medical Home Playbook. In a guest blog on Vizient’s website, Garrett Sheridan, Axiom’s president, outlines the six foundational elements that are essential in reducing costs and improving patient outcomes for the chronically ill.

Health care spending in the U.S. exceeds $3 trillion per year and 10 percent of the population – the chronically ill – accounts for approximately 60 percent of that cost. Those patients are distinguished by their complex medical conditions that often require costly interventions. As noted in a previous Vizient, more than two-thirds of Medicare beneficiaries have multiple chronic diseases and a staggering 93 percent of total Medicare spending goes toward beneficiaries with multiple chronic conditions.

The complexity facing these patients is overwhelming. Too many care plans, too many uncoordinated appointments, too many prescriptions to manage and no quarterback or advocate to help. Health care organizations have done well at managing diseases, but not so well at managing the complexity of the patient’s life.

Health system leaders I’ve recently spoken with will candidly admit that past disease management approaches, while well intentioned, have fallen short. But we’re seeing the emergence of a different approach, one with the potential to increase the quality of care, engage patients in their own care plan, and minimize costly, preventable emergency room visits and admissions. It’s a multidisciplinary, patient-centered approach for transforming care for the chronically ill.

In a recent collaborative effort with the Vizient Research Institute™, we looked at several organizations that are leading the way in caring for the chronically ill and concluded that six foundational elements are essential in reducing costs and improving patient outcomes. They include:

  1. Segmented patient population. Organizations that successfully manage the health of populations understand that the strategy is not about managing one population – it is about segmenting the population and understanding that each segment requires different approaches, resources and care models. It is important to identify the drivers of needs, e.g., number of diagnoses, acuity of conditions, demographic data; differences in needs, e.g., payer affiliation, mental health and/or substance abuse issues; and utilization behaviors, e.g., frequency and intensity, primary avenue of utilization.
  2. Defined clinic infrastructure. It’s unrealistic for many chronically ill patients to comply with their multiple care plans when it’s difficult to find transportation and keep track of multiple appointments in different locations. As a result, proximity and convenience must be considered in any complex care design. However, models for how to best support a particular provider organization will vary and each facility will have to find an approach that’s right for them.
  3. Team-based care model. A team-based approach to care works best. High-performing teams have clearly defined responsibilities that are understood by both patients and care providers. Clarifying the boundaries between roles eliminates duplicative effort, closes gaps in care and helps patients avoid being overwhelmed.
  4. Integrated communications matrix. Knowing when, how and with whom information is shared among the care team, patient and health system ensures that all stakeholders are able to make informed decisions. Information silos give way to a fact-based understanding of how to achieve shared goals. A communications matrix that illustrates the interactions — both giving and receiving information — that needs to take place creates a positive patient experience.
  5. Appropriate workforce structure. Getting the right number and type of team members working together in a complex care design can feel like a juggling act. There are multiple variables, including the fact that chronically ill patients will visit more often and their visits will be more resource-intensive. The composition of the patient population is another important variable. For example, if it has higher-than-average psychosocial needs, the right number of mental health providers must be available.
  6. Clear systems and processes. Electronic medical records, patient/provider compacts, interdisciplinary patient rounds and educational tools that engage patients all have potential to reduce complexity. Balancing the specific requirements of the care model with institutional infrastructure and cost concerns is an important consideration and a potential implementation challenge.

We are not suggesting that any institution should copy a defined model. Each of these foundational elements is essential, but it’s just as important to remember that one size does not fit all. The key is to start thinking in practical terms about providing your chronically ill patients with access to better coordinated care, fewer missed visits, higher medication adherence and ultimately, better quality of life.

To learn more, click here to read an executive summary of “A Breakthrough Approach to Managing Care for the Chronically Ill Population.”
About the author and Axiom Consulting Partners. Garrett Sheridan is the president of Axiom Consulting Partners, a management consulting firm providing strategy, organization and talent-related services to help transform academic medical centers and other health care institutions.
The groundbreaking work at the Vizient Research Institute drives exceptional member value using a systematic, integrated approach. The investigations quickly uncover practical, tested results that lead to measurable improvement in clinical and economic performance.
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Professional Service Firm Governance: Five Things the Management Team and Board Must Do to Work Well Together

Axiom Consulting Partners on Professional Services Firm Governance

Dave Wedding, Chairman, Partnership Board and Managing Partner, Mid-South Market Territory at Grant Thornton LLP, and Mark Masson, a Principal, Axiom Consulting Partners, co-authored this whitepaper that explains why and how boards and management teams at professional service firms can work better together to sustain momentum and drive profitable growth.

“Too often boards and management teams at firms see each other as hurdles to be cleared. Power politics and a long list of initiatives get in the way and hold down results. Here’s how the board and management team can work together better to sustain growth:
• Determine and then live by who makes what decisions, why and in what time frame.
• Engage the broader partnership.
• Develop a shared view of the most critical strategic priorities for both the board and management.
• Leverage strengths and set clear expectations (of each other).
• Speak and act with one voice.”

Dave and Mark conclude: “Governance takes more than what is on the surface to successfully lead and sustain a firm’s momentum. Even the most gifted leaders often find the challenge of driving change difficult. Tuning the hard code and soft code of governance to get, and keep, the board and management team working together effectively for the partnership pays real business dividends.”

Accounting Today: Make Sure Your Partnership Operates Like a Team

Accounting Today (8/30/16) features a high-level article on governance by Dave and Mark that summarizes many of the points in the whitepaper:

“Nobody likes a back-seat driver, and nobody feels safe when the two people in the front seat are arguing about every element of a road trip. The same is true in a partnership. When management and the board disagree on direction, managing growth or any other key decision, the entire organization is at risk. Partners feel unsafe…This is particularly true in accounting firms and other partnerships. Power struggles abound. Managers and directors sometimes view each other as hurdles to be cleared —and they keep information from each other. Issues of pricing, client acquisition or talent management get ignored, and ultimately, overall growth suffers.

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WorldatWork Video: The Case for Doing Away With Annual Salary Reviews

Annual Salary Reviews: Is the Juice Worth the Squeeze?

In this video produced by WorldatWork, Juan Pablo Gonzalez, Partner, Axiom Consulting Partners, and Bruce O’Neel, Vice President – Human Resources, CSG International, question whether the time invested to create, review and negotiate performance ratings and manage merit matrices and forced ratings distributions generates any real value. They then provide alternatives to pay for results and growth in ways that yield a higher return on rewards investments, and advice on moving away from traditional 12-month salary increase cycles.

For a deeper look into the issue read the workspan magazine article, “Annual Salary Increases: Is the Juice Worth the Squeeze?”  Axiom Partner Juan Pablo Gonzalez makes the case that “the annual salary or merit increase process is becoming an anachronism…Instead, pay for results and capability growth by eliminating the traditional merit increase process and by keeping performance management, compensation budgets and simple variable pay programs.”

The benefits include:

  1. More effective communication about the nature of performance expectations.
  2. Better allocation of compensation investments by aligning type of pay with type of performance.
  3. Increase in meaningfulness of rewards.
  4. More productive use of manager, employee and human resources time in managing, rewarding and increasing performance.
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Strategic Workforce Planning: How to Salvage a Lost Opportunity

By Don Ruse and Aaron Sorensen

Strategic workforce planning (SWP) has taken a long and winding road over the past 15 years and the final destination appears (for most) to be dusty binders and another opportunity lost for the HR function to deliver strategic business value. What happened? How did a process with such promise fail to live up to the hype and under-deliver in so many cases? How can it be salvaged and made valuable again?

Vasa sinking

SWP brings to mind the Vasa, a powerful warship ship that sank on its maiden voyage in 1628 just minutes after leaving the Stockholm harbor because of poor design and planning, requirements creep, and excessive innovation, including overloaded features and ornamentation. The ship was salvaged in the 1960’s and resides today in Scandinavia’s most visited museum.

SWP offered HR a foray into strategy—a ticket to “sit at the table” and partner with the business to truly connect people decisions to the strategy.  It was to be the holy grail of all things strategic in HR and held the promise of being able to ensure the right people, in the right roles, at the right time and cost to successfully execute strategy. Within some companies, this promise has been fulfilled and tangible business value realized. Unfortunately, this is more the exception than the rule. Why? Because of familiar reasons that often characterize failed HR initiatives. 
So what are these reasons and what can HR do to refocus its thinking and approach to SWP to finally deliver real business value before it becomes another failed HR promise? We offer the following for your consideration.

Think and act like business person, not a technical professional

Good business strategy is anchored on the fundamental understanding of a company’s marketplace, the forces that shape it, and what it takes to win within it. A good strategic workforce plan requires HR to understand these fundamentals as well as the leaders who run their business and develop its strategy.
We still find that the lack of business acumen hinders most SWP efforts. HR’s view of and approach to SWP is too often shaped and managed by people who, through formal education and/or experience, possess deep technical expertise in HR, Organization Development, or I/O Psychology. While valuable in their areas of technical expertise, they often do not possess a level of business acumen that enables them to understand and analyze a business’s competitive landscape, decipher market, financial and operational forces, understand organizational dynamics and economic constraints, and consider these factors in determining future workforce requirements. Companies that recognize business acumen as a key to successful SWP rely on line leaders, heads of strategy and in some cases experienced generalists with “field” experience to drive the process while tapping into technical professionals for analytic support.

Focus strategic workforce planning on conversation, not the analytics and tools

Developing sound business strategy begins with knowing what questions to ask about the business and competitive forces and guiding the conversations necessary to answer them. SWP is no different yet we continue to find poor quality conversations and an obsessive focus on tools and analytics that provide interesting data, but often irrelevant insights. HR, using its business understanding and business acumen, needs to identify the critical questions that help connect business strategy to workforce strategy and drive the critical thinking and constructive discourse required to answer them. It’s the conversation (and not the tool or analyses) that results in business leaders making informed decisions regarding future workforce requirements and investments.  
Unfortunately, HR has become enamored with software-as-a-service tools that promise to provide insights with the push of a button. It’s as if a new segment within the software industry was born almost overnight. (A Google search of the term “workforce planning tools” yields over 4 million results.)
The plethora of SWP certifications and training have only reinforced this myopic focus on analytics and tools, resulting in many organizations getting stuck in the weeds. As the SWP movement took hold it quickly captured the attention of firms who saw a market opportunity to deliver services that promised to transform HR pros into workforce planners. While this was a boon for the organizations offering these services, it did little more than add another set of templates and tools to the HR toolbox. It is apparent now that training in frameworks, tools, and models can’t replace the critical thinking and business acumen that are truly foundational to relevant and actionable strategic workforce plans.

Keep strategic workforce planning focused on strategy, not tactics

Keep SWP strategic. Strategic workforce planning is a process that translates business strategy into workforce strategy.  In doing so, it should inform HR strategies and processes to execute the plan just as business strategies inform downstream operational strategies and processes focused on inventing, making, and selling a company’s products or services.
We often find HR has dropped the “S” from SWP and designed workforce planning processes that are glorified annual headcount planning exercises tied to operational budgeting activities. Why? Because of the absence of business thinking and the focus on data visualization and irrelevant analytics that frequently result in leadership losing interest and confidence in SWP. They fall back on relying on HR to do what they have done well over many years—headcount planning focused on affordability—versus differentiation and optimization to achieve business strategy. 
We also find that HR tends to design SWP as a be-all and end-all for workforce management—the catch-all for all things strategic in HR. SWP becomes the latest program for downstream workforce management processes such as talent review and succession planning. This reinforces leadership’s frustration with HR and further populates the HR graveyard of failed attempts to be strategically relevant.
So, is strategic workforce planning another lost opportunity for HR to deliver real business value?  We believe the answer is “Not yet.” However, we also believe that it will be if HR continues down the current path of making SWP yet “another HR program” vs. a strategic business process that helps leadership ask and answer the critical questions needed to ensure they have the right people, in the right roles, at the right time and cost to execute the business strategy.

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View the webinar: “Does Employee Engagement Really Exist? If So, Who’s Accountable?

Employee engagement webinar hosted by Talent Quarterly features Rutgers University’s Dick Beatty, Axiom Consulting Partners’ Aaron Sorensen and Hogan’s Derek Lusk.

Sorensen’s comments begin at the 21:50 mark. Among his insights and recommendations, he cites four tactics to improve employee engagement:

  1. Conduct an audit to understand if you have an intrinsic motivation challenge.
  2. Identify, understand, and model the exemplars.
  3. Emphasize strategies that focus on intrinsic motivators and leader-follower trust but don’t ignore rewards.
  4. Select for and develop skills in leaders to reinforce autonomy, competence and relatedness in their teams.
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