Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Raising Your TQ (Talent Quotient)

If your company has been around as long as ours has—23 years—it takes a lot of energy to keep your processes fresh, and your edge sharp. Like any long-established company, we have a strong culture, and a (sometimes maddeningly) predictable way of doing things.

One of our core values is “Build and Protect and Fun and Harmonious Work Environment.” Lately, I’ve been reconsidering this idea. Not that I think fun and harmony aren’t important; they’re critical to the happiness of our spa workforce. But when it came to hiring, I realized we were looking for “our type”—an employee who seemed to harmonize with the existing team—very possibly at the expense of talent. One of the other three core values, “Achieve our Goals,” seemed to be taking a back seat to Team Harmony in the recruiting process. For example, I’d get a little nervous around people who seemed too driven or intense. Candidates who firmly proclaimed that one of their goals was to open their own spa were often passed over—hey, I didn’t want to play “spa university” for an ambitious job-hopper.

For years, we cultivated a very homogeneous team. And then something great happened. We experienced a lot of turnover within a short period of time. And in the process of rebuilding our team, I looked hard at the assumptions we’d been making about what constituted a “successful” Preston Wynne employee.

During this time I read “First, Break All the Rules,” the outstanding Marcus Buckingham book based on Gallup surveys of employees and managers. The subtitle of the book is, “What the world’s greatest managers do differently.” Among the behaviors it describes is the relentless quest for talent—finding it and developing it. I recognized immediately that talent had not been at the top of my list of must-have’s. Certainly, aptitude was crucial. But for years, I’d maintained that personality was the most important trait; we could teach someone with good aptitude the technical skills they’d need, because we had a strong in-house training program. But talent is more than attitude and aptitude. True talent includes passion and drive and often, an ineffable “X Factor”. We’d often been spooked by our passionate, driven candidates. When one “got through” they might succeed, but just as many probably felt ignored. We offered a certain management style that worked very well for the majority of the team—but it didn’t always meet the needs of exceptional people.

When I look back at the top talents I’ve employed, they’ve often been what are known as Positive Deviants. They stand out. Some have been a little eccentric. Some have been a little messy. Some have been downright obsessive about their craft. The one thing that talented folks seem to have in common is that they don’t have a lot in common. It’s crucial that you suss out their particular needs—their quirks, their obsessions—and you take care of them.

By encouraging you to lavish your talent with attention, I’m not suggesting that you hire prima donnas and encourage them to run amok. We’ve all seen the destructive power of “superstar” employees who are not held to the same standard as their co-workers. That sort of talent is very costly, because the performance of other employees is undermined by their resentment and frustration. Often, when an intolerable superstar is fired, the performance of the rest of the staff leaps.

The 80/20 rule of employee development holds that managers spend 80% of their time dealing with the 20% of their team that underperforms. Our culture focuses energy on fixing weakness rather than accentuating strengths, which on the face of it is practical. In busy spa operations, squeaky wheels get the grease. But your best investment of time and energy is in strong, talented people. Your challenge as a manager is to make sure the smoothest-spinning wheels are very well maintained.

Customize the way you approach your talented workers. Tailor the way you communicate with them, cultivate their abilities, and support them in their career development. Invite them to share their talent with others. We encourage our top talents to act as peer mentors and help disseminate their skills and knowledge. But one size does not fit all when it comes to top talent.

Positive deviants bring a tremendous amount of passion to the workplace. When blocked (by rigid bureaucracy, lack of management “quality time” or under-motivated/ under-performing team mates), this can turn into frustration. Mentoring is essential to their well-being and development. I realize now that neglecting talented and seemingly self-regulating employees to spend our energy rehabilitating problem children is a recipe for a talent hemorrhage.

To flog that metaphor, I’m happy to say that we have lots of vital “new blood” in our team, which is energizing and uplifting the veteran staff members as well. I understand now that we must resist the temptation to “set them and forget them” because they’re self motivated. (Talk about no good deed going unpunished.) Instead, we’ll keep the bars set high for our talent—only by challenging them will we keep them fully engaged.


Steve said...

Peggy - This is a very interesting story. I appreciate you sharing how you made the transition from focusing on personality to focusing on talent.

I'm curious, though, why you would not want to have highly motivated staff who might be looking to open their own spa someday. True, you may have them for only a short time, but they will be more focused and energized because they have a purpose and passion driving them -- not just a job. The "driven" employees are more likely to be analyzing and questioning processes, seeking ways to improve the customer experience -- ideas that you can benefit from to make your own business better.

Enjoyed your post. It gave me some good things to think about. Thanks again.

macheson said...

Hi Peggy,

My background is outside the spa business, so take my comments as those of an outsider....well, not totally an outsider!

I am active as a massage practitioner after semi-retiring from the tech sector in Silicon Valley with a degree in Psych and an MBA. Currently, I am on schedule at a top day spa in Monterey county.

It is truly a different world than I am use to..and yet I have a gift of touch and enjoy the benefits of massage and the interactions with clients and a number of the other staff.

I also have a successful private practice at a health club.

So my comments and insights are varied, based on which practice I am talking about...but for the moment I will limit myself to the day spa.

What a mixed bag it is! Teamwork is critical, but very hard to achieve. Turnover is rampant and a killer for teamwork. The opposite of teamwork is every one for themself, and there is plenty of that going on.

I am intense and very observant, and a bit of a perfectionist to boot. It seems that most of the long-term practitioners are very mellow and do not rock the boat.

There is a lot of drift in the system. And an almost intractible lack of interest in change.

So, I am at odds with this part of my massage practice, since it is clock-driven and female practitioner oriented. So, after ~2 years of exploring this dual focus, I am leaning toward building my private practice for various reasons - both quality and reward.

My overall take on day spa business at this time is that it is incredibly difficult to attract and hold onto exceptional talent, and tends towards mediocre and passive type employees.