Communicate and Lead the Way, Conference Speakers Advise

By Beth Mirza Apr 23, 2008

LEDYARD, CONN.—Communication is the key, according to speakers at the 2008 Society for Human Resource Management Tri-State Conference, held here April 17-18, 2008. Whether a business is setting up overseas operations or a manager is trying to modify a problem employee’s behavior, strong communication skills are necessary.

Suzanne Zeller, president and director of human resources, wealth management, for Hartford Life Inc., gave the opening keynote address to the more than 250 attendees from Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

The Hartford saw a good opportunity to offer its retirement and financial services in London—an aging workforce is facing a pension crisis, and financial advisers complain of poor service levels from companies selling annuities, said Zeller. For back office operations, Ireland was attractive—young, educated workforce, favorable taxation, high technology and common currency.

Challenges included lack of name recognition; differences in language, which led to some confusing conversations; transplanting The Hartford’s high-performance culture, especially when new European leaders came from all over the country, with varying amounts of experience; and Europe’s tendency to view HR as transactional and not as a strategic partner, Zeller said.

The Hartford leaders played up the company’s various products and American standards of service along with their employer brand: though the company is nearly 200 years old, it is innovative, Zeller said. The European outpost would be like working as a startup but with solid financial backing. Most of all, The Hartford practices pay for performance, Zeller added. Most Irish businesses don’t do that, and employees are frustrated to see everyone get the same bonuses each year, regardless of the quality of their work. To promote the company’s values, managers created the Spirit Award for the employee who best embodies the company’s guiding principles.

values play a big role in hiring, training and career progression, Zeller said. An HR representative and a subject matter expert sit down with each applicant for face-to-face interviews, Zeller said, looking for skills, leadership capabilities and values. The core values show up again during the six-month and yearly performance reviews, as well as monthly meetings between each manager and his or her employees.

In addition, The Hartford emphasized building business leadership capability. Managers received training on how to best manage their employees. A third of the senior leaders’ bonuses depend on how well they created a high-performance culture. Stretch assignments help younger employees see how their careers could develop. “They know they have a place to go,” Zeller said.

Communications span the ocean, she added. Weekly all-employee huddles take place in the Ireland back office, and quarterly all-employee video conferences link the Ireland and London workers. Open office space makes it easy to collaborate and celebrate successes—when the office opened, employees would ring a ship’s bell to announce the addition of a client—and connections to the United States are kept up through employee newsletters.

In the office’s second full year, sales exceeded target by 11 percent. Employee surveys show high engagement and that workers understand the company’s strategy. The office’s 18 percent turnover is in line with the rest of the industry, Zeller said, though management hopes to reduce that.

Zeller said strategic thinking helped her envision what the business would need in the future and to hire for those needs instead of only the startup needs. “Look five years out and build and hire for that. Overhire at the beginning.”

Get to the Point

Align all communications to the business strategy, says Patricia Pasquini, vice president of HR at Malcolm Pirnie Inc. in White Plains, N.Y. Pasquini spoke as a part of a panel discussion on strategic communications.

Simplify e-mail and get the message out in the first two lines, as everyone finds that few employees actually read e-mails and letters from their employer. This is in line with business goals of creating more productive processes, Pasquini said.

Kevin Fretz, director of HR for Severn Trent Services Inc., agrees. “Skinny down the communication and provide an easy way for people to get information,” such as a toll-free number during open enrollment for benefits, Fretz added.

Influence Others

Communicating with others—and getting them to do what you want them to do—isn’t necessarily all about you. It’s about your listener.

Consider your audience, say Alan Booth and Jon Barb, with Gilman Performance Systems, who led a session on influence and power at work. If you are a very direct speaker, you might intimidate an indirect communicator, who would prefer to approach a subject gently rather than tackle it head on. If you are an indirect communicator, you’re going to frustrate a listener who would rather cut to the chase.

Knowing the attributes of four styles of communicators can help you tailor how you deliver your messages:

  • Drivers are task-oriented and self-focused. They want to get the job done and they want you to tell them how best to do it. Do what they tell you to do, also.
  • Expressives want to be the star of the project. Give them pats on the back and they’ll really shine. Let them vent about problems.
  • Analysts are focused on the task and on others involved in the task. Draw them out slowly—they may be doubtful at first—but if you have your facts correct, they’ll buy in completely.
  • Amiables want to build a relationship with you and others on the team. Check their workload, because they’ll often take on more work than they can handle, in order to make you happy. Then they’ll burn out.

Be able to deliver what each type of communicator wants—whether it is data or a friendly chat—and you’ll get the action you want out of them. Present your proposals in the style they best like to use. The listener always wants to know, “What’s in it for me?” If you can answer that, you’ll win them over, Barb said.

Modify Behavior

“Dealing with challenging people is a difficult skill to master,” says Julie Jensen, author of You Want Me to Work with Who? (Penguin, 2006) and the conference’s closing keynote speaker.

People don’t change, but their behavior can be modified, Jensen asserts. Managers have to lead the way, because often “difficult people don’t believe they are being difficult.” Change your behavior in order to change theirs. Set up the modification as working toward a mutual understanding and common business goal, Jensen says. Bring everything you do and say back to work-related reasons. Don’t make the person feel bad; focus on their behavior instead of their personality:

  • If the difficult person frustrates you because he can’t seem to make a decision, get to the root of the problem: does he not have enough information? Offer him a decision-making model such as who, what, when, where, why and how.
  • Is the problem behavior inflexibility? Let the person know that while she is a valuable employee, others see her rigidity as being overly competitive.
  • Handle someone who constantly interrupts presentation by repeating, each time he interrupts, “I’d appreciate it if you held your comments until the end,” and then moving on.

“You will feel that you’re making most of the effort,” Jensen said. “Accept that.”

Beth Mirza is senior editor for HR News. She can be reached at


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