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Through HR Principal LLC, Maureen Mack offers tools and processes to make life easier for you and your managers. She has over twenty five years of experience helping managers with employee challenges including mergers & acquisitions, reorganizations, layoffs, employee communications, benefits, legal requirements, training, recruiting and compensation.
MO: What influenced your decision after 25 years, to leave the corporate sector and launch your own consulting firm?
Maureen: There were two primary motivators: one was feeling underutilized and the other was a desire to find people to work with who really wanted to work on their people issues. When I feel underutilized my mind starts to wander… what else could I be doing? How can I get more variety in what I am doing to keep my brain working and my energy up? What do I wish I were doing all day? Can I do that here?
I was working as a solo-HR department in a company with over 300 union and non-union employees in four states so I thought that would be enough variety to keep it interesting, and it was for five years. Okay, it was interesting for four years, but after that, not so much. From previous experience I knew that I am not a good fit for a huge corporation with lots of layers of management so that was not going to be an option. Small companies are best because you can get things done, you can get things done quickly, you have visibility so whatever you are doing can get noticed [of course that can be good or bad], and the roles are not narrowly defined so that usually makes the jobs more interesting for someone like me. But I also knew that small companies would be less interested in a full time HR professional.
Ta da! There is the answer! Start your own business and make yourself available to many small companies! They can call me when they need me, and they only call me when they want my help. To them I am not a necessary evil, but rather a problem-solving partner.
MO: How difficult was it to transition from working for large corporations to working independently? Is there anything about corporate life that you miss?
Maureen: to answer your first question, the transition was a BREEZE. I was stupidly happy. I would literally lay in bed at night and think about how excited I was to get up in the morning and get started. That had never happened to me before. People joke about consultants stumbling out of bed and working in their jammies. Not me. Although I am not a morning person, I am always showered, dressed and ready to work at 8 am on weekdays. And willing to work in the evening or on the weekend if that is better for the client. I had a few clients right from the start, and they were very appreciative and complimentary about my work so it was good right from the beginning.
And, is there anything about corporate life I miss? Certainly some of the people that I liked working with and saw every day. As for corporate life in general, I missed getting paid on a timely basis, getting paid time off and I still think fondly of the days when I did not have to track my time and work for billing purposes.
MO: How important is employee engagement? What are some ways that managers can foster it in the work place?
Maureen: if you care about productivity, engagement is huge. There have been many studies on time -wasting activities during work but people can justify anything so I am not sure that even asking people if they waste time at work can get at the whole truth. Most people are not stupid. They know how to look busy when they have to. They know that when they finish one task there will be another one. There isn’t much incentive to demonstrate a sense of urgency. They might really be working all day but may be doing it at a slower pace than they used to or than they could. In a down economy there may be more worry about the future, which leads to job browsing (and job searches) and possibly resentment if they have more responsibility due to previous layoffs.
Also you want to watch out for people retiring at their desk. Particularly for long term employees who may feel that they have paid their dues, or are not happy with new work standards or other changes, they may just shut down. For the manager, even if you were okay with that, it has a huge impact on coworkers who can tell when someone ‘retires’ but is still taking up space and collecting a paycheck.
If employees feel underpaid they might deliberately waste time because they think you owe them.
The most important thing for managers is awareness. And if you are aware of a problem, don’t ignore it. Most likely it will not go away on its own and it can act like a virus in the workplace. There are many circumstances that contribute to a lack of engagement and you have to be on the lookout. I am not suggesting hidden cameras, just be really aware of changes in behavior, inferior or late deliverables and other behavior that can demonstrate a lack of engagement. For example, when you questioned why their project was late, did they give a good reason? Did they even care? That could be a sign.
Some ways that managers can foster employee engagement include working collaboratively and making sure they are listening to their team. Also, and this is huge, set a good example. Yes, it is your business and you can work as much or as little as you like, but if doesn’t look like you are working hard, why would they? Even though many people think all they want is a paycheck, that is not enough to keep people motivated and engaged all the time. Yes they are getting paid to do a job, and they may understand that as well, but it does not guarantee engagement. Our intellectual understanding is not always connected to our reactions.
MO: What does your ideal client look like?
Maureen: For a company to be an ideal client, they have to want to work with me. Not just hire me but really work together. There are many types of employee relations philosophies so it is partly having a similar philosophy about the employment relationship, but it is also important to understand the value of partnering with a human resources professional to address issues and create a culture to minimize issues.
I used to describe my ideal client as a small business of about 50 employees but now I realize that it is not about how many employees they have, it’s about making an investment in the employment relationship. They can be any size –I have a client with 2 employees- and any location. Although most of my clients are in the SF bay area, some of my clients are people I have never met face to face.
There is something of a double edged sword in this process: I have had a couple of clients decide that HR really is valuable to them so they hired someone to do it!
MO: What were some struggles you faced while starting your company? What are some things you wished you knew before starting your business?
Maureen: With regard to your first question, my real struggles were really all financial. I signed up for some things that were expensive but worthless, and did not realize that I should have signed up with an advisory group which is a much better use of funds. So I learned some hard lessons. I signed up with TAB, The Alternative Board, which has been invaluable. For those who are not familiar, you are assigned to a small group of business owners who meet monthly as a group and function as a sounding board for each other. Friends really don’t want to keep answering questions like ‘what do you think of my new brochure?!’ If they have time to read it and they like it, you’re golden. Otherwise, not so much.
Probably the biggest thing I wish I knew before I started my business is that finding people who want to work with HR is like looking for a needle in a haystack. I was a corporate manager for many years and always had a pile of things I meant to read or review so I know what it is like trying to get their attention. They are bombarded with mail and email and phone calls. I know I can be a valuable resource so I thought the sales would be a little easier.
I also really underestimated the need for constant marketing. I am an extrovert so networking events are not painful for me and I feel very lucky about that, but it truly never ends. The need for HR can be pretty intense at the beginning of the relationship but really drops off after 4 to 6 months so I am always looking for new clients. I suppose that is the case for many consultants.
MO: What are the most common obstacles you see managers facing and how do you help them overcome these challenges?
Maureen: Management is often an underdeveloped skill set. If their area of expertise is manufacturing and they started a manufacturing company, that does not automatically make them a good manager. It also does not mean they won’t have to learn to manage. Business owners and managers often underestimate the importance of two-way communications and the absolute necessity of addressing issues. Some are unwilling to confront employees and some are really not able to do it but it is part of management. Sometimes I also see fear – they don’t really want to show anyone how they are handling, or not handling, things. They wait until they get so frustrated they cannot bear to speak to the person but that just makes it worse.
The good news is that I can help them with these areas. I use Stephen Covey’s quote: start with the end in mind. Tell me what you want to see happen and let me help you get there. You are the boss and you get to make the decisions but if you don’t tell them what you want, you won’t get it, so it all starts with communicating, and not assuming they know what you expect. People are often amazed at what they learn when the sit down with an employee and say ‘here is what I need from you’.
If they think of HR and employment laws as jumping through hoops, I can help them see that jumping through a few hoops will help them get to their end goal more quickly than doing nothing. And there is always some flexibility. Even in California you have options. Policies are not written without some flexibility. HR professionals live with policies every day and we can help companies write policies that provide guidance but don’t tie their hands.
Also I try to point out that the value in compliance is consistency. I avoid the use of ‘fair’ because not everyone defines fair the same way. But if you treat your employees consistently in terms of how you apply your policies or guidelines, you will be able to defend what you are doing if you need to and you don’t have to worry about reinventing the wheel by making a decision each time a question comes up. Your policies and guidelines will take care of that for you.