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Ways to increase staff productivity without a new hire

By John Hamilton

[April 7, 2010]

Faced with the economic downturn, many leaders have been unable and unwilling to hire additional staff, even as the recovery begins to take hold. Fortunately, hard times can spawn innovation. And it is true, as Neil Irwin noted in a Washington Post article last week, people work harder when they’re afraid of losing their jobs. But how do you actually sustain this productivity gain so that it won’t disappear as soon as the “good times” return? 

Some CEOs have developed strategies that can be sustained long after their employees’ fear of losing their jobs has passed. They have used the recession to look within their team and themselves to find ways to increase productivity. According to a recent Gallup study, an engaged staff can result in an 18% increase in productivity. 

Here are some steps these CEOs took to motivate themselves and others around them to boost productivity:

Become a take charge leader by first taking charge of yourself.  Ed Tomey, a business consultant in Keene observes, “Too many CEOs lead by hoping and hinting.  They’re waiting—almost always in vai—for their direct reports to just guess what the CEO wants from them. Expectations are not set clearly and all the hopes and hints are wasted. Out of frustration with failed outcomes, it becomes easier for the CEO to “just do it myself”, and slowly the CEO starts to create the expectation that if a direct report doesn’t do it, the CEO will. They have not taken charge—of their employees or even of themselves.”  If this message resonates with you, consider reaching out to a personal coach or human resources resource to help you engage more deeply and directly with your employees.  They can provide guidance as you develop new skills and push through personal barriers. 

Treat your employees differently.  One size does not need to fit all.  Get to know your team. Discover what is unique about each person and play to their strengths. Are you forcing them into set job descriptions by treating everyone like a brick, or can you build a stone wall with stones that are not uniform.  One leader from one of our CEO peer groups articulates this as a willingness to stop asking people to be “6 feet tall”.

Be clear with your team when you delegate.  Be clear about whether you are asking them to take initiative and make a decision, or simply to give input and that you alone will make the decision.  You don’t need to be consistent in what you ask for—just be clear. In fact, many Native Americans were “command and control” when they were on the hunt, but back in camp they sat around the circle as equals. Either strategy can work, but consider using this chart to illustrate with your team what level of delegation you are asking them to assume.

Do not stay inside the four walls. Seek diverse thinking from others outside of your business.  Some have engaged Advisory Boards to attract new thinking and have recruited skill sets that complement the existing management team. Others have joined a CEO peer group, where a high degree of trust and confidentiality allows you to gain new insights and where a “half of a thought” gets completed and can become a new strategy.

What was your experience with any of these steps? Do you have another “field-tested” tool to offer leaders who are looking to engage their employees more deeply? Please comment so we can learn from your experience.

John Hamilton is Vested for Growth's Managing Director and the New Hampshire Community Loan Fund's Vice President of Economic Opportunity. More Community Loan Fund blogs.

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