SI Review: November 2012


In the Driver’s Seat

Developing managers who hold the operations together, drive innovation

By Mike Cleland

Most staffing managers will admit that even though business continues to grow, that growth is not a cause for unbridled optimism. The staffing industry faces headwinds that are driven from multiple forces beyond its direct control. Clients continue to ask for more while paying less; new regulations and stronger enforcement of existing regulations increase the cost of doing business; and the changing face of technology challenges how we must leverage the talent pool, which is the very essence of our service. Complicating all of this is an economic recovery that is tenuous at best. All these factors mandate that staffing companies develop strong managers who can rise above the inertia of the status quo and develop and implement high-impact operational improvements to ensure long-term sustainability.

Driving Innovation

My use of the term manager rather than leader is intentional. Leadership is the ability to influence behavior while management involves the art and science of continuously improving the state of the operations. These improvements may be tactical in nature such as firefighting, teambuilding and training or more strategic such as revamping the sales strategy or improving sourcing capabilities. Managers must be both the glue that holds the operations together as well as the primary drivers of innovation.

Innovation requires a fundamental management framework that provides the management team direction, visibility and accountability. There is no one-size-fits-all framework for all staffing companies; however, executives can effectively implement their own through a well-defined growth strategy, consistent accountability and effective coaching.

Many staffing executives see the term strategy and become skeptical. I sympathize with them in that strategy without a plan of action is simply wasted time, and too often planning sessions are only about defining intent and not about the work of making that intent a reality. These types of strategies begin in the conference room and end in a conference call where the new strategy is communicated. Initially, the team may be excited about the growth strategy, but without an effective action plan, the new vision fades, and within 90 days everyone is back doing the same things they have always done. This failure is usually the most common argument against the effectiveness of strategic planning when in fact the fault lies with how the strategy was initially defined and executed.

Objectives and Initiatives

The operational objectives and initiatives must be defined in detail in order to be able to execute the strategy effectively. This step bridges the gap between vision and practical implementation. Objectives are ongoing measurable operational success factors such as “diversify the client base.” Initiatives are specific projects that enable the objectives such as developing a sales process. Initiatives have a start and end date, budget and a project lead that is responsible for its completion. Objectives and initiatives are the operational blueprint for the strategy and clarify for line-level management and production personnel what their role is in making the strategic vision a reality. In order to be effective, operational objectives and initiatives need to be measurable and take into account the following considerations:

  • the company’s financial objectives
  • the critical success factors of the sales strategy
  • the required improvements to the sales organization
  • the delivery capabilities required to support the sales strategy
  • the process improvements necessary to better align delivery
  •  the hiring, training, and incentives to drive team alignment

A management team that has spent the time to develop management objectives and initiatives for its growth strategy has also taken the first step in defining the long term roles for its managers. A management team with clear objectives collaborates more effectively, can manage both short- and long-term improvements and have a consistent vision to communicate to their employees. The measurability of objectives also provides important insight into the effectiveness of the strategic improvements as well as defines areas of accountability for the management team.

Evaluate and coach

Individual accountability is critical in the performance-driven staffing industry, and as a general rule, staffing managers do an effective job of holding their individual producers accountable. However, we lack that same discipline when it comes to measuring our management teams against their abilities to improve their operations. This occurs because we tend to measure managers on standard industry metrics, which don’t drive future improvements but only provide insight into the status quo.

So managers should also be measured against the operational objectives and initiatives within their area as defined by the company strategy. These measures must be a combination of leading and lagging indicators and measure both the performance of the business as well as the progress against any improvement initiatives that were defined in the strategy. Otherwise, the sheer inertia of the status quo will paralyze any improvement efforts.

Operational metrics should be reviewed at least quarterly. If the organization maneuvers through significant change, then monthly or even weekly reviews would be appropriate. When empowered with the proper metrics, reviews become powerful coaching tools to teach new managers to identify and address root causes of performance bottlenecks. This coaching accelerates the manager’s learning curve and helps build the confidence necessary to be an effective driver of innovative solutions.

As a general rule, most managers are moved out of production, given a new job description and learn as they go. This approach can be effective enough if all that is expected of that manager is stabilizing and maintaining the status quo, though the rapidly changing and unpredictable marketplace makes status quo insufficient. Instead, managers must be able to craft and implement innovative improvements just to keep up with the changes in the marketplace. This is a skill they do not learn coming from a production desk.

Executives need to use the strategic objectives, initiatives and the metrics to coach their managers to think differently and to develop effective problem-solving skills. If executives fail to apply this pressure to develop, their managers will simply respond to tactical problems that are immediately visible but not necessarily critical to competitive operations. Time and time again, I see managers stuck in minutia: babysitting their employees, slowing down their personal growth as a manager as well as the growth of their employees. The end results of this approach are sales managers who think like account managers and vice presidents who think like recruiting leads.

By coaching to well-defined objectives and initiatives, executives give their managers a clear direction for applying their problem-solving skills. Regardless of the objectives, managers must develop tactical solutions, roll them out, measure and adapt when necessary. By coaching them through this process, executives can teach the managers the business and broaden the managers’ perspective so they can become more effective problem solvers and coaches themselves. That expertise will then trickle down to the rest of the team making for a more competitive and adaptive performance-driven organization. This coaching can be done in both one-on-one operational reviews as well as management workshops; regardless of the format, executives need to ensure the following:

  • Objectives and initiatives are reviewed on a consistent basis;
  • Managers are provided leeway to develop solutions around objectives; and
  • Managers’ solutions are constructively challenged, and adaptation encouraged.

Over the last 25 years, staffing companies have had to maneuver through bursting market bubbles, more educated buyers and rapidly changing technologies. No one knows what the next challenges will look like, but those challenges will come and only companies whose managers are capable of adapting their operations will thrive. These organizations will continue to strengthen company competitiveness through focused strategies combined with an innovative management team that strives for operational excellence. Executives and managers who do otherwise, which means putting their hope into the status quo, are trusting that nothing will change when history points in an entirely different direction.

Mike Cleland is president of Charted Path. He can be reached at


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