A visitor's eye view
7 Oct 2014
At IES we study organisational effectiveness. We wade through literature, talk to senior managers and lots of focus groups, consult academics and examine metrics. We ruminate on the alignment between business and individual performance, culture, engagement - all that stuff. And yet… I've spent a lot of my working life visiting organisations and am amused, intrigued and sometimes appalled at what a visitor experiences.
There are some simple things I can't help but notice as soon as I am in contact with an organisation and especially when I visit it. To me - partly as a kind of lifetime jokey hobby - these things have become fairly serious indicators for me of what it's going to be like working with an organisation and the likelihood of them getting stuff done.
So here are a few things I tend to look out for...
Can people in the organisation make and keep appointments?
Here the old adage about asking a busy person often seems to apply. Very busy people who are organised about their work seem to be able to respond quickly once they want to arrange a meeting. They are clear about when and where they want to talk and if telephone will be quicker and more efficient or if a face-to-face meeting is required. If they have an administrator or PA who does this for them, that person is properly and swiftly briefed (see number Four below). The nightmare organisations are those in which key people are booked into routine long meetings all day every day and can't fit in any new interactions. More annoying than anything are those who book meetings but then nearly always cancel them - same goes for booking and cancelling training places. Obviously rude, but perhaps more importantly not on top of their own time management.
Can you find out who people are and get a map of how to find them?
Visiting offices in the age of the website can be hell. Does the 'contact us' bit give proper addresses and phone numbers - not just a horrid automated email box? If you download a map or go to a webpage with a map on, can you actually read it? Can you print it? One top management college address lands you on an industrial estate - presumably where their post goes. Full marks here, as is proper, go to Ordnance Survey - try googling them for yourself - details, downloadable clear map, SatNav info - the works.
When you finally get through the door of an organisation do they know who you are, who you are seeing and how to get hold of them?
I once had a wonderful half hour, having arrived early at a manufacturing site employing a thousand or so people, watching the chap who did security and front desk greeting all the employees arriving by name, giving each and every one a cheerful and engaging start to their day. He had of course already greeted me and offered me a coffee as I was early and left a message for my host, whom he introduced when the chap walked in. I recently experienced the flip side when someone arriving for a meeting at another organisation's office had to go home because he simply couldn't get into the building. No-one on security was able or willing to contact the room in which the meeting was taking place, even though they had been given those details and list of those coming. Secure at keeping baddies out, I suppose, but almost unbelievably ineffective!
How do senior people work with their PAs and administrative support staff?
These relationships are a real window into managerial culture and also the quality and motivation of support staff. Many PAs and support staff are properly informed about what their boss is up to, confident to deal with appointments and visitors and quick to rearrange if there really is a problem or if someone is running late. Others are simply clueless - not usually their fault but a sign of real inefficiency. The other day a PA spent a minute with me before I went into see her boss telling me how much she loved her job, asking me about mine and proudly offering me a slice of cake he had made to go with my cup of tea. Sounds corny but this indicator is way cheaper and faster than a staff engagement survey. It also tells you about the leaders as well as the led.
Of course one gets a lot more of such insights in ladies toilets… but perhaps I'll leave those conversations for another blog. And don't even get me started on company car parks!
I have no large sample statistical evidence that these four things correlate with organisational performance, but they do seem more positive in organisations that turn in good business results. They are certainly much worse in organisations where people don't know what they are doing and often seem to have gone off track before failure is generally noticed. Perhaps more importantly, they are things not just experienced by visitors like me but by your employees, your customers and other important stakeholders. So maybe a visitor's eye view is worth adopting every now and again you go into and around your own workplaces?
About Wendy Hirsh
Wendy is a Principal Associate of IES and work as a researcher and consultant on a range of people management issues. Her areas of work include career development, talent management, succession planning, workforce planning and leadership development. She is especially interested in how strategies for developing employees link with changing business and skill needs, and also how workforce development is supported by line managers. She tries to help clients clarify their issues, prioritise their activities and equip employees and line managers as part of implementing these aspects of people management.