Transformation Is About the Little Things

Most of us know the old saying, "Take care of the big things and the little things will take care of themselves."

But in more and more companies around the world, strategically-minded human resources leaders are turning this on its head. The new mantra is, "Take care of the little things, and the big things will take care of themselves."

For example, this week my colleagues and I at The RBL Group are working with a global HR leadership team from AXA, one of the biggest global financial services companies. AXA is an excellent company with strong leaders and a clear commitment to leadership development and talent management under HR Group SVP Alain Rohaut and Executive Development head Shu Khoo.

Like many top companies, AXA has an excellent organization and talent review system (OTR) that is deployed globally and operating effectively. The organization invests in development, advances top talent, moves people into challenging roles and markets to test and prepare future executives, and rewards good performers. But as good as these "big" systems are, our HR colleagues make an excellent point: it's the little things that make or break the ability to attract, develop and retain excellent performers.

For example, it doesn't take much budget to hold lunch and learn sessions. Or recognize good performance with a handwritten note from the boss. Or invite executives from client companies or vendors to talk about what they do to develop people. Or invite people at all levels to brainstorm focus groups on how to better serve customers. Do you have brown bag training sessions or lunch and share meetings to ensure people stay in touch with what's going on?

So, here's a test for readers. Mark off two columns on a sheet of paper.

In column one, make a list of the "big systems" that your organization has put in place to recruit, grow, reward and engage employees.

In column two, make a list of the little things that would help your team or organization make the most of these investments and are likely to cost little or nothing. For example, how might you improve the orientation of new employees without spending much or any money? How could you better reinforce managerial coaching without sending them to expensive workshops in exotic locations? The possibilities are limited only by your willingness to take time yourself, and involve employees, in identifying and acting on creative ideas.

Many years ago a senior executive of Bell Canada, the Canadian telecommunications company, told a wonderful story. She had been the sponsoring executive of a project team that worked tirelessly for three months to deliver a new, high tech, service. After the team presented its work, and was congratulated for its excellent achievement, the executive asked the team, "What can we do to thank you for your hard work and outstanding accomplishment?"

The team talked among itself for a minute, until finally the project leader stepped up. "We were hoping that you would pay for a case of beer, a dozen steaks, and give us the rest of the day off for a BBQ at a local park," he said.

As we said, it's the little things that sometimes matter most.

Jon Younger is a Partner of The RBL Group, a firm providing consulting and executive education in strategic HR and leadership. Jon leads the Strategic HR practice area and is also a Director of the RBL Institute. He is co-author, with Dave Ulrich and three other principals at The RBL Group, of "HR Competencies" (SHRM, 2007), "HR Transformation" (McGraw-Hill, July 2009) and many articles, and last year logged client work in 35 countries.