David: What would you suggest to your client companies that have significant challenges around employee engagement and change?
Adam: I’m in agreement with you. You have to start at the top. In a world where Millennials are expected to have four to six careers in their lifetime, it has to be a place to keep learning and developing. It can’t be a place where you were hired for a single job and expect to stay in that spot forever. There also has to be a major shift that happens in the corporate world, historically, where managers identify people they want on their team, you develop them and you keep them.
In a world where people are expected to have multiple careers, you cannot have management push people into their box and keep them in that box. Early on, we identified that we were going to promote mobility and encourage mobility throughout the organization. At Cornerstone, that mobility is geographic where someone is not only able to move anywhere in the United States but [in] the world. It is divisional where someone can move from department to department within a division but also cross-divisional mobility where someone can move into an entirely different area of the company. We have had Millennials and Gen-Xs move throughout the entire organization in many different positions at times were in another organization they would have had to quit in order to grow.
David: You must have an incredibly transparent organization for that to work.
Adam: It took time because the managers were at first very resistant but again, we grow for the culture; we promote for culture and our people learn, especially our executives today, that mobility works for the organization as well as most of the people in it. A few leave but more come.
Mary: Academia has an enormous problem in this area. These institutions attract some of the world’s best talent but they are resistant to sharing. The hoard their best so many of them…
Mary: So many organizations could protect their best talent by providing them with options.
David: The reason so many people have difficulty with change is because they have significant deficits in what many organizations dismissively call “soft skills.” Here we frame these skills as the ability to draw healthy attention to one’s self and give healthy attention to others. We find it in the ability to build effective professional communities within and outside the organization.
Adam: The company can certainly enable these skills; they don’t have to wait for an employee to take the initiative. We view these as crucial management skills and expect them to help their employees to develop the skills of collaboration, mentorship, peer communication, connecting with other parts of the organization, and getting others to help them. Many managers have these skills but some require training. Periodically a manager has to be removed. We expect our managers to be good role models and mentors. I have a strong belief in the player/coach model.
David: We have been studying the role of mentorship in AA and believe organizations have a lot to learn from it as a success model. Here we have an entity that has no organization, no fees, no leaders, no real structure, and yet it has continued to grow and succeed for decades.
Adam: Well you are coming from a “pay it forward” mentality. Building relationships and continuously building our teams is a central part of our culture. Recently, a senior executive got married and I noticed in the wedding pictures that over half the guests were from our company. That is the norm.
David: In the years since you launched this company to today, what have been your most difficult lessons about talent? For a moment, he went inward and we could see him scrolling through the years. Suddenly, a cloud came into his eyes. He was clearly pained.
Adam: We had one situation between two employees that went south…we had a very painful situation on our hands.
David: I learned a great deal about you in this moment. You are so disciplined and consistent in building values into your business and surroundings that you answered my question with a clearly painful employee relations event. Most CEOs would have so many or be so out of the loop that it wouldn’t cross their mind. One human capital nightmare comes along and it rocks your world because it is so out of sync with your values?
David: What else did you learn that was difficult?
Adam: It is always a balancing act to satisfy the needs of the shareholders and the clients and the culture. Building relationships throughout the organization is such a big aspect of success. Once a year, we take everyone for a big party on the beach. Invariably I see people at their desk working and tell them, “Let’s get up and go.” They respond, “No, I have something that needs to get finished.” I come back with, “No, this is more important.” Maybe we push a deadline back one day and make it more important for people to get to know each other. That doesn’t happen in a lot of companies.”
Mary: It doesn’t. You dragged that employee away from something that he was conditioned to treat as more important than his own opportunity to bond and connect. I bet he came back full, energized, and deeply engaged.
Adam: It requires long-term thinking. You have organizations that tell a candidate, “We need for you to start right away.” But the candidate says, “Oh, I hoped to take some time off, get away, decompress.” We tell them, “Take whatever time you need. We will still be here.” We have the same point of view with flex time because you can shift time. Certain deadlines matter and others are not so critical.