02/06/2011 - 00:00

People management’s all about ... the people

02/06/2011 - 00:00

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Perth engineer Joe Ricciardo is a shining example of inclusive and open management.

THE issue of staff retention is one that has intrigued me for a number of years, more recently when responding to concerns expressed by clients. With the skills shortage plaguing Western Australian industry at many levels, the subject is of increasing relevance to business owners struggling to keep staff from drifting towards apparently greener pastures.

It seems every book I have studied is at odds with what many clients are telling me – that it’s all about the money, and the big dollars being waved about is bait that’s impossible to combat. The books, on the other hand, talk about developing the team culture and the various ways to keep people engaged and that this process, if carried out sincerely, is the way to retain staff.

In my quest for some answers, I was alerted to the fact that there is a shining light as an example operating here in WA and that he is well known to me.

Joe Ricciardo started his business life in Kalgoorlie-Boulder, establishing JR Engineering in 1986, following a successful career at Western Mining Corporation. JR’s (as it was affectionately known) grew quickly and gained a fine reputation in the mining services industry before being bought by Downer EDI in 2001.

Upon completing his of employment with Downer in early 2006, and after taking some time out, Joe set up GR Engineering Services and quickly grew the company on the back of its reputation to the point where a successful IPO resulted in its listing on the ASX last month.

So, in the search for some answers to the staff retention conundrum, I rang and asked if Joe would mind spending some time with me on this subject. He may not have studied management guides or followed any specific script in managing his growing team but, in fact, Joe could have written the book. All of his practices, his habits and the relationships he has developed are textbook management that could have been a case study for any of the management theorist gurus whose works we have been studying for years.

Joe’s response to staff retention being a generic issue in his industry was not surprising: “It’s always a problem, but to focus on your people is so important, because they are fundamental to the business and by not doing it properly, costs so much money,” he said.

Over the years, both JR Engineering and, more recently, GRES have had a record of low staff turnover, demonstrating staff loyal to the organisation.

“However, loyalty is a two-way thing. It’s actually got to start from the top; once you show loyalty, you’ll find it’s repaid,” Joe said.

While it may have been Tom Peters in the US who coined the phrase MBWA, or ‘management by walking around’, Joe Ricciardo has been doing it for years.

“I’ve never heard of that before, but it’s what you do. You talk to people, take an interest in them as people, an interest in the job they’re doing. Not by looking over their shoulder – that’s not my job – but by showing a genuine interest in how they’re going about it.”

These no-strings-attached conversations build up a confidence and, in many cases, genuine friendships that have lasted years.

Employees know they can approach people in senior positions to discuss work and personal matters, confident that their ideas and their problems will be taken seriously, discussed and acted upon appropriately.

All this is part of developing a culture that involves asking people, being informed, being interested. On the other hand, employees have accountability for performing their tasks and are trusted to act in the best interests of the company.

“People ask me if we have business development managers,” Joe said, “I tell them we have 150 of them because all of our people are trusted to speak to customers, knowing that how they treat them can make or break business relationships.”

I asked Joe what advice he would offer a fledgling business operator regarding the development of staff relationships.

“The three most important factors are recognition, reward and respect. If you train, develop and mentor people, if you make a habit of listening to them sincerely and often, if they know that they are embraced as a part of the business and appreciated as contributing to its growth and success, they will act accordingly”, is Joe’s advice.

Joe has seen things change over recent years, with OH&S legislation being introduced, together with issues such as gender equality and discrimination requiring attention.

“Despite all of the changes brought about by legislation, the way you treat people hasn’t really changed,” Joe insists.

The other change is dealing with younger employees. “They seem to be far more impatient for promotion and instant success in their careers than they used to be. They have far higher expectations for early success. When graduates come here, we tell them that, with the level of progress we expect from them, they can expect to succeed, but it won’t happen overnight,” Joe said.

One of the differences that GR Engineering – and demonstrated throughout Joe’s management career – is that they offer people variety and flexibility in their jobs.

“If you don’t do that, they become pigeon-holed and one-dimensional. On the other hand, they really appreciate the interest in their work that comes from being offered variety,” Joe told me.

So what’s the message here for business owners that have experienced problems in retaining staff? In fact, most of us would have had to face this is the past and the fact is that we did not, or do not function the way Joe Ricciardo does almost innately. This does not necessarily make us poor employers. Far from it; we appreciate our people and understand that they are absolutely essential to our operation. However, do we as a part of our management function ensure that we make the time to be available and to listen to what is concerning our people?

Referring to Tom Peters, he recently said it should be mandated that every person, in every level of business, undertake a course in strategic listening. While, to my knowledge, there is no such course available, the point is taken.

The answer is probably that we need to re-think our priorities so we allow sufficient time in our working day to walk around, talk to staff and, more importantly, listen to them. Only then, are we in a position to make decisions concerning staff that will have meaningful outcomes.

In fact, I can hear the howls and objections: “I haven’t got time to do everything now – how am I possibly going to fit this in?” I would answer that question with another: What could be more important?

Structuring the day to include this activity, together with time to consider how we are going to more appropriately recognise, reward and respect our employees – and then to carry it out consistently – would reap returns for the business owner in many different ways. Not least, that staff will be far more likely to be content, contributing and stable in their workplace.

In fact, the one word that echoes throughout the conversation with Joe Ricciardo is ‘respect’.

“If you respect people as individuals, rather than just employees, it’s nothing less than they deserve and really, that’s what it’s all about – respect,” Joe said.

• John Matthew is principal of Switch – Directions for Business, which offers a range of business mentoring and coaching services, mainly targeted at WA based SMEs, with a particular focus on businesses based in the state’s regional areas.

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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