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How to Lead an Effective Group Brainstorming Session

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A well-managed brainstorming session can yield great results. When facing a challenge that needs a fresh set of solution-finding eyes, bringing in a team of your most innovative thinkers may be just what the doctor ordered. To help ensure an effective discussion, use these tips.

Define the problem prior to the meeting so attendees have time to think it over on their own.

Establish the ground rules up front. Make sure everyone understands that judgment should be withheld during the brainstorming phase. Encourage a free flow of idea generation where nothing is immediately marked as “good” or “bad”.

Set a time limit for brainstorming. Otherwise, people can get burned out if they don’t see an end in sight.

Keep the discussion flowing and focused. Don’t allow one idea to be too deeply investigated. The point of brainstorming is not to discuss the merits of ideas or make a decision—that comes later.

Encourage participants to build on one another’s ideas. This isn’t about one person having ownership of the “right” answer. It’s about working together to think in new ways.

Capture ALL ideas in a visible location. You can use flip chart paper, a white board or some other tool. Just be sure that the secretary has good handwriting and can grab a lot of information quickly. There’s no need to worry too much about organization of the ideas at this point, but everyone should be able to see the notes during the meeting. This will help trigger more ideas.

Create a means for anonymous brainstorming so participants can contribute without any attachment. This helps ensure people don’t judge an idea based on who came up with it (a natural psychological phenomenon that can hinder the process).

Perhaps the most important tip of all is to keep things positive. Too many people show up to meetings with baggage from the day and negative attitudes—and there’s nothing that kills creativity and encourages others to clam up faster than that. Start your meeting with some motivating comments and a quick, fun, energizing group activity to get people into the spirit. Take frequent breaks and, if needed, consider chunking your brainstorming session into several “mini” sessions to ensure the energy stays high.

Chrissy Scivicque is an award winning writer and public speaker, and an affiliated partner to TSG’s HR Help Desk.

You’re Going to Need a Bigger Boat! Recruiting

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This line – made famous in the iconic film “Jaws” – came to mind when I read a recent article in the January 2014 issue of HR Magazine titled “More Americans Quitting Jobs.” I believe it signals good news. Editor Theresa Minton-Eversole indicates the number of Americans making the decision to voluntarily leave their employers is growing. She cites a report from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, which reveals resignations are rapidly on the rise from a recession low of 1,601,000 workers in September 2009 to a high of 2,247,000 by the end of 3rd QTR 2013. Moreover, the report specifies that 54% of all job separations in August 2013 were the result of individuals willingly quitting their jobs – an 11% climb from just a year before.

WHY is this good news? The answer is clear. Not only is the job market improving (thanks partly to newly opened positions due to those resignations), but job seeker confidence is obviously increasing. So, if your company has been effective in caring for and rewarding your top performers, you have less to worry about. Your key talent will be less likely to jump ship anytime soon and your reputation as an excellent employer will remain intact. As well, if you’re active in the marketplace and seeking to grow your team, you can be well-positioned to woo higher quality talent. However, if your company has been living perhaps too lean to do more with less during the recent (and extended) economic downturn, this topic should give you pause. It’s vital to not only hold onto the talent you have, but market yourself well in order to lure the best fish in the future.

How to Fish Where the Fish are Biting

It’s not difficult to find people looking for a job. However, the most savvy companies fish in the best fishing holes – pools where people haven’t given up and have a bright outlook for the future. Those hidden prospects may be seeking new challenges, but must be lured away from their current employer. Your company must have a significant career growth challenge to offer them and a unique story to tell. A good retained search firm can not only help you find the top available talent – hidden away behind the door of their current corporate office, but we can also help you communicate your story and put them on the hook for you to haul in.

The bigger risk is in pulling in the wrong fish. So many “schools” of unemployed are doing all they can to be trained to land a job, potentially foregoing a rather important quality – being a good fit for the job your company requires to be performed. With training to win the job vs. actual ability to do the job more prevalent than ever, it is an absolute that you have a search firm fishing for you, to improve your chances of catching the prize-winning fish and not the one you need to throw back. Additionally, if you’ve been playing it safe in recent months or even years by holding down costs – particularly those impacting talent acquisition and retention strategies, your company may be a little rusty in the hiring department.

Let’s Go Fishing! Best Wishes ~ Dave Brown Partner DF Brown &Associates

How Competition Will Help Grow Your Business

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Many startups and small businesses dread competition, but not their big business counterparts.

Consider the view of Carlos Ghosn, Chairman and CEO of the Renault-Nissan Alliance. After investing $5 billion to develop a range of hybrid and electric vehicles, the company claimed the title of the leading manufacturer of zero-emission cars. Last fall, at the Frankfurt Auto Show, Ghosn said he welcomes competition from other automakers because a bigger field would help jump-start the market. “The more companies that buy into electric cars, the better it is,” he said.

Michael Porter is a Harvard Business School professor and leads The Institute for Strategy and Competitiveness. He has written numerous books and articles on competitiveness, and says that research shows a company is better off with competitors — that there are benefits to competition within an industry. Below are a few reasons competition is viewed as helpful:

It gives companies the ability to increase their fees. More competition means your industry is in demand. This allows you to justify higher rates while demonstrating what makes your organization a better partner than your competitors.

Your competitors may refer work to you. Not every opportunity that lands on a competitor’s doorstep is right for them. Maintain a relationship with your competitors and let them know that you’re available for projects that aren’t in their wheelhouse.

Competitors may want to collaborate. Chances are some of your competitors compete in some but not all areas. Teaming up may give you the ability to say yes to an opportunity you can’t handle on your own.

In MBA Mondays’ blog post Competition – The Pros and Cons, venture capitalist Fred Wilson, managing partner at Union Square Ventures and founder of Flatiron Partners, discusses both the positives and challenges of competition. For example, he explains how a sales team dislikes competition but a marketing team appreciates it. A sales team hates losing business since they are typically compensated on revenues. But when a competitor invests heavily in marketing its offerings, and identifies the solutions it provides, it probably generates additional demand for both companies. “The marketing team, which is always trying to do more with less, loves that,” he writes.

In 2012, Apoorva Mehta established Instacart, a same-day grocery delivery service in San Francisco. Mehta now competes with his former employer, Amazon, where he worked as an engineer, as well as a few other companies in the area offering a similar service. The company stands out by delivering a faster service with more selection than its competitors. Mehta believes that competition combined with having a better product will ensure the company’s success.

HR Alert, February 2014

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Most employer ERISA pension and welfare benefit plans are subject to investigation by the Department of Labor (DOL).  The Employee Benefits Security Administration (EBSA) is the agency of the DOL responsible for enforcing Title I of ERISA (which sets minimum standards to ensure that employee benefit plans are maintained in a fair and financially sound manner), including managing civil and criminal investigations. EBSA civil investigations (commonly referred to as “audits”) are the most common type of investigation.  This article provides a general overview of the DOL’s investigative powers in addition to suggested employer best practices for managing a DOL audit.

What is the Scope of the DOL’s Investigative Powers?

Generally, the DOL has the power to investigate whether any person has violated or may potentially violate any provision of ERISA Title I or any regulation or order issued thereunder. With respect to the scope of the DOL’s investigative powers, the following rules apply:

  • The DOL’s Investigative Power is Broad. Courts have held that a CEO’s personal financial records are within the scope of an employee benefit plan DOL audit.
  • Investigations Do Not Require Reasonable Cause. The DOL may initiate an investigation and inspect records, whether or not any reasonable cause exists.
  • The DOL Has the Power to Request Documents “Related To” ERISA Plans. In addition to its power to obtain documents in connection with an investigation, the DOL has broad general authority to request production of documents “related to” an ERISA plan.

What are Employer Best Practices for Managing a DOL Audit?  

Each DOL investigation is different and there are no hard-and-fast rules that will guarantee a successful outcome for every employer under investigation. However, the following suggestions will often make the process easier and may lead to a better result for an employer managing a DOL audit:

  • Treat the investigation as a high priority.
  • As soon as the initial document request is received, consult with experienced employee benefits legal counsel.
  • Elect a point person to be the single person of contact between the DOL investigator and the employer.
  • Keep management and legal counsel updated on the progress of the investigation.
  • Review all document requests from the DOL carefully with legal counsel.
  • Retain copies of any documents that service providers deliver to the DOL investigator.
  • If there are alleged violations and the employer under investigation elects to make voluntary corrections, then legal counsel and the DOL should discuss the corrections in detail to ensure that they are in agreement as to exactly what must be done and when.

What are Penalties for Failure to Comply with a DOL Audit?  

Failure to provide requested plan documents to the DOL can result in a penalty of up to $110 per day up to $1,100 per request.  Multiple requests for the same documents are considered separate requests for purposes of the penalty rule.
This article was written by: Ann Hamby

IBM’s Smarter Workforce: Hype or Not?

Having spent the last decade mainly in workforce management technology, it shouldn’t be surprising that I followed the IBM acquisition of Kenexa last year with great interest.  While many of my colleagues had a What on Earth? sort of reaction, my reaction was a toss-up between It was inevitable and This could be interesting.  It was inevitable in that IBM’s enterprise software offering lacked much of anything workforce management related.  And it might be interesting if they can actually infuse Kenexa’s products with some of IBM’s technical stature.

A few of my colleagues agree with me on the inevitability factor, but I think for the wrong reasons.  They believe IBM was playing catch-up to Oracle and SAP’s recent talent management acquisitions; I believe there might just be a more interesting reason behind the Kenexa acquisition.  They believe the Kenexa acquisition was just another step along the path of IBM becoming more a services and software company and less a hardware company (a little trivia for the younger readers out there: the M in IBM actually stands for Machines).  And while an acquisition of Kenexa obviously advances that objective, so could the acquisition of any number of other interesting software companies ripe for the picking (the reason for picking Kenexa might just be the topic of an upcoming blog).

A disclosure before I continue: Kenexa was one of the first companies that approached me to acquire Emerald Software Group.  The NDA has long expired, and obviously a deal never happened.  We never formally partnered with Kenexa either, so I don’t have a significantly deeper perspective than most.  Suffice it to say, though, I have since greatly respected Kenexa and their strategies and have kept a close eye on them.

I think the light is starting to shine on what might be interesting behind the IBM-Kenexa deal.  Late January, at what used to be called Lotussphere (now redubbed Connect), IBM announced their Smarter Workforce initiative and laid out a high-level strategy for the Kenexa products.  The more skeptical of my colleagues view this as hype, but I see a strategic melding of IBM’s technical muscle with Kenexa’s vertical technology and distribution channel.

Just consider for a moment the blending of the IBM Cognos products with the Kenexa products.  Few in our industry would say that reporting, analytics, and business intelligence is done even pretty well in workforce management.  Couldn’t then the marriage of a top BI platform with a top talent management platform give the offspring a huge competitive advantage?

But then realize the depth of IBM’s capabilities.  At Connect in January hints were dropped that IBM Watson could be applied to problems in workforce management.  I doubt this was just a trial balloon.  Predictive analytics and correlative analysis are the kinds of things that IBM is good at but nobody in workforce management has even dreamed of bringing to market.  Imagine the vast web of an enterprise’s employees, their skills, their relationships, their interests, their contacts, their objectives, their performance–and expand that to prospective employees, alumni, and the open market.  Now remember the depth of IBM’s prowess: tens of thousands of patents in their library, with more than 6,000 new ones granted every year.

My skeptical colleagues wonder if there truly are applications here.  I know there are, because humans–the building blocks of the workforce–are predictable creatures.  If we weren’t, there’d be no science of economics.  And where there’s predictability, businesses who figure out how to read the tea leaves before everyone else always gain a huge competitive advantage.

With IBM’s Smarter Workforce, IBM has shown their intent to sell products that allow customers to read the tea leaves in workforce management.  There’s definitely no hype here.  I think the inevitable case studies will be quite interesting.

Wow, time can get away from you.  Has it really been more than 3 months since my last blog??  Well, another Christmas has come and gone, and we had the best ski trip ever in early February, so my excuse is “I’ve been busy”.  We went to Killington, Vermont, if you’re curious, and it was the week of “Winter Storm Nemo” (since when did they start naming blizzards and nor’easters, and why random animated character names?).  It was bluebird skiing 2 days and snowing hard the third, my son proposed to his girlfriend (I see wedding planning blogs from the Dad’s perspective in my future), and the first time I’ve been skiing since I lost 80 pounds.  I’ll just say I skied very, very well.

So back into the blogging groove.  I hope you like my new theme, and I hope that it energizes me to … actually blog.  I have a few new activities for blog fodder, namely ballroom dancing and home brewing, but how about we wrap up my travel wishlist blog that I left hangin’ out there the last three months.  In today’s 6th, and final, installment, I cover all the places I’d like to visit outside the US, other than Europe since I blogged about the a couple of installments ago.

  • Caribbean: outer/leeward islands – we’re settling into something of a “reverse snowbird” mentality when it comes to vacation.  We’d like to spend the winters where there are mountains and snow and with skis strapped to our feet, while come summer we like to head to sun and sand.  I’ve mentioned our trips to the Bahamas before, but I’d love also to see some of the outer leeward islands, like Montserrat, Guadeloupe, and (in particular) Martinique.
  • Jerusalem – I think most Christians aspire to visit the Holy Land, at least they would if it were calm and peaceful.  It actually does seem to have been at peace for a little while now, albeit uneasily.  While we are typically the anti-tour sort of traveler, this seems like the sort of destination it might be good to enlist the aid of a local resource.  In thinking about that and researching, I came across this site:
  • Buenos Aires, Argentina – It was on my list before Pope Francis was selected.  We came close to going to the “Paris of South America” a few years ago, and I even bought the Frommer’s Argentina book (ah, yes, one of the last paper books I ever bought).  Something else came up.  Like the Great Recession, I don’t know.  Anyway, it’s still on my list, and with renewed consideration because of the Pope.  And because Lori and I can tango now!
  • Polynesia: Fiji, Tahiti – This is my idea of a “trip of a lifetime”: crazy remote, palm tree jungles, huts built out on the water, umbrella drinks.  It’s not a high priority, but I’d still like to go…one day.  That make it wishlist eligible, right?
  • Japan – Mostly I’d love to see Tokyo, but there are a few other sites and to-dos, like Kyoto, Osaka, and riding the shinkansen.
  • Singapore – A friend of mine has an office here and spends lots of his time in Singapore.  In addition to the ArtScience Musuem and the Esplanade, I’d love just to hang out in this ultra-clean city.
  • New Zealand – The apparent home to some incredible natural beauty, as showcased in the travel video “The Lord of the Rings”, New Zealand also has some nifty looking cities.  But when I think of New Zealand, for some reason I think of really warm, friendly people–like Ireland.  I’m not sure why that is, as I’ve not met that many New Zealanders; I guess they just have a really good reputation for being gregarious.  I’ll have to go check that out…

Travel Wishlist, Part 5 – Europe

We are certifiable Europhiles. We’ve vacationed in Europe five times now and have loved every visit. We’d go back every year if that were possible, and among our pipe dreams are spending a year in Paris, London, or both. On our first trip in 2001 we visited Amsterdam and Paris and so loved both cities we decreed that on every subsequent trip our itineraries would include one of those two cities. A few years later we visited Rome and added the Eternal City to our list.

But the “yet to see” list is still pretty respectable. And unlike my most recent blogs this list is a little more stable and predictable.

  • Santorini, Greece – we have a built-in passion for sea and sun, and the island of Santorini promises an abundance of each. Not to mention we love Eastern Mediterranean cuisine. Like Venice, Santorini seems to be the kind of place where bad pictures simply aren’t possible. I keep thinking now would be a great time to visit for good prices (hopefully bypassing any unrest and bringing the locals much needed hard currency) but in my price surfing Santorini looks to be somewhat immune to the mainland’s economic hardships.
  • Ireland, Scotland, Isle of Man – many people have Scotland and the Emerald Isle on their wishlists, but the Isle of Man? If you didn’t know it about me, I am an aspiring author, complete with several full and complete novels on my shelf, and the Isle of Man (a nifty looking sleepy little island in the middle of the Irish Sea) figured prominently in my first complete book. Ever since my research back in the mid ’90s I’ve wanted to see it firsthand. So far as Ireland, ask any Catholic who grew up in South Mississippi and they’ll tell you about the special connection with Ireland. When we go, seeing the countryside by rental car and staying in a B&B are must-dos.
  • Eastern Europe: Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Bulgaria, Romania – Prague will be our home base for an extended tour of Eastern Europe when we go (at least that’s the plan). Czech beer is famous and I rarely pass up a chance to sample a local brew. Slovakia is the most recent entrant: I saw the presentation of a Slovak economic development rep a few months ago and he did a great job of convincing me the castles, the countryside, and the people deserve a visit. And who knows, it might just be the next travel jewel waiting for me to discover before the hoards. Why Poland, you ask? Well sausage and beer would be reason enough, but Pope John Paul II’s incredibly moving pilgrimage to Auschwitz has left me with a compelling desire for me to pay my respects there as well. Finally, Romania: I want to see Transylvania firsthand. I’m not really sure why, though I have read Bram Stoker.
  • Istanbul – had you asked me just five years ago if I would have liked to go to Istanbul, I would have answered “doubtfully” pretty quickly. But then I discovered Turkish cuisine and the incredible warmth of Turkish people. And when Anthony Bourdain visited the city at the continental line between Europe and Asia, I was convinced. Sometimes I literally crave doner kabob and baklava. Plus I aspire to wheel and deal for silver jewelry at the grand bazaar.
  • Balkans: Dubrovnik Croatia, Sarajevo, Montenegro – on our European vacation in 2004 we took the Chunnel from Paris to London and whilst we enjoyed the highly anticlimactic darkness I read an article on the mountainous and seaside country of Montenegro, plus some business colleagues of mine told me about their splendid holidays there…enough to put it on my list. A coworker years ago once told me his two most favorite cities (like Amsterdam and Paris for us) were Paris and Sarajevo, the latter he described as “incredibly beautiful”; unfortunately they’ve had a pretty significant war since then, but the optimist in me says that surely some of the beauty still shines through, if not in the buildings then perhaps the people. And looking at just a few pictures of Dubrovnik should merit its entry to anyone’s list.
  • Scandinavia: Norway, Sweden – mountains, sea, fjords, natural beauty…that should be enough for anyone, but I also want to see the northern lights from there. Oh, and I have a pretty good proportion of Norwegian blood in me.
  • Lisbon, Madrid – perpetual entries on my list, their time is coming soon. All I’ve read and seen of Lisbon is beautiful and the Portuguese people I’ve met have been universally warm, gracious, and enthusiastic about their homeland. When it comes to Madrid there’s tapas, the Prado, and flamenco to warm my Spanish (ok, Catalan, but close enough) blood.

Coming up in my FINAL travel wishlist blog, everywhere else in the world!

Travel Wishlist – Special Supplement!

How dynamic our travel wishlist is! We spent last week in the Bahamas, so while most Americans were enjoying turkey and all the fixings for Thanksgiving, I had conch fritters and Kalik beer. This has to be one of my all-time cuisine favorites 🙂

But while we were sunning on the beach and sipping frozen roosters (vodka+cranberry juice+orange juice) or coconut rum and pineapple juice (oh, so many choices) we started thinking about future vacations. You see, it’s not unusual for us to start planning vacations two or even three in advance while we’re on vacation! Anyway, no definite plans made yet but we have a new entrant to our wishlists. As this is not a specific destination and more of a “the concept is the point” I should add it to my first wishlist blog, but as I’ve been delinquent in my blogging (forgive me for being slow on my vacation blogging as I was on vacation) I figured I’d just throw this one out as a “supplement”.

This just in! Chuck and Lori would like to…take a sailing cruise!

Perhaps inspired by the cruise ships gliding by our remote island last week, and reminiscing over our own great cruise experience way back in 2005, we decided it would be interesting to try a small “barefoot” sailing cruise. The big name in small sailing cruises used to be Windjammer, and sitting out on the beach we wondered if they were still around. Alas, but a quick Google reveals they are no more, but we did find a few interesting alternatives.

Island Windjammers – As the story goes, a few hardcore Windjammers cruisers with some cash on hand were so distraught at the Windjammers company going keel-up they started up their own sailing line with similar boats on their favorite Windjammer routes.

Star Clippers – not exactly “small” sailing ships, they bill one of their three vessels as the largest fully rigged sailing ship in the world. Carrying 200+ passengers and offering transatlantic crossings, this doesn’t exactly meet our description of a small sailing cruise, but their ships are absolutely beautiful.

Arabella – Another entrant with a couple of smallish ships, but with great references and perhaps a good compromise of size, itineraries, and price.

Now, I’ll try to stay focused and blog soon about our European vacation wishlist!

Travel Wishlist, Part 4 – Ski Trips in North America

Having grown up in South Mississippi (where if you go any further south you are in the Gulf of Mexico), we are latecomers to snow skiing.  I had some airline miles I needed to burn during the holiday season back in 1997 so we went on a B&B weekend to New Hampshire.  When we asked the proprietor what she recommended we do while there, she recommended we take skiing lessons at Attitash because they had just gotten a good snow.  We did and we fell in love with it.  We’ve been skiing at least once every year since then, almost exclusively in New England.  I took snowboard lessons once while I had a consulting gig in Seattle; riding was okay, but I greatly prefer skiing.  I’ve never been particularly good at it, but those of you who’ve read my previous blogs know that I have been pretty seriously overweight all that time.  Even last year, when I had lost only 15 pounds, I could tell a huge difference in my abilities…now that I’m at my GOAL WEIGHT of 185 (80 pounds lost this year – woohoo!!) I can only imagine how enjoyable our upcoming February trip to Killington will be.

You might ask why we ski in New England.  There is, of course, the familiarity aspect: it’s where we learned to ski, and we actually find the typical New England conditions (wet, icy) more comfortable than dry powder.  But also there are a couple of practical aspects.  Having lived our lives (at least until 42) at sea level, we don’t take well to elevations, though now that I’m “in shape” I can probably tolerate it much better.  The peaks in New England that we ski are typically less than 5,000 feet; in Colorado the base lodges are often above that.  Another practical aspect to New England skiing is the availability of major airports and the associated cheap fares; if fares are high for Burlington, Manchester, or Albany, then Boston is always a pretty inexpensive fallback with numerous direct flights for us from Atlanta.  And driving to any ski resort in New England from Boston is no worse than many ski resort drives from the Denver airport.

So here’s my US & Canada ski resort wish list as it stands today…

  • Stowe, NH – right up the road from our bread & butter destination of Killington, it’s surprising that we’ve never tried Stowe before.  One day soon.
  • Copper, CO – a friend of mine swears that Copper is a great Colorado destination for those of us who don’t do altitudes well.  I’ll try anything once.
  • Sun Valley, ID – always gets good reviews and has a great historical aspect; the lodge isn’t overly high in elevation so it’s on our list.
  • Mont Tremblant, Canada – Tremblant is often #1 on the eastern ski lists and with our Europhile nature it sounds like a great place for us.
  • Taos, NM – Ok, well this one is the odd one on my list with pretty high elevation, but so many people have said we hafta go…we’ll just have to rent O2 bottles.
  • Whistler, BC – We visited during the off-season once before the Olympics and it’s been on our list ever since.

Coming up in my next travel wishlist blog…Europe!