51. The future of work and the employee mindset | O’Brien McMahon, Senior VP at Lockton


O’Brien McMahon | Senior VP at Lockton


This week we caught up with Senior Vice President at Lockton, O’Brien McMahon
O’Brien helps HR and business leaders build better employee benefits, compensation, and retirement programs. 


This is part 2 of 3 in our conversation with O'Brien, in this episode, we speak about what responsibilities do employers carry towards their employees.


OBrien MacMahon-1


O'Brien hosts “People Business with O'Brien McMahon”, a podcast exploring the human element of work. He has met with over 300 companies in the last decade and enjoys helping leaders make the most of themselves and the people around them.




[00:00:07] - Doug Foulkes
Welcome to Episode 51 of the Future of Work. This is the second part of our conversation about the employee landscape with Lockton Senior Vice President O'Brien McMahon, brought to you by WNDYR. In part one, Claire and myself chatted to O'Brien about the great resignation or the big quit. Claire, what are we talking about this week?

[00:00:31] - Claire Haidar
This week, we're moving on to the implications of the great resignation and the big quit. And we're talking specifically about those implications through the lens of employee mindsets. So concepts like adulting, concepts like total acceptance and responsibility for one's life, and the lines that blur between the pieces that an employee needs to take responsibility for and the pieces that an employer carries responsibility for, some really fascinating stuff. I would say that this is where O'Brien really shines.

[00:01:08] - Claire Haidar
This is an area that he's intrigued by. It's an area that he does a lot of reading and research in. And so says it's a really good conversation.

[00:01:18] - Doug Foulkes
Let's get stuck in.

[00:01:20] - Claire Haidar
Segueing away from the reality of the great resignation and how companies are navigating this, I really want to turn the lens onto employee mindset specifically. And I want to share a little bit of context to a conversation that I recently had with a very senior chief people officer in a pretty large, very fast growing organization very recently, and just had a really open conversation about how the great resignation is impacting them. And there's this fine gray line that I find a lot of chief people officers and executive teams are really grappling with right now.

[00:02:00] - Claire Haidar
And this is the fine line, if I can lay it out for you. It's this churn, so new people are coming in. But there's a whole bunch of people churning out at the same time. So it's almost like you've got this production line of people in and out, in and out. And companies are, as we've just spoken about, grappling with what are the training programs we need to change, what are the benefits structures, and how does that need to change all of this.

[00:02:24] - Claire Haidar
But at some point, there's a piece of the puzzle that a company can take responsibility for. It comes down to mindset. It comes down to attitude and a choice of how I'm going to behave and show up as a human in the world every day. What do you feel those lines are? What is the employer's responsibility and what is the human employee responsibility towards their own mindset and how they show up for work?

[00:02:52] - O'Brien McMahon
Yeah. This is a great question. And depending on the day or the hour of the day that you catch me, I might have a little different answer to this question. So here's my personal bias on this is I think we all have full responsibility for our own lives. And so I tend to lean more to employees should be showing up every day, owning their work, owning their lives in a real way. And so that's the bias.

[00:03:25] - O'Brien McMahon
I will say, though, from everything that I've seen and read and understand is there's another sentiment that says "there are no bad teams, only bad leaders." And so if you're sitting there saying, "Well, everybody is showing up, and they're not giving their all, and we've got this bad culture because of this and these, all of my employees are doing X, Y and Z bad behavior," you probably need to look in the mirror a little bit and say, what culture are you setting?

[00:03:55] - O'Brien McMahon
Is it a command and control culture? Is it us versus them? Have you created this dynamic, where you're battling against each other to get them to do as much work as they can, and they're battling you to hold on to that autonomy and some power? Culture matters a lot. And I think the best businesses out there are creating a culture where people feel empowered to take that responsibility. I do think you can build that into the culture of a business.

[00:04:26] - O'Brien McMahon
So I would say that's the responsibility. I mean, ultimately the responsibility is give them a paycheck, give them a safe work environment, and reasonable hours to do their job. I think that's the only responsibility you have. But if you want to be a high performance business, and you want to grow, and you want to have an impact on your community and your people and yourself, that's where you got to think about how are you really leading the group. And are you setting the right expectations and values?

[00:04:54] - Claire Haidar
So yes, have to be a little bit provocative on this is I have the same biases as you. As a business owner, I have to seriously question my biases and I have to look at it through the other lens, which I regularly do. And I go to mentors, et cetera, to to say and check my biases. What I'm finding, though, and this is very much me talking from a personal lens here in terms of what we've experienced in our own business is that very often, you're dealing with almost like a whiplash effect of bad cultures that other organizations have created and that people are walking in their baggage that they're bringing with into the door.

[00:05:38] - Claire Haidar
And so empowerment is a double-edged sword, because as a leader, you can create an empowered environment. But empowerment requires extreme discipline in certain cases. Empowerment requires extreme self-responsibility, and in my co-founders words, extreme adulting. And a lot of people don't know how to adult very well.

[00:06:03] - O'Brien McMahon
What you're saying there, if I could just interrupt, is there's skills that need to be built and evolved in these people. I think a lot of people think the things that you're talking about, discipline, adulting, that this is just innate and that you either are a good adult or you're not. And I don't believe that that's true. I believe that humans need to be taught every skill that you want them to possess.

[00:06:33] - O'Brien McMahon
I have two young children and I have an almost three-year-old and a six-month-old, and we had to teach them how to sleep. We actually trained them to sleep, which is the most basic human function. But I have so many friends who let their kids figure it out on their own. And it takes years at some point of them getting up multiple times through the night.

[00:06:54] - O'Brien McMahon
I had a friend gift us the sleep training book, and we trained our kids to both sleep by 10 weeks old. And that, just to me, was eye opening. "Oh, even sleep is a skill that needs to be trained. It's a behavior that needs to be trained."

[00:07:07] - O'Brien McMahon
So translate that back to an employer environment like, "Yes, you're getting people who come in with all kinds of different bad habits and or no habits at all, right? They might be fresh out of college and they don't know how to be an employee at all.

[00:07:24] - O'Brien McMahon
And that's where I think where employers can take some more responsibility to say, "What are the skills that we value? How are we going to build those in our people? Let's define them. Let's set the expectation on what it means to work here and the type of work that we're trying to do, the type of people we're trying to do, and then let's fill in those gaps. Let's help our people, let's coach our people, whether it's training, whether it's mentoring, whether it's whatever.

[00:07:50] - O'Brien McMahon
Let's have the hard conversations. Give them the feedback and help them get better."

[00:07:54] - O'Brien McMahon
And I think people skip that. I think they say, "Oh, these are innate. These people either have them or they don't. So we're going to keep them or we're going to fire them," or they don't want to have the tough conversation to actually give them the feedback. You see this happen where people will bounce around from team to team to team until they eventually have no more teams to go to when they get fired.

[00:08:15] - O'Brien McMahon
But if somebody if the first leader had just said, "Hey, you're not a great employee. Here's what you're doing. And if you keep doing this, you're not going to have a job here and you're going to struggle in your career. Let us help you get better at this." You might have solved nine out of 10 problems. So I just think that's a big one to think of those things as skills, and then set the expectation, and train the skills.

[00:08:40] - O'Brien McMahon
To summarize, as you said, those three things: provide work, pay them to do the work, provide a safe place to, with reasonable hours to do that work, and the fourth one is then train them to perform the work in the best way possible.

[00:08:57] - O'Brien McMahon
And train them, not even just to perform the work, but train them to come in with the right mindset, right?

[00:09:03] - Claire Haidar

[00:09:03] - O'Brien McMahon
Give them the right mindset. Give them the tools to do that job successfully and all the other jobs you're going to want them to have as they grow in their career.

[00:09:11] - Claire Haidar

[00:09:12] - Doug Foulkes
O'Brien, you stole my [inaudible 00:09:13] completely there because I was going to ask you away from mindsets what were the scales be? I mean, you've mentioned obviously quite a few, including sleeping. Is there anything else that you can add to that list of skills that would be a value for an employee to learn?

[00:09:27] - O'Brien McMahon
I think training people to have a growth mindset, helping people rediscover their curiosity, that's what we all want. That's the type of employee I want to be. And it's the type of employee I want to be surrounded by is people who are curious and have drive that want to learn as much as they can and gather new perspectives on their work and other work. Because you see innovation come from the interconnectedness of ideas. It's not just somebody being super deep in one silo.

[00:09:56] - O'Brien McMahon
So you want people to be curious, and then you want them to have some drive and take some ownership in what they're doing. And if somebody comes in with those two traits, they could do almost any job. And so I think businesses would do well really fostering those.

[00:10:11] - Doug Foulkes
It's amazing how many times, Claire, that's the word curiosity comes up in the podcast. It pretty much is the most important skill for the future of work, because that's just something that can't be replicated. It's a purely human thinking.

[00:10:24] - O'Brien McMahon
The one that comes up for me on my show a lot is curiosity, it's drive, and it's humility would be the third.

[00:10:31] - Claire Haidar
Agreed. Humility as a topic hasn't really come out. But interestingly enough, I actually have an upcoming guest on the podcast who's actually written a whole book about this topic, about how to work with, live with, and deal with the gifted asshole. I think the title of her book is actually something around the lines of that, you know what I mean? [crosstalk 00:10:54].

[00:10:55] - Claire Haidar
Yeah, exactly, which is directly to the point that you just made.

[00:10:59] - O'Brien McMahon
Well, I've I've been lucky enough to have a wide range of guests on my show. And I've interviewed a CFO of a large health system, 20-Year Navy SEAL, FBI hostage and negotiator, and a number of other people, and they all talk about humility as being key to high performance and to a high performing team. It has just hit me over the head how important that is.

[00:11:27] - O'Brien McMahon
Because if you have the right level of humility, then you're a team player. You're in it for the right reasons. You're contributing, collaborating, you're willing to put your own ego aside and adopt the right idea, even if it's not your idea. And so it's something I've been paying attention to in my own life over the last 18 months, and I've come to believe it really is just one of the key traits to high performance.

[00:11:53] - Claire Haidar
I can attest to that again through our company lens as well as it's actually something that we actively look for in candidates when we're both screening them and actually then interviewing them. We have a 360 degree interview process, so it's across the company that the person gets interviewed. And we actually didn't have a grid that each person who's interviewed the candidates and competes. And it's actually one of the things that we specifically look at.

[00:12:18] - Claire Haidar
And every single time it's been flagged as a potential issue by the group of people who have interviewed it, the person has churned out. The reason for the churn out can directly be related back to their non humility in the company and how it didn't work within the team dynamic.

[00:12:38] - O'Brien McMahon
That's fascinating. While I was talking to the Navy SEAL that I mentioned, and he was very clear to point out that high level of humility is not a low level of confidence. You can have people who come in with incredibly high confidence and also incredibly high humility, and those are the people that you want, right? The people who are incredibly capable, and know it, and they're confident, and they can go out, and make things happen in the world. But they're humble enough to know that their ideas and always the best idea. They're part of a team trying to achieve a collective goal.

[00:13:13] - Doug Foulkes
So when you're recruiting for a full time position, just what you're looking for change at all, whether it's for a full time employee or a freelancer, someone that if you don't give them all your good stuff, they might just go somewhere else?

[00:13:25] - O'Brien McMahon
That is a good question. I think there are some jobs, some gig jobs, where you just need somebody to show up and do the thing. And so there's probably a case to be made that you don't have to pour into people as much because they're going to turn over faster, the gig employees turn over faster, maybe they're seasonal employees and they're not going to be around forever. And so there is an argument to be made that that cost a lot of time and money to do that, it's a better decision just to have them come in and do their thing and go on their way.

[00:13:58] - O'Brien McMahon
Again, my bias is that we're all better off when we're all building these skills. These are good employee skills to have. They're also the necessary skills to have a great productive life and to find and build meaning into your life. You have to have a certain amount of discipline. Humility is important. Curiosity is very important. Drive is very important.

[00:14:24] - O'Brien McMahon
So these are skills that everybody needs. And whether your employee is full time, or a gig employee, or hourly, or whatever, these are skills that are going to make your people better. And so I would argue that everybody should be valuing these and should be incenting them in their business. Somebody could push back and tell me there's a business reason not to, but my bias is that that these are important skills to humanity.

[00:14:50] - Claire Haidar
This is where it's like, "Do you care for their employees and look at it purely through their employee lens? And what are the real business constraints?" If somebody is churning out, it comes back to like a 10-year question, if somebody is going to churn out in six to nine months, which is what the average tenure is in certain geographic locations in the US and in certain companies right now, it's really hard to justify a two-week skills course for them.

[00:15:19] - O'Brien McMahon
Oh, for sure.

[00:15:20] - Claire Haidar
You see what I mean? Because two weeks in the realm of nine months is a hell of a lot of time. That the balance.

[00:15:27] - O'Brien McMahon
But can you set the expectation up front? How much time and money does it take to have a conversation in the interview process or on their first day of employment, setting the expectations for them as an employee? And then to have a mentor, or a boss, or a manager who can pull them aside in a moment of underperformance and say, "Hey, remember we had that conversation. This is what we're talking about. And Here's how you could have done this a little bit better."

[00:15:56] - O'Brien McMahon
And not just say, "Oh, here's where you were wrong," but say, "Hey, we want you to be better. We want you to be your best. We believe in you. And so we're going to lean into you and give you this training." I think belief is a key part of this, too. "We're not just correcting you, we're helping you become better because we care about you." That takes five minutes potentially. It doesn't take any money.

[00:16:20] - O'Brien McMahon
So yes, I agree. There's no reason to build robust training programs if you're turnover's 120 percent. But are there things you could be doing to set a better value system and a better culture and maybe you get better performance in the people while they're there? Maybe your turnover drops to 80 percent. But I do think there's a business case to setting these values and then coaching people and actually in real time having difficult conversations to help them improve.

[00:16:57] - Claire Haidar
It's very much around as an employer, I feel a weight and a responsibility towards not only developing my employees for my business. The way we look at tenure is we look at it anywhere from 18 months to two years, okay? And I feel that it's really important to view an employee and your investments into them as a much longer term thing beyond them actually being in your team.

[00:17:26] - Claire Haidar
So when Tracy and I are building employee programs, and we're looking at our benefit structures and everything back that we actually look at the employee experiences much longer journey beyond the 18 months or the two years that we believe that they'll be with us.

[00:17:39] - O'Brien McMahon
I love that.

[00:17:40] - Claire Haidar
But not every employer thinks that way. And they also can't think that way just because of the nature and the context of the business.

[00:17:49] - O'Brien McMahon
Sure. I think that's fair and is definitely something I've seen clients deal with where they have really high turnover. The nature of their industry just works out where people only stay a short period of time. Or I've seen there's a lot of companies out there where they have high churn in the first six months. And then if you make it six months or you make it a year, then people stay. But the turnover in the first 12 months might be 80 percent and then turnover after a year might be 15 percent.

[00:18:19] - O'Brien McMahon
And so are you going to really invest in those people upfront? I think just from what I've seen, the highest performing businesses tend to be paying attention to this stuff in the long term similar to the way that you're doing it.

[00:18:34] - Claire Haidar
Agreed. They do think longer term. They do think beyond the immediate.

[00:18:40] - O'Brien McMahon
I think another question is what is the purpose of your business? Are you in it to maximize profit and shareholder value? And like, "Hey, that's fine if you are. If it's your business, that's your prerogative." But I think a lot of business leaders, I mean, they want to make a lot of money, that's part of business and capitalism. But I think everybody wants a little bit of purpose and meaning in their lives, too.

[00:19:04] - O'Brien McMahon
And so is it worth taking a little bit of extra time and being specific on the impact that you're going to have on your people and on your communities?

[00:19:13] - Doug Foulkes
And that is what we've got for you today. If you missed the first part of our conversation about the great resignation, check it out on Spotify, Google, or Apple Podcasts or on the WNDYR website, W-N-D-Y-R.com. We'll conclude our chat with O'Brien shortly. From Claire and myself, we'll see you soon.

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