Ep. 203: Mark A Herschberg – The Great Resignation and How to Fix It

Our guest today is Mark Herschberg, author of The Career Toolkit: Essential Skills for Success That No One Taught You and creator of the Brain Bump app. Mark has spent his career launching and developing new ventures at startups and Fortune 500s and in academia, with over a dozen patents to his name. He helped to start the Undergraduate Practice Opportunities Program, dubbed MIT’s “career success accelerator,” where he teaches annually.
https://www.instagram.com/thecareertoolkit/

Full Episode Transcript:
Adam:

Welcome back to Count Me In, the podcast focused on the issues, challenges, and characters shaping the management accounting profession. I'm Adam Larson. Today I'm joined by Mark Herschberg, serial entrepreneur, business innovator, and the author of the Career Toolkit: Essential Skills for Success that No One Taught You. Now, lots of people cover career and work best practices, but if you ask me, it all can start to sound pretty similar, but that's not the case with Mark. There's a good reason he teaches at MIT, which you're about to find out. In fact, Mark had so much insight and advice to share from his research and years of building companies and teams, we ended up recording two podcasts, the second of which will be coming out soon. But for now, let's get started with Mark Herschberg discussing the fallout from the great resignation and what he's learned about how to fix work.

Adam:

Mark, I wanted to just thank you so much for coming on the podcast today and today we're gonna really focus on the great resignation and we've all been hearing this term they've been writing about it since it started in 2021, but I wanted to start off by just you talking a little bit about what what it is and what it means for everybody today.

Mark:

Well, thanks for having me on the show today. The great resignation is really the term that is an umbrella term for what is the largest rewrite of the capital labor contract that we have seen in a century. Now certainly we are seeing people leave jobs quitting, finding better jobs, sometimes going back to their original job, but it's also a larger cultural change about what people are looking for in their jobs. And so we need to recognize this isn't just, well, we have to do a better job hiring or retaining. It is a shift in terms of what people want and companies need to adjust if they wanna stay competitive in the labor market.

Adam:

Yeah, it sounds like it, and it also sounds like companies really need to focus in on how do we keep employees as well? Because I'm sure during the pandemic employees were seeing, do I really still need to be here? And that they started asking themselves a lot of questions.

Mark:

Well, that's a really good point. And you get different answers depending on who you ask. When it comes down to any job, it's really about the communication needed. It's about who needs to communicate with whom and when and how best to do that. It's why we have emails, slack, phone calls, meetings, they're all channels of communicating, whether it's project updates or you and I coordinating and coming up with ideas. That's what a lot of work is. What we found is that certain types of work can be done from home. We don't have to be sitting next to each other. And people have speculated about this for years. I work in technology. We've certainly been on the forefront. I've been working with teams all around the world for years. You can do some of that, but there are limitations to that and it seems like we might be overshooting a bit in that people don't understand. At first we said No, you'll have to be in the office five days a week. It's like, well, we know we can work when we're in the office zero days a week. You can work in both modes, but is that optimal? And so there are different facets you need to look at to decide what is the optimal number of days for a particular team at which points.

Adam:

Yeah, and it also seems like it's more than just money that people are leaving because of a lot of times people leave because of money or because of culture, or all those things. But you can't just throw more money at your employees and say, Okay, you know, stay here.

Mark:

That's exactly right. Money is a bit of a factor. And as we record this at the start of the summer in 2022, we've been coming off some of the highest inflation rates that we've seen in a generation. And so you do need more money to stay competitive and other companies are throwing money at them. But here's the thing, you are probably not the highest payer in your market. One company is, and it probably isn't you. So if you're just competing on money, that's going to be a problem. What we saw is people are responding to these other dimensions, and this is what I meant when I said it's a rewrite of that capital labor contract. It's no longer I pay you money, you do the work. And so we're seeing employees, particularly younger employees, but we are seeing it across the spectrum. They're looking not just at money I'm using at Compensation General, or there's stock options of salary, but also work life balance, company culture, alignment to mission and support, just to name a few.

Mark:

We saw companies that back at the start of the pandemic in 2020, some of them said, look, it's tough for everyone. Suck it up and do it. And other companies said, hey, it's tough for everyone, so we're going to give you Fridays off for the next two months because this is crazy. Spend some time with your families. We all need the stress break or what can we do to support you while you are at home? And so the companies that were more supportive of their employees were the ones who basically had more loyalty and had employees say, I know you're looking out for me and are more likely to stay. So it's important that we really sell our employees current and future ones, not just on the compensation, but on all these other facets.

Adam:

So it what I'm hearing you say, it sounds like company culture is a huge part of avoiding the resignation, but also, you know, when you, when new people are coming on, you wanna make sure that they fit that company culture to make sure that they're gonna stay on.

Mark:

Culture is very important. Now by culture, I think a lot of companies get this wrong. They think the culture is the seven values. Someone in marketing put on the website that says customer first or whatever the mantra is. And I'm sure there is value to those, but the actual culture of your team might be at your company level. More likely it's at a team or department level is how you interact day to day. For example, I have a colleague who told me at a former company, the rule was whoever yelled loudest got their way in the meeting. I guarantee you marketing did not put that on the website. But when you show up, that's how you have to behave. And if you're not the type of person who likes to yell and shout at a meeting, you're not going to be effective in that company.

Mark:

Now that's an extreme example and most people aren't saying, Okay, yeah, let's put yelling as a team value. But it is values such as are you expected to answer an email at 11 at night at some companies? Yes you are. Some people are okay with that because you're paying me enough money. And I don't mind. Other companies say, no, we really don't expect you outside of work unless there's an emergency. It's things like how often you are expected to be in work. It's how much support they're going to give you. There are companies who say, we're here, we're gonna help you with your career. We're going to help you plan out where you're going, we're going to develop you. Other companies say, well, you're here because we're paying you and if you wanna be somewhere else or do some other job, well that doesn't help me, your boss, so why would I help you? And those are very different cultures. So you really wanna look at that almost tactical group-level culture in terms of how you operate the relationships, the trust, and the understanding with other people on your team.

Adam:

So we've been talking about like company cultures and how can best help it, but I can't help but think what if I'm somebody who left my company during the great resignation and I'm thinking, you know what? What should I be looking for? What questions maybe I should ask when I'm going into an interview, trying my next job that I want to avoid the culture I was just at and I wanna make sure that I'm going to the right culture going forward?

Mark:

That's a great question. There are a number of categories of questions you want to ask. So let's look at a few of those. You want to ask about the culture, for example. And you can ask questions like, what three words would you use to describe the company culture here? What traits do you value in team members? What personality types are a good fit for the company? These type of questions are open-ended, there's no right or wrong answer, but it can help you explore what's important, what those values are. You can ask about management, ask to your potential new boss, what's your management style or approach? Obviously ask that of the subordinates as well because they might have a different perspective. How does the team resolve conflicts? Tell me about your feedback process. What was the biggest conflict that the team faced and how did they get through it?

Mark:

You can ask about the job itself. What type of onboarding support do you have? What would make someone successful in this road? Excuse me, what would make someone successful in this role? Where will this job take me down the road? You can ask about engagement. How do you help grow your employees? What type of support does HR provide? You can ask general questions. What's the best thing about working at this company? What's the one thing you'd like to change about this company? How long do people tend to stay at this company? So there's lots of different questions. And again, these are not right or wrong answer questions. They're questions that give you insight into the company. Now, two important things when you bring this up during the interview process, because it doesn't often come up. And these questions, by the way, are important to both sides.

Mark:

We're looking for a fit, a mutual fit. If you think about dating, it's kinda like asking the question, do you want kids? There's no right or wrong answer, but if someone says, I want kids, and someone says, I don't, right there, you know, you two are not compatible and that's fine. No hard feelings. This is not good relationship. So same thing here. These are not horrible things and there's no wrong answer, but you're looking, is there a fit on both sides? So both the hiring team and the candidate are interested in answering these questions and either side can choose to bring this up. Now, if you're the candidate, probably you're going to need to bring this up when you do so, obviously be respectful. You don't want to ask in an aggressive tone, in a challenging tone, you want to ask with a polite, respectful tone.

Mark:

The other thing, it can still be a little awkward to bring this up. So in the articles I've written about this, here's what I say, blame me. You can say, listen, I heard this podcast, there was a guy named Mark Herschberg and he said we should go through these questions together. So I'd like to bring them up now because now you are not being annoying and doing something a little unusual. Many companies aren't used to getting these questions. Instead you're saying, this is a recommended best practice I have heard of. And if they challenge it, if they say, Oh, that's stupid. Well yeah, Mark Herschberg looks stupid, you don't look stupid. You can, you can dodge that blame. So it's gonna give you some protection and cover. So feel free to do that if you'd like. But you definitely at some point want to bring up these questions and explore it. Otherwise, it's like going into that marriage without asking questions like, do you want kids? And where do you wanna live? You're probably going in blind and asking for trouble.

Adam:

That sounds like it. And we'll make sure we put a link to that article in the show notes so that everybody can take a look at that. So I, you know, I think those are, that's wonderful advice and I wish I'd had that advice many years ago, the different interviews that I've been on, I would've loved to ask those questions. Are there red flags that people should be on the lookout for it? Cause obviously when you're listening to those things, you know what you don't wanna see in a company. You know what you're looking for, you know what you've been through. But are there certain red flags that if somebody answers one of those questions this way, run?

Mark:

Certainly I'd say the yelling is red flag, at least for me. Although then again, I hear stories about at least the old days in Wall Street where yelling and screaming and people throwing things, that's par for the course and certain people were attracted to that type of super aggressive culture. It's really about what's a fit for you. Let's just take something simple, asking a question like how many hours a week do you spend in meetings? It's a question we don't ask. Now, there are many people who say, I hate meetings, I know I have to do a few of them. Okay, four hours a week in meetings, no problem. If they hear 20 hours a week in meetings, oh my god, that can be soul crushing. Probably not a fit for you. There are other people who actually love meetings and hey, 20 hours a week, bring it on. It's funny, we ask that with travel, that's a common question, What percentage of time is spent traveling? That's an acceptable question. But we never ask how much time in meetings or filling out paperwork depending on the nature of the role. So it's really important to break down the different aspects and just find a fit. I don't think there's any universal red flags for the most part, but it's about what's right for you.

Adam:

So you almost have to know your why and what you're looking for to be able to know what red flags you're looking for, in a sense.

Mark:

It goes back to that dating analogy. If someone says, my idea of fun is camping and someone else says, my idea is dressing up and going to the opera, they're both valid answers, but they're probably not compatible.

Adam:

So as we circle the conversation back to companies, how better can companies maybe engage their employees or get them involved so that they can avoid this in the future?

Mark:

There is a very simple tool that you can use that's gonna provide a number of benefits, including upskilling and engagement. Now, this is based on the 20 years of teaching that I've done at MIT, using techniques we use there as well as the technique used at top business schools. What you want to do is create peer learning groups. It's similar to ERGs, but it's not based around some designation. It's not what you happen to be, it's about what you're trying to achieve. So you can create general groups or you can create groups around specific skills and what you wanna do with these groups. I recommend groups of about six to eight people in size, but you can make them larger or smaller or go whatever way works for your team. And in these groups, which by the way can be done in person or remote or both, you want to focus on particular skills.

Mark:

Now, I particularly recommend some of what we call softer skills, leadership, communication, teamwork, negotiating. Those are skills we don't focus on as much. But you can also focus on more technical skills, particularly accounting skills or tool skills. And what you wanna do in these groups is have folks come together, engage them with some content, have them read a book or some articles, watch a video online, use a great podcast like this one because when they engage with the content and then go and have that discussion, that's where you get the richness. You're gonna listen to this podcast and you hear, oh yeah, important things, great resignation. We have to think differently about how employees want to work with their companies. That's a start, but it's not the end of the conversation. And in having these small conversations, you start to go deeper into what these ideas are and what might work.

Mark:

Same thing with leadership. I can give you, here's three tips for leadership, but it's not so cut and dry. It's not as simple as here's how to declare this asset on a balance sheet. It's very black and white. Leadership is not. And so it's understanding those subtleties and that's what happens in these groups. Now, if you do it, you're going to get four advantages. First, you are upskilling your employees, that's fantastic, you get better employees. Second, you're going to better engage your employees. You're saying, we're not just here to get work out of you. We care about developing you, we care about helping you. And it's no longer just compensating you with money, as we talked about before. They want to see this type of support. Third, you're increasing your internal networks. Really important, especially as we're in a hybrid workplace that we really focus on spending more time getting to know each other and relating to each other and building those internal relationships.

Mark:

And fourth, you're creating a common language because if, for example, you pick the book, like you have the name if for example, you pick the book Good to Great, they talk about the hedgehog model. And if you use that book and everyone's read it, you can say, oh, well let's apply the hedgehog model. Everyone knows exactly what you're talking about. So you have common stories and patterns that you can more easily apply. So if you want to do this, there's a free download on my website under the resources page, the Career Toolkit development program. You can use my book for it if you want, but again, if you don't wanna use my book, use a different book, use other free content, and this is going to help engage and upskill your employees completely free.

Adam:

That's great. And we'll put a link to that in the show notes as well. I really feel like that engagement is one of the key factors of keeping your employees where they are, not necessarily where they are, but keeping your employees engaged in the company. They know the why, they're connected with their teammates, with people outside of their team. They can connect with the higher ups. It it's a way to kind of connect everybody because otherwise you, especially while we're all at home or we're doing hybrid models and all those other things, you feel disconnected so much from people and that really feels like a way that it brings people together in a way that we haven't seen, especially during the Covid era.

Mark:

It does because it puts you together in discussions that aren't just about the monthly report that you're so tired of talking about because you did last month and the month before that this engagement's also important because we are getting into hybrid workplaces. It means the onboarding, the time it takes for someone to get up to speed, not just on the technical aspects, but fitting into the team is often taking longer these days, which means our existing employees are even more valuable because they have the established relationships and networks and we really want to keep them so we don't lose those.

Adam:

So Mark, if people wanna know more about this, where can they get in touch with you?

Mark:

You can go to my website, the Career Toolkit book.com (https://www.thecareertoolkitbook.com), and there of course you can get in touch with me, learn more about the book I wrote, get the questions we mentioned or other free downloads on the resources page. All this is here to help you better engage and support your employees.

Adam:

So Mark, as we wrap up the conversation, I just have to ask, is the great resignation over?

Mark:

We have likely passed the peak, but there are going to be echoes for years to come and these echoes will come in different ways. Some of it will be as companies work on their work from home policy, a company may say, we want everyone back five days and they start losing employees. They say, Well, we better switched to three days. Or they might try three days, realize that doesn't work and switch to five days, then lose people in the future. So as we tweak policies in companies or industries, we're going to see echoes. We're also going to find that working very remotely and some companies have moved fully remote works in the short term, but there are long term implications. We know people can mechanically do their work from home. We've been doing that for two years. But what about those relationships that they're trying to build?

Mark:

What about the long term strategy? What about thinking beyond the tactical day-to-day work we do that may not be as easy at some companies when people are primarily remote. And so they're gonna find this isn't quite working and we have to change up, which again, are going to cause echoes down the road. Even things such as if you move to an island in the South Pacific and you do your work, you're getting it done. But if you're not showing up to the office in building relationships in your industry or in your company, that may hurt you in the future. We're even seeing potential DEI issues. And here's a really tricky one. We've heard people talk about if you don't set a standard policy, everyone has to do X days in the office. What happens is women and certain underrepresented groups tend to do more work at home.

Mark:

They have more home responsibilities. So if you make it flexible, they're in the office less, white males are in the office more. Well, who is more likely to get promoted? Now we have a DEI problem. On the other hand, if you say, Well, everyone needs to be in the office three days a week. I've heard the complaint. Well now people who have more home responsibilities say, I don't want three days a week. I want two days a week. Who leaves your company? It's again, women and underrepresented groups. Now you have a DEI problem again. So there's a lot of challenges and we don't know yet how they're going to play out. So I think we're going to continue to see some echoes of the great resignation for many years to come.

Outro:

This has been Count Me In, IMA's podcast providing you with the latest perspectives of thought leaders from the accounting and finance profession. If you like what you heard and you'd like to be counted in for more relevant accounting and finance education, visit IMA's website at www.imanet.org.

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Adam Larson
Producer
Adam Larson
Producer and co-host of the Count Me In podcast
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