VP of Administration and Chief People Officer at Ontario Systems, Jill Lehman promotes scheduling networking efforts as you would routine gym visits and doctors’ appointments
When Jill Lehman asks people to connect, she isn’t just referring to social network invites. Indeed, new acquaintances shouldn’t be surprised to get a call from the executive coaxing them out for a cup of coffee or a bite to eat.
“It’s more than just having those connections via LinkedIn,” Lehman said. “It’s actually mining relationships within those connections that I think is key.”
But mining can be hard work, and it shouldn’t stop when you leave the office, according to Lehman, Vice President for Administration and Chief People Officer at Ontario Systems. She encourages her team members and associates at the Muncie, Indiana-based software provider to schedule networking just as they would an office meeting or after-hours workout, so that it becomes a regular part of their routine.
“If you do this well, you really never eat a meal alone. You spend a lot of time to make it happen. You have to schedule it,” Lehman said. “You have to make it a priority, and you have to realize that the only way to build those true relationships and connections is to put the effort into it.”
That effort shouldn’t be reserved for higher-ups who can advance your career down the road. Rather, the best networks are diverse and include individuals from a variety of companies and encompass everyone from new hires to knowledgeable retirees from both inside and outside your industry.
“The more diverse and robust your network is, the better it is for you to learn from, to get experience and exposure to different ways of thinking,” Lehman said. “So that’s what makes networking effective.”
And, like any kind of mining, delving deeply into relationships is slow and steady work that should be happening constantly, not just when someone is looking for a new job or fresh business leads. Everyone within an effective network should be just as willing to share resources as they are to request favors and troll for new opportunities.
“If you’ve waited until you’ve had those events happen, you’re really at a disadvantage. It’s really a two-way philosophy,” she said. “It gives you credibility as a networker if you are there not only to receive but to give back as a networker.”
As a former Indiana Human Resources (HR) Professional of the Year and current volunteer and Board Member for Second Harvest Food Bank, Lehman clearly practices what she preaches. So it’s no surprise that she credits her network with leading her to every one of her career opportunities in one way or another.
That includes her decision to take the job at Ontario Systems after spending most of her career at larger institutions, including ConAgra Foods and Kroger Co. When trusted advisers within her network suggested using her experiences within a smaller firm in her native Midwest, Lehman knew it could be a good move personally and professionally and that it was something she should consider.
“I’m a firm believer in networking. I’ve seen firsthand how having that well-stocked Rolodex of people can be really valuable,” she said. “That’s what led me to make that career change and brought me to Ontario Systems today.”
Smaller Firm, Big Transition
Working for a smaller company doesn’t mean Lehman has downsized her expectations or workload. She joined Ontario Systems in fall 2011 and has focused on aligning HR to overall business objectives. Ontario Systems is a three-plus-decade-old company that provides accounts receivable software and services to collection firms, hospitals and other clients.
Some of her team members had been with the company for 15 years or more, which represented a sea of change for Lehman, who was more accustomed to dealing with employees who, like herself, may have navigated between several companies and offices throughout the course of their professional lives.
“Until I came to Ontario, my career had been in very large publicly traded organizations with hundreds of work locations and several thousands of employees. When you do that across your career in those larger organizations, you become more transient,” she said. “It’s a different culture than you typically see in a smaller or mid-sized organization.”
But the key lessons she’s learned about developing strong business partners, acquiring and training a talented workforce, and building a healthy corporate culture have applied throughout her career, no matter what the organization’s size.
“You do that through people,” Lehman said. “So you have to understand the relationships and the culture and navigate from there.”
As proponent of General Electric’s “Change Acceleration Process,” she believes that navigation should start from the top, but that it’s the frontline employees who often determine whether a company stays the course.
“When you’re leading a change initiative, the leadership has to be, first and foremost, authentic in the way they approach the change because that change has to start at the top, be nourished and sustained at the top,” said Lehman, who holds a bachelor’s degree in Agricultural Economics from Purdue University. “And I think it has to be a journey that you walk every day, and you have to realize there will be resistance to that journey. So you’ve got to continue to make that vision come alive and permeate through the organization.”
One of the ways leaders can assure employees that shifts are more than just the “flavor of the month” is to make significant changes to company infrastructure that support the new way of doing things rather than reinforcing the old. So, for example, if you want a more comprehensive employee evaluation program, show it by instituting 360-degree reviews and coaching programs to help reach the desired state.
“Every business has these underlying systems,” Lehman said. “And if you don’t begin to change those structures and systems to support the desired future state, the business will typically push back to the old ways because the infrastructure doesn’t support change.”
Another key to success is looking for early wins and recognizing people within the company who embrace the change, supporting and rewarding those early adopters.
“And that’s what I have found to be the best approach to leading change initiatives in my career,” she said. “It works.”
Smaller Firm, Big Results
And it can work quickly at a mid-sized firm like Ontario Systems, which, in just one example of shifting corporate culture, went from experiencing double-digit increases in company health care costs to logging double-digit declines. The company recently received a workplace wellness award.
To spark change, Ontario made infrastructure adjustments, including the introduction of education programs, fitness offerings, healthy food options, and targeted incentives designed to foster and reward healthy habits. It also encouraged employees to start their own exercise groups, weight reduction programs and other wellness initiatives aligning with the “You Powered” culture.
“We really set out first to educate,” Lehman said. “It really needed to be something that would create the engagement necessary to change culturally within the organization.”
The cultural change is happening rapidly within her company because of its tight-knit, family-oriented “You Powered” workforce. The company’s size also offers everyone, including Lehman, the ability to learn from one another and contribute to almost every aspect of big-picture success, whether it be cutting health care costs, serving clients or improving organizational performance.
Those factors, along with the impact Lehman has had by providing leadership and business sense within organizations like Second Harvest, are the things this leader loves most about being both literally and figuratively closer to her roots at Ontario Systems. There she is able to participate in a community, sharing and growing her experiences every day.
“Growing up here in the Midwest, I had always understood and respected the value of community, relationships and connections you build,” Lehman said. “But being somewhat transient as an executive in large organizations, I had never really had the chance to experience that for any real length of time. You know, that’s what leadership is about, because the community is strong when it’s built through the service of others.”
Consistent Leadership, Personalized Learning
Whether she’s talking to a third-party business partner or interviewing a recent college graduate for a position at Ontario Systems, Lehman seeks out critical thinkers and collaborators: people who care about the company’s success as much as they do about their own career trajectory.
“I look for individuals who are really there to help understand the business and the problems and help you solve them,” Lehman said. “Because they become engaged with you, you become engaged with them. It is what you want on the employee side, and it’s really no different when you are working with third parties.”
And while experience and direct job skills are important, it’s more critical that those engaged individuals be flexible, resourceful and motivated, she noted. As Ontario’s Vice President for Administration and Chief People Officer, Lehman has conducted her fair share of interviews.
“Because you can teach specific job skills, it’s really hard to teach mindsets,” she said. “To be truly successful in today’s world, that mindset should also include a thirst for knowledge and an ability to share it with others. People who are avid learners really like to share knowledge, which is very critical when you think about the need for knowledge transfer and exchange in business today. And you can’t do that without first being an avid learner.”
But people learn in different ways, particularly if a group includes the whole spectrum, ranging from business veterans to employees in their first full-time jobs. For experienced professionals on Lehman’s staff, she might simply serve as an available resource. For those just starting out professionally, her role might be as a hands-on teacher.
“So I’ve got individuals on my team with 15-plus years of unique business experience, all the way down to individuals who are early in their careers. I think for both of them, the leadership approach should be consistent,” she said. “It’s the learning experience that’s different.”
No matter where an employee is on the career ladder, Lehman suggests these five basic steps for individual development:
- Create awareness of an employee’s strengths and opportunities through tools, including 360-degree and other profile assessments.
- Continue to build an employee’s knowledge base through tools, including targeted educational programs and work assignments.
- Allow the employee to practice skills through regular job duties and opportunities such as rotational assignments.
- Allow the employee to demonstrate mastery through job performance and special projects, for example.
- Finally, give the employee the chance to lead and give back through teaching others.
Charlene Oldham is a freelance writer based in Saint Louis, Missouri.
Jill's Key Partners:FirstPerson (Professional Advisory Services) | Fidelity (401K Administration) | FlashPoint (Talent Management Consulting) | HRD Advisory Group (Training & Development)
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