10 Lessons Learned

 In 2020

The year 2020 marks Affinity HR Group’s 10-year anniversary. As we prepare to celebrate the occasion, my team asked me to compile the top 10 things I’ve learned over that time. Surprisingly, this exercise was not easy. Here’s what I came up with: 

10. Our culture is a reflection of our personal biases – Over the years I have learned that, unintentionally, my personal values, perspective, strengths and even my weaknesses have created the culture we have today. For example, we don’t “sell” our services, we offer our expertise. Our reputation means more to us than money. We care personally about our clients – they are our friends. These are aspects of my own personality. For better and for worse, my personal biases are culturally embedded in everything we do. 

9. Hire carefully and intentionally – If I’ve done one thing right over the years, it’s that I’ve hired amazing talent. I have always sought to hire those who are smarter and more knowledgeable than I am. And attitude has always trumped experience. I also hire for diversity of behavioral style and perspective. In the beginning, I hired people who were just like me. We had a lot of fun but were not very successful because we shared the same blind spots. Our team is now behaviorally diverse and that difference of perspectives results in more thought-out and successful decisions and outcomes time and time again.   

8. Know your limitations and don’t be afraid to ask for help – Over the past 10 years, I have been fortunate to hire coaches and advisors to help teach me how to be a better leader. From helping with a pricing and marketing strategy when we were just starting out, to hiring a business coach to help us get to the next level of growth, I simply didn’t have the knowledge or experience to tackle those challenges on my own. Even coaches need coaches. I learned to recognize my limitations and ask for help when needed and, on occasion, to trust myself when that advice didn’t seem appropriate. 

7 . When in doubt, say “yes” – From the very beginning, when asked by a national trade association to put together a company to offer HR services to association members, I had no idea how to do it. I acknowledged my lack of experience in creating and running a company to satisfy the request, but I said yes anyway. Since that time, when asked by a client or an association to put together a new program or provide a new or unique service, we’ve always admitted that we were learning and experimenting but enthusiastically accepted the request. Saying yes and taking risks have been critical to our success.

6. Choose your clients well – There is an ancient proverb that states, “The fish rots from the head down.” Boy is this true! Occasionally, we have worked with clients whose culture or character didn’t align with ours. We have never been shy about declining a client request or, in rare instances, firing a client if we feel they will not be a good partner or if I feel they will not treat my team with respect. At Affinity, we can all recall the day we were secure enough, operationally and financially, to fire an abusive, albeit influential client. For us, it was a day of celebration.

5 . Shut up and listen – As an admitted and extreme extrovert, I know I have the capacity to talk more than I listen. Because of this, I have made mistakes in not listening for nuance or special needs. If you don’t listen, your solution may not solve your client’s actual needs, just as when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Now I intentionally put my hammer down and listen. I’m not always successful, but whenever I can, I shut up and listen.

4. Don’t manage. Lead – I’ll admit it, I’m a terrible manager. I don’t have all the ideas. I struggle with setting clear expectations. And establishing and enforcing deadlines? Forget it. Fortunately, I have hired professionals who are competent and fully capable of managing themselves so I don’t need to. Instead, I provide the resources, guidance and vision and then get out of the way. My job description is simple: I lead people and manage situations. I leave the managing to those with the skills to do so effectively. 

3. Create a roadmap, be ready to change it at a moment’s notice, and embrace unforeseen opportunities – The current global pandemic has been a bitter lesson in learning that even the best laid plans can go awry in a moment’s notice. We’ve experienced numerous disruptive situations over our 10 years in business. Rather than trying to fight the change, we have looked for ways to adjust accordingly and have learned that, in the end, everything will be okay. Realistic optimism has helped us navigate turbulent waters and identify new opportunities at every turn.

2. Own your mistakes and say you’re sorry – We all make mistakes and over the past 10 years, we’ve made quite a few. Many of them are of my making. Some of them are mistakes my team has made.   Whosever they are, I personally always own the mistakes, apologize and make amends wherever possible. My team knows this and knows that, even in severe situations, I always have their backs and I will do whatever I can to own and correct our errors. It’s a level of trust my team and my clients can count on.

1. My employees matter more than my clients – I’m sorry but it’s true. There is no client, no project, no revenue stream more important than the incredibly talented people who honor me by working for me. Their happiness, safety and security matter more to me than any client or project. They reward me for this dedication by doing what they do, with me and for our clients, every day. There is nothing more important to me than them. 

The one thing is certain, I still have so much to learn. My journey as a leader and business owner is in no way complete. That said, if I measure my success by the people I get to work with, my team, our clients, our partners, I can say I’ve been incredibly successful and plan to build on that success for many years to come! 

By Claudia St. John, SPHR, SHRM-SCP, President – Affinity HR Group, Inc.

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