Aron Ain rose through the ranks at Kronos, playing a role in nearly every department before becoming CEO. He recently oversaw a merger and now leads 12,000 employees throughout the globe, and 3x revenue growth. We asked Aron about the relationship between good leadership, engaged employees, and business results. In his experience they are inextricably linked.
Shamaym: In the midst of a crisis you placed your people first. Many other businesses didn’t react this way. What role did your company culture and values play in that decision?
Aron Ain: We’ve always put people first. It was hard to watch how scared people were in April and May, and I felt a need to respond. But my values didn’t start then. The foundation of my values allowed me to pivot quickly, to wrap my arms around the people I work with and tell them “we’re going to protect each other”. It’s never been more important for someone in my role to step forward and provide leadership, comfort, and safety for people.
Shamaym: Before COVID, when you would visit UKG’s offices abroad, you would personally greet every single employee. How do you maintain that level of engagement when everyone is working from home?
AA: Communicating with the people you work with on a regular basis is one of the most important things you need to do to create an engaged environment. As the CEO of a large company, it is easy for me to lose the perspective that, just as I have my job because the organization needs me, the rest of my employees have their jobs because the company needs them. I counter that by talking to people directly and personally. I want people to know that I am grateful for what they do. That I notice them, that they are important, and that I am interested in their perspective, feedback, and input.
The reality of COVID-19 makes communication, but also transparency, honesty, and truth, more important than ever. We have to be more patient and understand that different people have different pressures at home, and that impacts what we ask of our employees. I’ve always been focused on caring more about what my employees do than where or when they do it. That approach is entirely results-oriented, but some people say the results need to happen between 8AM and 5PM in the office. We have a performance based culture where people keep or lose their roles based on how they perform. But the framework within which they perform does not need to be so rigid.
Shamaym: One of the main factors that keeps employees at a job is their manager. What would you suggest managers do to keep their employees engaged?
AA: People join organizations because of the organizations, but they leave because of the people they work for. A good manager can take a good team and make it remarkable. A bad manager can take a great team and ruin it in no time. The impact that managers have on teams and, in turn, teams on organizations and business outcomes, is critical. From my point of view, it is a privilege and an honor to lead people.
At UKG we over-communicate with our leaders to ensure they have the tools to be great managers. All 2,000 of our managers are reviewed by the people who work for them, and are held accountable for their scores. Our manager training program is called “Courage to Lead”—where the key word is “courage”. We tell people that it’s hard to be a great manager, and that if they accept the privilege of leading people, they need to do it well.
Shamaym: What are you and other leaders in the company doing today to make sure people are actively trying to improve?
AA: We operate on a performance-based system, so we all have set goals and objectives. Yes, we are working from home, and yes, we are emphasizing employee well-being and self care. We also still need to get products out on time, close our financial books regularly, make sure our IT systems work, and keep our customers happy. To do that, each area of the business has clear deliverables to get done—no excuses. When the pandemic started we told ourselves we’re not giving up, and we made our numbers for the year. We said to the team: “don’t tell me you can’t do it, tell me what you need to do it.”
Shamaym: Do you see a tension between driving employees to reach better results, on one hand, and making sure they stay happy and satisfied on the other?
AA: For me there’s no tension at all. I don’t see how you get great results without engaged people. Great people produce better products and deliver better service. The problem with focusing on great people is that your company environment must also be great, or they will leave. Why? Because they’re great and they have choices. But hiring great people comes with a responsibility to make sure you provide them with the foundation to do great work. Engagement is the base of the pyramid from which you get results.