Kronos CEO Aron Ain on attracting top talent and creating a desired work culture

Kronos CEO Aron Ain is so passionate about creating an inspired workplace that he literally wrote a book on it, and he also has worked to influence the culture at Kronos Incorporated for the past 40 years. Kronos provides workforce management and human capital management solutions, and Ain aims to provide his employees with inspiration and top work culture. Ladders spoke with Ain on the special culture at Kronos and how to attract top talent to an organization.

Is there a lesson you’ve learned that helps you make decisions each day as a CEO?

“There are so many lessons that I’ve learned after all these years being a CEO. I think the biggest one is recognizing that the world doesn’t revolve around me in terms of making good decisions…the world revolves around us. So what I try to do, what I’ve learned, is that we make better decisions when we have diverse points of view around the table.

Diversity comes in the form of the people who sit around the table and their own backgrounds, and diversity comes in the form of views and perspectives. So, what I’ve learned is to listen really carefully to other points of view, and quite frankly, to encourage other points of views. Let people sit around the table who are disagreeing with the group or where the group is going, and encourage them to be irritating in a good way. When we do this, we make better decisions.

That’s just one example. What happens is, as a CEO you get too much credit for when things go well, and I guess you get too much blame when things don’t go well, but neither is really accurate. But when you get too much credit, I think some CEOs think they’re too important. So, I try to always remember that it’s not about me, that it’s about us.”

I’m sure that reflects itself in the company culture. Can you tell us more about the culture at Kronos? What’s special about it?

“We focus on our culture every day. It represents who we are and how we do what we do, and how we treat each other and how we support each other, and how we care about each other. So, our culture is dominated by characteristics such as collaboration and open communication and transparency.

Perhaps, most importantly, it’s characterized by trust. I believe trust is the magic glue that holds relationships together, and so super duper important for us, that we trust each other. When we trust each other, we liberate people, we liberate managers, we liberate individual employees. It’s core to our culture in that way.

Our culture also reflects that we want to accept these different points of view. And as importantly, how we do what we do is as important as what we do. What I mean by that is, in many organizations, people are rewarded and the culture reflects the what. Did you make your quota? Is your utilization good? How many articles did you get published in a short period of time?

For us, right next to that is how you did it. So did you exhibit these characteristics that reflect our culture around communication, collaboration, trust, and transparency? So, we’re deeply focused in that, right down to how we hold people accountable, how they’re rewarded financially, how they’re rewarded with promotions. That how and that what go very closely together, which I think is, I’m told, kind of unusual. So, as a result, it makes us special in that way, where a 200% performer on the what, who gets a zero on the how will be judged as average.”

You mentioned that you focus on culture every day. Can you give us some examples of how you do that?

“So first of all, we talk about it every day. We exhibit it in our everyday behaviors. So for me, when I’m walking through the halls of Kronos, my cell phone’s in my pocket and I’m looking with my head up. I’m communicating with people and asking them how they’re doing and what’s going on and how is their job going?

Our culture is reflected in the fact, for example, we have an open vacation policy, where people can take as much time off as they want. Why is that reflective of our culture? Because you can’t do that unless you trust each other.

So I care more about what people do than where they do it. We trust them to get their work done. So it differentiates us competitively in terms of recruiting great people and retaining great people. So that’s how our culture helps us produce better products and deliver better service, what great people can do better than average people can do. So those are just some examples, but I can give you many others.”

Kronos has a large remote workforce. Why do you think that’s important to have that today?

“We do it because, first of all, we have a lot of people who are customer-facing and they don’t need to be in the office. Number two, it helps us recruit those people and retain those people from that perspective.

It allows people to be closer to their customers. It also allows us to widen our recruiting profile. So, if we find someone who lives in a place that’s not where one of our offices is, but they’re super fantastic, then we’ll hire them.

We also do it around the whole work-life balance, and so we started it with working moms. I think the hardest job in the workplace is working moms, personally. So, we try really hard for our employees who are women who have children, to encourage them to stay with us, and don’t give up on us, and allow them to work from home and work part-time so that they’ll stay with us and get their work done. Now that’s extended to other people in the company as well.

It also is a reflection of work-life balance. We tell people that if the most important thing in their life is working at Kronos, they have their priorities mixed up. The most important thing in their life should be their families. So, working from home is an example and an extension of that.

By the way, our open vacation policy, the big deal about it has not been that people take lots more full days off. They leave at three o’clock to go to a child’s sporting event or take an elderly parent to the doctor or go to the dentist themselves or go home because the dog walker didn’t show up or whatever it is. It liberates them to live their life while they’re still working hard on behalf of Kronos and our customers. I think that differentiates us, quite frankly.

Sounds great, doesn’t it?”

It really does. Now, I’d love to get some insight on your management philosophy and how it became such an important subject for you.

“I’ve always believed that great organizations are powered by great people, that great people produce better products, deliver better services. If you produce better products, deliver better services, you’ll have better outcomes. So, that’s really pretty simple for me.

So it’s become so important to me and us because it goes to our ability to be successful. I tell people that if you don’t want to have this problem, in terms of retaining great people, then hire average people. Average people have less choices. But we want to hire great people, so that means we have to have a fully-engaged environment, where people want to be here. Because great people will do what great people can do…they’ll leave. They’ll go get other jobs.

So we’re deeply focused on creating this engaging environment towards this whole area of being more effective, and so it’s core to my management philosophy. It became important to me because I saw the value of it. I saw how it helps us recruit and retain these great people.”

Is a performance review system a part of that? And do you have advice for a leader trying to instate or improve theirs?

“So there are multiple dimensions to that question. Let me try to answer the first one this way…I talked about the what and the how. So at Kronos, our performance review system is formal, and instead of 100% of your performance review based on what you did, 60% is on what you did and 40% is on how you did it.

We have defined characteristics of what answers the question about performance on the how, and it’s around some of those pillars of communication and trust, et cetera. So, that’s for all employees.

In addition, for our managers…we have about 800 people managers. Those people managers are rated by their team members twice a year, on how effective they are as a manager. So in other words, most organizations you’re rated and evaluated by the person you work for, whether you’re an individual contributor or a manager. At Kronos, the managers certainly are evaluated based on who they work for, but they’re equally evaluated by the people who work for them.

And every manager of Kronos has an MEI. A Manager Effectiveness Index, a rating of their effectiveness as defined by the people who work for them. You’ll keep your job as a manager or not, in one dimension, based on how effective you are in the eyes of the people who work for you.

Now, why is that important? We believe that people join organizations because of the organization, but they leave because of who they work for. So, we’re trying to solve for that problem.”

You once said in an interview that what comes first in making a business successful is great people. Do you have hiring practices that focus on finding great people?

“Yeah, it’s a really good question. Great people have choices and so, we’ve won all these awards as a great place to work multiple years in a row. Glassdoor, Top 100 Best Places to Work, Fortune Magazine, Best Places To Work Top 100. In all the countries we do business, as rated by the Great Places to Work organization, we’ve won recognition as a great place to work.

Now, we do this on one dimension, because gee whiz, it makes us feel good. I’m not going to fib about that. It makes me feel good. But the real reason we do this is because it allows us to send a message to potential people who may want to join our company, that this is a place they want to be.

Because think about yourself. When you want to go to a new restaurant someplace near your house. You haven’t been to that area. How do you decide what restaurant to go to? That’s a question for you.”

I usually look at Yelp.

“Okay, Yelp. And you see the 11 top places on Yelp. Do you go say to yourself, ‘You know what? Number 11, they probably don’t get much business because of this rating. I think I’ll go there?’ No, nobody does that.

That’s what people are doing now with jobs. They’re going on places like Glassdoor and Fortune and Forbes and Great Places to Work. They’re going on places like Ladders to see what it means to be a great place to work. As a result of that, they’re making decisions who they want to consider working for. So winning these awards is really important, and this recognition, to help us get people to give us a chance to think about coming to work here.

Now obviously once they’re here we have to keep them fully engaged, but that’s an example of hiring practice. Now, not just a hiring practice. The way we first started and decided to go to our open vacation policy, it was meant to differentiate ourselves in competitively recruiting great people. So, that’s a hiring practice.

I never believe all the things I’m told, but I’m told that only 5% of organizations in the U.S. offer open vacation policies as we do. So, let’s assume that that’s accurate. Certainly, it’s a small percentage of organizations. That helps differentiate us from a recruiting profile perspective.”

So you don’t always have to go find them. A lot of the time, the great people find you.

“That’s right. I tell stories that, when I come into work, when I’m not traveling and I’m in the lobby, I can always tell the people in the lobby who are here for interviews because they’re overdressed and they’re looking really nervous.

So, I’ll go up to them and I’ll say, ‘Oh, is someone helping you?’ I know someone’s helping them. They have no idea who I am, by the way. They’ll say, ‘Yes.’ I go, ‘Oh, what are you here for?’ And they’ll tell me, ‘Oh, I’m here for an interview.’ I go, ‘Oh really? What kind of job?’ They’ll tell me PR, HR, finance, marketing, support, cloud ops, could be anything.

And I say, ‘Oh, where do you work now?,’ and they tell me. And I say, ‘Well, I’m curious. Why are you interested in Kronos?’ And they say to me, ‘Because it’s a great place to work.’ I say, ‘How do you know that? You’ve never worked here.’ They say, ‘Because I read about it in The Boston Globe. I read about it on Glassdoor. I saw it on Great Places to Work.’

So it really differentiates us. And once we started getting serious about this, 2011 or ’12, the number of applicants onto our career webpage has gone from like 20,000 to 100,000 people applying online.”

You’ve been at Kronos for your entire career. What inspired that kind of loyalty? Do you have advice for moving up the ladder?

“I never thought I’d move up to the CEO position. It wasn’t on my bucket list. I’ve been the CEO since 2005, so a long time. I’ve stayed here because I’ve always liked working here. It’s always been challenging.

I’m not a founder of Kronos. When I joined here, it’s so long ago, maybe there were 10 people here. I don’t remember counting, but there wasn’t a lot. It’s always been intellectually interesting and challenging, and I like leading people and creating better outcomes. So, it’s always, at the end of the day, been really interesting for me. I’ve had no reason to consider going somewhere else. And like lots of people, I’ve gotten many calls over the years, but I’ve never actually gone on an interview anywhere, just because it’s been enjoyable here and fun here and rewarding here.

I don’t think that most people want to switch jobs on a regular basis. Somebody told me a few years ago, I don’t know if it’s still accurate, that the average 34-year-old has had seven jobs by the time they’re 34 years old. I don’t know if that’s still accurate, maybe, but certainly more than one.

Having said that, I don’t believe that most people want to switch jobs all the time. I think if people find a great place to work and it meets their personal and professional needs, they’ll stay. So, if you walk around the halls at Kronos, people have been here 10 years, 12 years, 15 years, 20 years, 25 years, 30 years. It’s not unusual. I think we’ve created an environment, like for me, where people want to do well and stay.”

Do you have advice for moving up the ladder at a company?

“I tell people that they should go to work at something that they love doing. Gosh, why should you spend your time working in an area or performing a task that you don’t want to do? That’s silly. Don’t do that. Go work at something that you enjoy doing. And if you don’t enjoy doing it, then go do something else.

We shouldn’t be slaves to our job. Our job should bring us joy, and be interesting and stimulating, and work with people who we want to work with, and all those things. So that’s how I think about it.”

What advice would you give to someone interviewing at Kronos?

“To learn about the company and think about what you want to do, and then go for it. I think we’re a great company, and we’d love people to consider having Kronos be a spot for them. We have over 300 open positions today, around the world. And we’re going to hire 1,500 people this year….mainly knowledge workers, not all, but mainly.

I think it’s a great place to be and it’s a great place to build a career, and people should come here because they want something that’s lasting and could be meaningful for them.

I always tell people, ‘When you go to interviews, be honest and be yourself. Don’t try to be someone who you’re not.'”