Photo: Kris Kathmann
In her New Ulm-based consulting business, ex-Taylor Corporation executive very passionate about helping Upper Midwest business owners and managers look at performance through employee eyes.
What if employees looked forward more enthusiastically to the start of the workweek than to weekends? What if “TGI Monday” became a national slogan? What if all workers looked forward to working 80,000 hours during their lifetime? If so, Sara Christiansen, founder and vice president of New Ulm-based Ideation Consulting, might have to develop a new career. Her goal is to provide seminars and individual consultations that change the belief system of employers from a rigid process-focused approach to a new core of beliefs Christiansen describes as “people-centric.”
“People-centric focus looks at how to start strategic planning with the employee perspective in mind,” Christiansen said. “You look at how the human brain works, the physiological, the psychological, and the emotional side of employment. When the people-centric employer provides workers with a sense of security, acceptance and accomplishment, this results in improved productivity, talent retention, customer loyalty and workplace safety.”
Christiansen is continually amazed when some employers spend months researching an equipment purchase, but only a half hour in an employee interview. “They take much care to ensure the full understanding of the functionality, capacity and ROI of most large purchases,” she said. “When it comes to acquiring employees, who do not come with complex user manuals, minimal efforts are made to understand the motivators, intrinsic talents, and aspirations of the company’s greatest asset—their people.”
Christiansen looks back on the last 60 years of corporate culture to explain her philosophy. “In our post-World War II era, we had an industrial economy, with an authority-driven culture,” she said. “Many companies developed a top-down perspective in which the employee’s perspectives were routinely ignored. Then, in the ‘60s, we began to learn about employer compliance through things like equal opportunity. Most employers quickly realized that being sued was becoming a major threat to their sustainability. In order to effect much-needed change, many organizations enacted policies, protocols and codes of conduct that limited their liability and created a compliance-driven work culture.”
She continued: “With the economic crash of 2008, the focus quickly shifted from a concern for compliance to a justified fear of lost revenue and market share. The current results-driven work culture demands that organizations change their strategic planning and decision-making processes. In order to grow and thrive in these rapidly changing times, business leaders must look at the work environment in a way that they never have before.”
Christiansen believes the era of people-centric employment is dawning. “Thousands of talented people in senior positions in their companies lost their jobs over the past several years and weren’t willing to wait for the economic turnaround,” she explained. “They created their own jobs and won’t go back to the old culture. Soon, when we’re back in a talent war, more senior and front-line workers will be needed, so we will need to have made the culture change. It’s my opinion that our concept of how work gets done must change if we’re to continue to be successful.
“The people-centric model is based on a pyramid of three elements that motivate employee performance,” she said. “The base is security. It’s about the situation and how much an employee can trust the employer. Next is acceptance by peers and managers, which is about relationships. At the top is accomplishment, an emotional connection to the work and its purpose. I teach companies how to thrive in a results-driven culture by looking at performance through their employees’ eyes, by looking at performance before looking at production or compliance.”
Christiansen had her dream job long before beginning a human resources career. As a teen, she worked for Baskin Robbins in her hometown of Ankeny, Iowa. She explained, “My sister and my friends worked there (acceptance), I had a great boss (security), I made customers happy serving ice cream (accomplishment), and I’m kind of partial to ice cream myself (extra perk).” While a student at Northwest Missouri State University, she tutored fellow students and returned to Baskin Robbins every summer.
After earning a BS degree in social science in 1990 from NWMSU, Christiansen settled in Minneapolis and began gaining real-life insight into employee relations. Her resume, which reads like a fast track to her current business endeavor, does not list her first human resources position. She explained, “It taught me what a toxic work environment is. I was miserable and I was a rotten performer for that reason, but I started learning about human resources. It saddens my heart when people are miserable at work. That’s what drives me, because I’ve been there. It’s a myth that your work and personal life are separate. I’ve recently joined some social media sites, and I’m constantly reading posts from my friends who dread going back to work on Monday.
“Many recent studies have linked job dissatisfaction to diabetes, chemical abuse, divorce, depression, anxiety disorders, obesity and early death,” she said. “Every human is completely different, and if we value that, the workplace will look completely different. Even people doing the same job have different motivations. It’s the manager’s job to find out what the motivation is.”
Christiansen’s next position was as a transition specialist with the federally funded Minnesota Milestones Project at the Minneapolis non-profit Rise, Inc. She worked with students and employers to develop a comprehensive career plan for students enrolled in the program, helping people with disabilities get jobs.
“That’s where I learned what a positive work environment looks like,” Christiansen said. “I still network with the vice president of the organization, Don Lavin, and with my former boss, Jon Alexander, now CEO of another social service agency.”
When federal grant funding for the Milestones Project ran out, Christiansen accepted the position of human resource administrator and recruiter for the Young America Corporation and moved to New Ulm. She learned about the community while visiting friends she had met on vacation, was smitten with New Ulm, and decided to make it her home.
“Everyone here talks about tubing down the river, so a year after I moved here I went tubing down the Cottonwood River with a group of people,” she said. “I met my husband, Todd, a New Ulm native, when our tubes were tied together, and we married in 2003. There’s something about a community of 15,000 that you don’t find in the metro area. It’s easier to establish relationships because the business community is very open and friendly. I see clients and colleagues at church picnics.”
Christiansen began work for Interim Personnel (now Spherion) at Young America Corp’s Mankato office, then spent many years driving to the corporate office in Norwood-Young America. The position furthered her experience with a positive work environment model.
“Within the first month of employment I was sent for a week to attend seminars and workshops, with all expenses paid,” Christiansen said. “Every full-time employee was sent to this training, a substantial investment. We received the message that we were valuable members of the team.”
That message is why Christiansen believes no company should have a probationary period for new employees. She explained, “A probationary period has no positive gain and sends the message that a percentage of new hires are expected to fail and that increases failure. The people who stay learn a lack of trust. If you get rid of the probationary period, employees have a higher likelihood of success. Don’t wait to see if people will perform; help them perform.”
Despite Christiansen’s satisfaction with Young America Corp., she said, “Eventually the long drives in winter got to me. There were some days when I should not have been driving in a storm, but I was.” She left that job, but continued to work in human resources, first for Christensen Family Farms of Sleepy Eye, then in Mankato for Pioneer Snacks, Inc. and later, for Taylor Corporation.
“My work at Taylor Corporation as the senior human resource manager most prepared me for what I do now because it allowed me to explore my skills,” Christiansen said. “It gave me opportunities for which I probably wasn’t totally qualified, so I stretched. One of the things I did was to develop leadership training for their senior personnel. Many friends at Taylor Corporation encouraged and supported me, which enabled me to grow and learn in my role.”
In early 2008, Christiansen put her 17 years of human resource experience into founding Ideation Consulting, having a friend as a silent partner. “I took a leap of faith and owe worlds of gratitude to my husband for taking the leap with me,” Christiansen said. The plan is to grow the business, and anyone who shares the passion is welcome to join. I often miss working with a team or corporate professionals, but I find that I develop strong relationships with my clients, almost friendships. My clients include about 30 companies, primarily manufacturing, some health care and renewable energy. Being with clients fuels me, but I don’t get the opportunity every day.”
Three years ago, the Christiansens converted their living room into an office and library for the business and built a second floor onto the house, courtesy of storm damage. She explained, “Todd’s parents allowed us to live with them for nine months. I’m extremely close with them, and without them I could not do what I do. I schedule my work in coordination with my life. I love the flexibility. The only regular schedule I have is when I attend meetings or have a conference with a client. There are days I work until 4 a.m. because I want to spend the day with my children, go to their swimming lessons or go to my son Brady’s T-ball game.”
Ideation Consulting held its first major event in September 2008, a conference for Strategic Human Resources in the Twin Cities. Christiansen hosted the event and presented her people-centric model alongside world-renowned management expert Marcus Buckingham. She said, “When people have asked me who I would most want to meet, I have always responded, ‘John Denver, Marcus Buckingham and Bono.’” Describing Buckingham (see sidebar) as “a gracious genius,” she relished the opportunity to spend time with him before the conference.
At the second annual conference in the Twin Cities, 70 participants heard another of Christiansen’s business gurus speak. Charles S. Jacobs, who uses the lessons of cognitive neuroscience to improve business performance, believes that our emotions lead to better business decisions than our logic does (see sidebar). Christiansen’s conference presentation was “Value-added HR: The Pathway to Sustained Credibility.”
The next conference, “Results-Driven Leadership: A New Approach,” will be offered this September in Minneapolis, Sioux Falls, and Des Moines. It will include interactive programs and workshops where participants will see Christiansen in action.
“I’m a very energetic trainer,” Christiansen said. “Coaches have told me to videotape myself, to see what I’m doing well, and what could be improved. But when I train, I’m really passionate and animated. I know that’s what makes me good, so I don’t want to feel self-conscious about it by seeing it on a video. I have an outline I follow, but not a script. When the audience takes over, I let the conversation go. That’s when the good stuff comes out.”
Christiansen shared a couple of success stories. There’s the manager who had been taught to be a hard-nosed follower of all rules and policies—until he took Christiansen’s class.
“He learned a new way of thinking, to focus on people’s strengths” she said. “In later individual coaching sessions, he explained that the sessions helped him not only be a better manager, but also a better husband and father. When we focus on ‘fixing weaknesses,’ we create negative physical reactions in people. Now he focuses on what people are naturally good at, and that has a positive impact on employees and on family.
She went on. “At another training session, a woman came up to me to say she already had her resignation letter written and ready to give to her boss. She and I met later for lunch and I coached her on how to approach her manager to discuss her frustrations. Later, she told me he had responded well to her approach. Since then she has been promoted several times and still is with the company. That’s why I do this job.”
Because her work is project-based, Christiansen has no typical day. Work on a client’s project may include creating a PowerPoint presentation, writing a training manual or marketing plan, planning and scheduling events or writing a grant proposal.
“I like the challenge and the thrill of being innovative to write a grant that gets attention,” she said. “I enjoy the process of selling the idea and getting collaboration among several grant seekers. Right now, single entities are not getting grants. I’m a social scientist at heart, thinking about people in groups. My business model is about collaboration—companies together, teams together, economies of scale. I provide the services. I really enjoy bringing groups together to achieve their shared goals and save money.” That is why she serves as executive director and grant writer for the Southern Minnesota Association of Food and Ethanol Employers and its spin-off group, the Minnesota Rural Employers Network. She’s also developing a TGI Monday Project, with job satisfaction and sense of purpose as the goals.
“The culture in Minnesota is about the time you put into work, not the energy,” Christiansen said. “I want to change the workplace to a place where people want to go, not where they have to go. Then I want to track the effects on employees’ health, family harmony and job performance. I want to see health payoffs and profit payoffs.”
- Executive director, Southern Minnesota Association of Food and Ethanol Employers
- Executive director, Minnesota Rural Employers Network Board of Directors
- Parents in Partnership, former member
- Twin Cities Human Resource Assn.
- “HR Talks” coordinator.
Sara Christiansen’s home library reads like a “Who’s Who” of business and organizational development experts. Three creative business thinkers head the list.
- Marcus Buckingham, a British motivational speaker and author, helped develop the strengths-based approach to management and the Strengths Finder assessment tool. He pioneered the concept that a job should be tailored to fit the person rather than the reverse. Among his six book titles are Now, Discover Your Strengths and First, Break All the Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently.
- Charles S. Jacobs, believing our emotions lead to better business decisions than our logic, uses the lessons of cognitive neuroscience to improve business performance. He wrote Management Rewired: Why Feedback Doesn’t Work and Other Surprising Lessons from the Latest Brain Science.
- Patrick Lencioni is author of several books, including Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Three Signs of a Miserable Job and Death by Meeting.
Nothing But Sara
- Childhood family: I’m the younger of two daughters.
- Favorite school subject: Chorus—all four years of high school, singing solos, being in the spotlight and enjoying the camaraderie of the group. I also liked basic sociology because it was about people.
- Least favorite subject: Math, it’s too exact. There’s a right answer or a wrong answer, and you can’t debate it.
- Education and professional development: BS in Social Science. I’d really like to get a masters degree in psych, not for the title, for the knowledge. Right now I’m reading a lot about brain science.
- Your family: My husband, Todd, works in production at Kraft Foods in New Ulm. His hobby is computers, which helps me immensely. Our sons are Brady, five, and Jase, three. They’re a huge part of my life, exhausting because I’m older, but so amusing.
- Recreation: I enjoy making jigsaw puzzles, which is weird, because if it doesn’t fit, it doesn’t fit, but it’s definitely a change of pace. I like to read business and biographies. I also like to entertain. Our friends know if the Vikings are playing. They’re welcome to come over for a party.
- Most valued intangible: Opportunity. I find that no matter what happens in my life, there’s an opportunity around the corner.
- Three words that describe you: Passionate, driven, and perceived as being opinionated—and not always in a good way. That comes from the passion.
- Alternate career path: I would buy a Baskin Robbins franchise and hire my sister to come and work with me.