Of all employees, managers have faced some of the most significant changes, and their engagement levels paint a sobering picture. Photo via Getty Images

Middle managers are in a precarious position in today’s workplace as they are caught in the crossfire of conflicting demands from leadership and their teams, also known as the “manager squeeze.”

Of all employees, managers have faced some of the most significant changes, and their engagement levels paint a sobering picture. With only 31 percent of managers engaged, 55 percent looking for new jobs and barely one in five stating their organization cares about their wellbeing (Gallup), employers need to look more closely at their management teams and take action.

A strategic approach and effective communication can help mitigate the manager squeeze and provide a more pleasant work environment.

Provide clear expectations

Even though managers need to meet the expectations of their own supervisors, they should also set clear expectations. By proactively establishing clear and realistic expectations with leadership and their own team members, managers can ensure everyone is aligned from the start so there are not conflicting demands. Expectations can include setting achievable goals, agreeing to schedules and timelines, and communicating any potential changes that may occur.

Set priorities

Managers tend to juggle their most productive hours with people management responsibilities. Knowing the importance of people management, managers should prioritize their own tasks and delegate as appropriate. The act of delegation can lighten the manager’s workload and also empower team members to take on and learn new skills that contribute to the project’s success.

Encourage open communication

Open, transparent communication is a benchmark for many organizations. Encouraging managers to keep communication channels open, going both up and down, is imperative. Managers who can express concerns or challenges, and their team members who can do the same, allow teams to more quickly identify potential challenges and allay misunderstandings.

Offer learning and development opportunities

Not everyone is an innate manager and those who do it well put effort into it. Learning and development (L&D) opportunities are crucial for this group as they need to stay up to date with industry trends, but also it offers time for them to fine tune their leadership techniques and communication skills. Investing in L&D provides valuable returns in the form of a revived manager base, a more engaged workforce and increased productivity overall.

Create a network

Support is an important tool to avoid the manager squeeze. Superiors or mentors can provide guidance when there are issues or conflicting demands, while peer groups can help provide valuable insights into managerial styles and offer constructive feedback. In all situations, creating a network of leaders to lean on and trust can become a crucial element for manager success.

The manager squeeze is bound to happen when there are conflicting priorities. However, when a workplace establishes a culture based on open communication, managers can address the challenges early. Keeping the channels of communication open from top to bottom allows all parties to set expectations, collaborate and provide solutions. When managers are given the leeway to communicate freely and are given the instruction and tools to do so effectively, it lessens burnout, the manager squeeze and establishes a more positive work environment for all.

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Jill Chapman is a director of early talent programs with Insperity, a leading provider of human resources and business performance solutions.

Put in the effort to create a strong people culture from the start — it can make all the difference for your company. Photo by Tom Werner/Getty Images

Houston expert: How to build a strong people culture from day one

guest column

Entrepreneurs are driven and tenacious when building a business. However, the laser focus on making a business profitable, from logistics to taxes and everything in between, can sometimes cause one important element to be missed, the people.

The best business plans cannot work without people to implement the details. When a strong people culture is established from the very beginning, the employees who help build the company from the ground up, stay engaged and can become an integral part of the company’s success for years to come.

Below are a few items to help entrepreneurs concentrate on their most precious asset, their people, pinpoint their motivations and learn how employees can enjoy what they do every day, which can take any business to the next level.

Share values

The onus falls on the business leaders within a startup to create a work environment that encourages employees to succeed and enjoy their career. Nurturing a culture rooted in a shared mission and values allows the company to easily build a desirable workplace where employees are eager to return.

When communicating a company’s values, they are more influential when they are lived by leadership. For example, if curiosity is a key value, leadership should encourage teams to ask questions and not be afraid to try to speak up when there may be a more effective path for the business.

It is also important for business owners to look for candidates to fill roles in the growing business who embody their key values. This may mean looking beyond the job description for like-minded people who align with the values and who then bring a positive outlook to the position, are more apt to collaborate and are fully engaged.

Offer unique benefits

Small businesses have the upper hand when it comes to unique benefits because they are a much nimbler organization. When an organization intentionally creates a people-first environment, there is near immediate access to leadership, rapid advancement opportunities are more plentiful and the impact employees at every level can have on the organization is monumental. This is an exciting prospect for so many who share an entrepreneur’s vision.

There are also the traditional benefits that are essential to a strong people culture. This may seem like a daunting prospect, but it can be simple to provide employees, while also competing with large-company benefits, with the help of a professional employer organization. What will strengthen a people culture’s foundation is offering the traditional benefits along with the benefits many enjoyed during the pandemic, which may have been cut by other organizations, such as mental health programs, expanded sick-leave, financial wellness programs, care benefits and others.

When deciding what benefits to offer, it is important to ask employees what benefits mean the most to them. Every benefit may not be feasible, but employees having a say in their benefits further strengthens the people culture.

Communicate

It sounds simple but establishing a culture with transparent communication, within reason, is conducive to a strong people culture. However, for many entrepreneurs, communicating without a plan often leads to not communicating at all.

Set the stage for clear, consistent communication from the very beginning. For example, establishing a standing meeting, whether it is once per week or every morning, allows leadership to share updates, make announcements and point out team wins. For employees, it is an open forum to ask questions. Also setting the standard to talk to employees before making any major policy changes builds trust in the organization, even if the policy change may not be the most desirable for everyone. By surveying staff before a policy change, leadership can clearly communicate the reasoning and have a fully prepared team before implementation.

In a growing business, it is easy to put your head down and grind forward, but engaged employees are essential to making an entrepreneur’s dream come to fruition. Putting in the effort to create a strong people culture from the start will help ensure you have employees who want to be a part of the organization and contribute to its success.

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Jill Chapman is a director of early talent programs with Insperity, a leading provider of human resources and business performance solutions.
Without trust, workplace productivity, reciprocity and cooperation break down, according to this Rice University research. Pexels

Rice University research shows the importance of coworker and leadership trust within businesses

Houston Voices

While U.S. soldiers battled in Vietnam, inside the White House, President Lyndon Johnson grew increasingly suspicious of those closest to him. The legendary political dealmaker now believed that any opposition to the war was part of a conspiracy against him; aides who questioned his policy might be part of it. According to research using newly available interviews and telephone transcripts, Johnson's distrust may have been triggered by the very experience of being in power.

But how, exactly? In a recent paper, Rice Business professor Marlon Mooijman and a team of colleagues delve deeply into the interaction of power and trust, seeking answers about when and why wielding power degrades leaders' belief in those around them.

The question has deep implications not only in politics, but also in business. "Managers must trust employees' willingness to comply with instructions and keep the company's best interest in mind," Mooijman notes. Without that trust, past research shows, workplace productivity, reciprocity and cooperation break down. Leaders who successfully craft trusting bonds with their coworkers and employees, on the other hand, are more effective than those who don't.

To learn why leaders might abandon that trust, Mooijman's team set up four studies. First, though, they had to establish a working definition of trust. Trust, they proposed, is the willingness to be vulnerable to another party's actions, based on the expectation that the other party will perform a specific action important to the truster — even without the truster's ability to monitor or control the activity. Essential to a trusting relationship: the expectation of the other party's goodwill, and the willingness to expose themselves to possible exploitation if that goodwill fails.

Whether you work in an indie coffee shop or a giant software company, most workers can name a leader who lacks that kind of trust. Many also have had the good luck of a leader who isn't lacking in that department. The difference between such managers, Mooijman's team found, may be the stability of their power.

There are plenty of reasons for wanting to keep power, obviously. In relationships, power holders are able to disregard others' wishes and pursue their own. Within the individual, power boosts self-esteem and encourages behaviors such as expressing amusement and happiness. Less obvious, however, is the effect of fearing a loss of power. Leaders whose power feels unstable experience this physically, with changes in heart rate and blood pressure. They have a heightened awareness of colleagues they perceive as threats, and are more prone to divide coworkers and disrupt their alliances.

When power holders or leaders perceive their power to be unstable, it's that prospect of power loss that erodes their trust in those around them, even helpful and often unsuspecting colleagues. So strong is this effect that it occurs even when the loss of power comes with an economic benefit, Mooijman notes. "Unstable power decreases trust," the team found, "regardless of whether we provided participants with a justification of their unstable position."

To reach their conclusions, Mooijman's team first surveyed 206 participants assembled through Amazon's Mechanical Turk software. Each participant was randomly assigned a power ranking (high or low) and asked to imagine being a VP of sales at a mid-sized firm. Some were told that as part of a productivity initiative they would be reassigned to other divisions. The participants were then asked to rank their perception of their power at their firm and their perception of their job stability there. Regardless of whether their job reassignment was explained or not, the researchers found, the participants who perceived their jobs — that is, their power — to be unstable showed more mistrust of their coworkers.

A final study, a field experiment with real life managers and subordinates, reinforced these findings. Managers in positions of relatively high power who perceived their jobs were unstable were more prone to voice distrust about their subordinates.

While instability is built into political careers, Mooijman's findings have practical implications in other industries. For example, the common practice of moving workers between departments, meant to build insight and productivity, may backfire. Instead of strengthening team spirit, the strategy will likely foment distrust. Similarly, at high levels of power, emphasizing job instability with tactics such as high-stakes, winner-take-all performance metrics might be counterproductive.

Power doesn't always erode trust, the researchers found. Leaders who felt their power was secure didn't show the same level of suspicion as those who felt their roles were insecure. But when power seems fragile, the research revealed, even the most seasoned leaders are prone to abandon trust in their colleagues and see work as a battlefield.

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This story originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom.

Marlon Mooijman is an assistant professor in the management department (organizational behavior division) at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.

Houston-based Sensorfield was selected to participate in a Chevron Technology Ventures program. Courtesy of Sensorfield

Houston biotech company closes $120M Series B, Chevron taps local startup for program, and more innovation news

Short stories

Big things are happening in Houston — from a $120 million close to the U.S. Department of Energy picking a Houston-area company for nuclear energy research. Here are the highlights of Houston innovation news you might have missed.

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Houston immunotherapy company raises $120 million in funding

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AlloVir, a Houston biotech company founded at Baylor's Center for Cell and Gene Therapy, has closed a $120 million Series B round that was led by Fidelity Management and Research Company. Other contributors included Gilead Sciences, F2 Ventures, Redmile Group, Invus, EcoR1 Capital, Samsara BioCapital, and Leerink Partners Co-investment Fund, LLC.

The company is currently in clinical trials for its immunotherapy technology and also announced it is joining the ElevateBio — a Boston-based organization that combines a group of cell and gene therapy companies — portfolio.

"We are excited to now be building AlloVir as an ElevateBio portfolio company," says Ann Leen, AlloVir co-founder, CSO, and Professor of Pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine, in a release. "This partnership provides AlloVir with fully integrated bench-to-bedside capabilities to accelerate the development and commercialization of our allogeneic, off-the-shelf, multi-virus specific T- cell immunotherapies."

Allovir, which until recently was known as ViraCyte, was founded in 2013.

Chevron taps Houston startup for pilot program

Photo courtesy of Sensorfield

Houston-based Sensorfield LLC, which has developed a suite of wireless sensors for industrial monitoring, has announced that it has been selected for Chevron Technology Ventures' Catalyst Program.

"Technology has finally reached the point where embedded solar-powered, plug-and-play industrial wireless sensors are possible at a low cost,'' says Sensorfield founder and CEO, Strode Pennebaker, in a release. "Our exciting new association with Chevron is a major step in our goal to bring cost-effective, high-quality intelligent remote monitoring to asset owners at any scale."

Department of Energy selects a Houston-area company for funding

Courtesy of the DOE

U.S. Department of Energy is awarding $10.6 million for nuclear technology development across three projects in three states — one is in Wadsworth, Texas, about 80 miles outside of Houston.

The company, STP Nuclear Operating Company, will receive $1.18 million in DOE funding, according to a release, to develop and implement advanced fire probabilistic risk assessment — or PRA — modeling techniques.

"These projects are important because they will help the U.S. continue to develop advanced reactors and technologies to support nuclear energy as a safe, zero-emissions baseload energy source," says Carrie Edwards, senior adviser for the Office of Nuclear Energy at the DOE, in an email.

Rice University launches executive education program in The Woodlands

Rice University's Jones Graduate School of Business — in partnership with The Woodlands Area Economic Development Partnership — has created The Leadership Accelerator. It's the first time Rice has brought an open enrollment program to the area.

The program will take place from October 7 to 10 program at the former Chicago Bridge & Iron Co. office buildings in Hughes Landing (2103 Research Forest Drive). Professor Brent Smith will lead the course .

The four-day course will build upon established managers' careers and give them an opportunity to study best practices for creating a more productive organization.

Carnrite Ventures expands to Austin

Courtesy of Nick Carnrite

Houston-based The Carnrite Group's investment arm, Carnrite Ventures, has agreed to invest with Seraph Group. The partnership allows for the Houston VC group to expand its portfolio to Austin, as that's where Seraph's last fund focused on.

"Austin's venture capital funds have moved up-market to series B and C funding rounds, which has created a need for more capital in earlier stages and provides us with an opportunity," says Nick Carnrite, Managing Director of The Carnrite Group and Carnrite Ventures, in a release.

Houston scientifically-designed athleticwear startup launches men's line

Courtesy of Accel Lifestyle

Accel Lifestyle, a Houston-based athletic clothing line made with its patented anti-stink material, has launched its menswear line.

"After three years in the making, I'm beyond thrilled to announce that Accel Lifestyle Men's Collection has launched," says Megan Eddings, founder of Accel. "We are focusing on shirts (t-shirts and tanks), and we are planning to launch the women's collection late next month."

The products are made in America and all ethically sourced — even the product's shipping material, as it has zero plastic involved.

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Houston family's $20M donation drives neurodegeneration research

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Neurodegeneration is one of the cruelest ways to age, but one Houston family is sharing its wealth to invigorate research with the goal of eradicating diseases like Alzheimer’s.

This month, Laurence Belfer announced that his family, led by oil tycoon Robert Belfer, had donated an additional $20 million to the Belfer Neurodegeneration Consortium, a multi-institutional initiative that targets the study and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.

This latest sum brings the family’s donations to BNDC to $53.5 million over a little more than a decade. The Belfer family’s recent donation will be matched by institutional philanthropic efforts, meaning BNDC will actually be $40 million richer.

BNDC was formed in 2012 to help scientists gain stronger awareness of neurodegenerative disease biology and its potential treatments. It incorporates not only The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, but also Baylor College of Medicine, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

It is the BNDC’s lofty objective to develop five new drugs for Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders over the next 10 years, with two treatments to demonstrate clinical efficacy.

“Our goal is ambitious, but having access to the vast clinical trial expertise at MD Anderson ensures our therapeutics can improve the lives of patients everywhere,” BNDC Executive Director Jim Ray says in a press release. “The key elements for success are in place: a powerful research model, a winning collaborative team and a robust translational pipeline, all in the right place at the right time.”

It may seem out of place that this research is happening at MD Anderson, but scientists are delving into the intersection between cancer and neurological disease through the hospital’s Cancer Neuroscience Program.

“Since the consortium was formed, we have made tremendous progress in our understanding of the molecular and genetic basis of neurodegenerative diseases and in translating those findings into effective targeted drugs and diagnostics for patients,” Ray continues. “Yet, we still have more work to do. Alzheimer's disease is already the most expensive disease in the United States. As our population continues to age, addressing quality-of-life issues and other challenges of treating and living with age-associated diseases must become a priority.”

And for the magnanimous Belfer family, it already is.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: Every week, I introduce you to a handful of Houston innovators to know recently making headlines with news of innovative technology, investment activity, and more. This week's batch includes a podcast with the founder of a new venture firm, a former astronaut and recent award recipient, and a health care innovator with fresh funding.

Zach Ellis, founder and managing partner of South Loop Ventures

Zach Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that South Loop Ventures plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale. Photo via LinkedIn

Houston has a lot of the right ingredients for commercialization and scaling up companies, so when Zach Ellis moved to town to stand up a venture capital firm that made investments in diverse founders, he decided to go about it in an innovative way.

South Loop Ventures, which Ellis launched two years ago, invests in pre-seed and seed-stage startups across health care, climatetech, aerospace, sports, and fintech. While the first handful of investments, which have already been made, are into Houston-based companies, Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that the firm plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale.

"Any investor wants to feel like they are looking at the best possible investment opportunities in which to deploy capital," Ellis says on the show. "So that's reason No. 1 to cast your net as widely as possible.

"At the same time, you want to give any investment that you make greatest chances of success," he continues. "The biggest factor of success outside of the team and the capital you give them, is the customers that they can call upon. In bringing targeted companies to Houston or connecting them with Houston, you introduce the opportunity for them to achieve rapid scale and work with world-class partners very efficiently." Read more.


Toby R. Hamilton, founder and CEO of Hamilton Health Box

Dr. Toby Hamilton has secured $10 million to grow his company. Photo via tmc.edu

A Houston company that is working on a value-based model for primary care has fresh funding to support its mission.

Hamilton Health Box announced the completion of a $10 million series A funding round led by 1588 Ventures with participation from Memorial Hermann Health System, Impact Ventures by Johnson & Johnson Foundation, Texas Medical Center Venture Fund, and the Sullivan Brothers.

The company, founded in 2019 by Dr. Toby R. Hamilton, will use the funding to fuel its expansion into rural areas to help assist those living in Health Professional Shortage Areas, or HPSAs. Read more.

Ellen Ochoa, former astronaut and center director at the NASA's Johnson Space Center

Ellen Ochoa was recognized for her leadership at NASA Johnson and for being the first Hispanic woman in space. Photo via NASA

Two astronauts recently received Presidential Medals of Freedom from President Joe Biden for their leadership in space.

Ellen Ochoa, the former center director and astronaut at the NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, and Jane Rigby, senior project scientist for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, were honored at the White House on May 3.

Ochoa spent 30 years with NASA, which included being the 11th director of JSC, deputy center director of JSC, and director of Flight Crew Operations. She served on the nine-day STS-56 mission aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 1993, and became the first Hispanic woman in space. She flew four more times to space with STS-66, STS-96, STS-110, and more.

“I’m so grateful for all my amazing NASA colleagues who shared my career journey with me,” Ochoa says in a NASA news release. Read more.

Houston health care institutions receive $22M to attract top recruits

coming to Hou

Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine has received a total of $12 million in grants from the Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas to attract two prominent researchers.

The two grants, which are $6 million each, are earmarked for recruitment of Thomas Milner and Radek Skoda. The Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) announced the grants May 14.

Milner, an expert in photomedicine for surgery and diagnostics, is a professor of surgery and biomedical engineering at the Beckman Laser Institute & Medical Clinic at the University of California, Irvine and the university’s Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center

In 2013, Milner was named Inventor of the Year by the University of Texas at Austin. At the time, he was a professor of biomedical engineering at UT. One of his major achievements is co-development of the MasSpec Pen, a handheld device that identifies cancerous tissue within 10 seconds during surgical procedures.

Skoda is a professor of molecular medicine in the Department of Biomedicine at the University of Basel and the University Hospital Basel, both in Switzerland. He specializes in developing treatments for myeloproliferative neoplasms, which are a group of blood diseases including leukemia.

Other recruitment grants provided by the institute to Houston-area organizations are:

  • $4 million for recruitment of Susan Bullman to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. She was an assistant professor at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, where she studied the connection between microbes and cancer.
  • $4 million for recruitment of Oren Rom to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. Rom is an assistant professor of pathology and translational pathobiology at Louisiana State University Shreveport.
  • Nearly $2 million for recruitment of Lauren Hagler to conduct RNA cancer biology at Texas A&M University. She is a postdoctoral scholar in biochemistry at Stanford University.

The institute also awarded grants to five companies in the Houston area:

  • $4.7 million to 7 Hills Pharma for development of immunotherapies to treat cancer and prevent infectious diseases.
  • $4.5 million to Indapta Therapeutics for the Phase 1 trial of a cell therapy for treatment of multiple myeloma and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
  • $2.75 million to Bectas Therapeutics for development of antibodies and biomarkers to overcome a type of resistance T-cell checkpoint therapy.
  • $2.69 million to MS Pen Technologies for development of technology that differentiates between normal tissue and cancerous tissue during surgery.
  • $2.58 million to Crossbridge Bio for development of an antibody-drug combination to treat certain solid tumors.