Funeral Business Leadership Series: Part 2 - Leading a Team

This is the second in a series of three blog posts showcasing how small improvements can help you become a business leader in your industry and community. In the first post, we discussed Leading the Business, and in this second post, we will cover how to hire, manage and retain an exceptional team of funeral professionals.

It’s the age-old question: how do you hire top talent and keep them thriving and happy on your team? While we don’t claim to have all the answers to that question, we’ll dive into some tips from a few professionals here at Homesteaders about how to successfully lead a team in the funeral profession. If you want to learn more about hiring and retaining employees, check out these five counter-intuitive strategies.

How to Hire Excellent Employees

It takes diligence and experience to become skilled at hiring the right people, so we’ll share thoughts from some members of Homesteaders’ human resources and training teams who have expertise in this area.

Jayne Thovson, Senior Human Resources Generalist, shared, “I believe the funeral industry attracts people who have the desire to help others, who are empaths.” In addition to searching for empathetic employee candidates, below are some other traits Thovson recommends looking for in a funeral professional candidate:

  • Excellent written and oral communication skills, along with active listening skills.  
  • Customer-oriented with the ability to engage effectively with all types of people in sometimes emotionally charged situations.
  • Exceptional organizational skills with the ability to manage multiple priorities and deadlines with minimal supervision.
  • Ability to maintain a responsive, service-oriented environment designed to enhance relationships.

Wanda Sizemore, Director of Field Training & Development, noticed what draws people to the funeral industry: “On the preneed side of the business, it is not uncommon to find people who have experienced personal loss and when we serve them, they become aware of what a wonderful opportunity it would be to become part of a staff.” Sizemore reflected, “I personally found the profession through personal tragedy. After a significant loss, it was clear my employer wanted me to bounce back and I couldn’t. Performing the functions of my job were difficult and it caused me to be edgy. In the end, I left to find other work and was introduced to the funeral home. At first I was reluctant but when I got the hang of it, I never looked back.”

Finding empathetic candidates, and making sure you are an empathetic leader, is crucial to your team’s success. Sizemore suggested, “It is important to hire a giant. Hire people who can lead the team long after you are gone.”

How to Manage Your Team

Once you’ve hired the right people, your next step is managing your team to elicit the best work possible and encourage group camaraderie. Tonja Clark, VP of Human Resources, is a firm believer in the power of open communication, transparency and collaboration. Creating consistency and trust on a team is how you build a solid foundation for a team, and open communication allows team members to hold difficult conversations with respect and forward-thinking goals.

Clark shared an action item to help build this team foundation: “I like to hold weekly conversations with team members to understand what they are working on and if they need anything from me in order to continue focusing on their goals.” Clark continued, “I do the same each quarter, holding conversations about what they’ve accomplished (or what they’re proud of), what (if any) roadblocks they are facing and asking what they need from me.”

These open conversations help avoid future surprises and frustrations. Clark noted, “Uncommunicated expectations are merely preplanned resentments, therefore it’s important to hold crucial conversations with one another to create and maintain trust, which is vital to a team.”  

Another question you can ask your employee is what kind of recognition they prefer; some like public praise and others are motivated by one-on-one positive feedback. Sizemore mentioned this as part of listening to your employee’s concerns and learning about their work styles or preferences. It’s of course important to treat your employees like you would another person outside your business – with respect and kindness. The trickle effects of your leadership don’t stop when the employee leaves the office for the day; they take their learnings and their attitude home with them. “I have always managed people like I was responsible for their entire family,” Sizemore said.

Sizemore also emphasized the importance of giving team members the ability to make their own decisions about how they approach their work. “One of the things people respond well to is being trusted to do the job they were hired for,” she explained. “Let them do the work their way and accept it might not be the same as you would do it.” While it’s still important to review the work, it’s crucial to be in step with each team member and listen to their work preferences and appreciate their skills.

How to Retain Quality People

So, your team is humming along, producing results that exceed your expectations and they seem happy working together, doing what they love. How do you maintain this level of team success and retain your wonderful employees? According to Sizemore, one of the most important things you can do is to make sure each employee stays challenged.

Sizemore noted, “Funeral professionals, like all professionals, want to be developed for the next role in their career. I believe we must always help our team members get to the next level. If we don’t challenge them today, we can lose them.” Sizemore suggested, “I also think it is important to know what drives each person – what makes them want to be their best.”

You can continue to challenge your employees by listening to their concerns and career goals and giving them projects that excite and challenge them. Most of your employees will desire growth opportunities, and maybe they’ll even become a leader at the funeral home with your help. Additionally, make sure they have opportunities to attend continuing education conferences, classes and webinars to expand their knowledge of the field. You can also provide books that offer learnings in their field of interest. Their continued education doesn’t need to just be funeral industry-focused and can include material on business strategies, marketing tactics or even how to improve writing skills and elevate emails. Additionally, if you’re looking to hire the next generation of employees for your funeral home, read this post on recruiting and retaining millennial employees. The sky is the limit with professional development – if your employee is interested in and willing to put their learnings into practice, it’s a win-win for you and them! Burnout in the funeral profession is a reality and a topic we can dive into another day, but opportunities for growth coupled with an encouraging team and manager can do wonders for retaining trustworthy, content employees.

We hope you gained some ideas from this post on how to hire, manage and retain quality employees. Each day brings new challenges in the funeral profession but with a good team beside you, those challenges might become opportunities for growth, and your business can run even more smoothly with your excellent team on board. For more insights on funeral home leadership, check out our other blog posts in this Leadership Series.

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