Improve by Encouraging the Best to Get Better


Richard explained, “I pick out my weakest employees and enroll them in remedial training.  Sometimes they struggle, but they know that I’m going to be in their grill until they improve.”

“How do you handle your top performers?” I asked.

“Oh, I appreciate them a lot but they don’t need much help.  If one has a weak area, I will get it corrected.”

Larson said, “I focus on growing and developing my stronger performers.  I get them the best training and equipment and I constantly seek their ideas for improvements.”

“How do you handle problem performers?”

“I overlook peccadilloes in strong performers.  If a good producer has trouble with one task, I reassign the task to someone else.  For experienced employees who are still marginal, I move them to another position or, if necessary, release them.

According to Gallup’s recent survey of more than thirty thousand employees, about thirty-four percent are engaged—involved, enthusiastic, committed—the highest in almost twenty years.

Larson’s focus on developing employees’ strengths is far more likely to create employee engagement.  Managers who stress “weakness fixing” have less than ten percent engaged employees.

Engaged employees are full of jollity; they produce more and their companies are more profitable.

What Makes a Good Coach?


Below are comments from employees in two different departments.

“Our manager, Gardner, is patient and always gives you a second chance.”

“He takes as much time as you need to help you work through things.”

“When we fall short, Gardner recognizes our challenges and encourages us.”

“Gardner is always there for you.  You can count on his support.”

Employees from the other department shook their heads and chimed in:

“Well, you know where you stand with Jasper but he is not too patient.”

“Jasper will show you how to do things and then he expects you to do them.”

“When Jasper praises you, you know you have earned it.”

“Jasper does not hold grudges, but if you violate policy you can expect a write-up.”

Good coaching, I think, is about achieving goals.  Good coaches set specific expectations.  They train and support their employees.  When employees falter, good coaches are quick to help but their interventions are usually brief and to the point.  While effective coaches relate well to their employees, they enforce the rules consistently and fairly.

Gardner, who is popular, may not get the most out of his team.  By contrast, Jasper is likely do what he has to do to get results.

 

 

Is It Better to “Think” or “Act” When Problems Arise?


Adrian and Stephanie approach problems differently.

“First, I like to determine the root cause of the problem,” Adrian said.  “Then, I like to brainstorm alternatives, evaluate them and make a plan. During execution, I may adjust the plan.”

Stephanie said, “When a process erupts, I quickly put a patch on it.  If my first impulse fails, I try something else.  I just continue experimenting until a solution finds me.”

Adrian, by moving logically from one stage to the next, exercises linear thinking.   Stephanie’s approach is less logical and more iterative.  Which is better?

Tom Wujec gave many groups an assignment to build a tower out of spaghetti and tape to support a marshmallow.

Not surprisingly, the best performing teams in Wujec’s experiments were architects and engineers.  However, kindergartners consistently outperformed business school students.

Business students, relying on linear thinking, spent a lot of time methodically planning and assigning team member responsibilities.  When the plan failed during execution, they went back to the drawing board to regroup and revise.

Kindergartners simply began trying different actions without planning (an iterative approach). When an action failed, they quickly tried another.  Their “try it and fix it” approach produced a better product in less time.

 

Lead or Sell Ice Cream?


“Leadership is not as glamorous as it appears,” said a frustrated Vinh.

After six years as a very productive and popular employee, management promoted Vinh to lead his department.  Employees were very pleased because they liked him.

Several weeks after Vinh’s promotion, some external surprises shocked the company. A new competitor, with state-of-the art service, invaded Vinh’s territory.  An unexpected governmental regulation choked some formerly, seamless processes.   To cope, Vinh asked his team to adjust.

“Some of my former friends got mad at me,” Vinh recalled.  “I explained to them why we had to change but they could not understand.  My friends shunned me.  The work environment seemed hostile.  I dreaded my job.”

Apple founder, Steve Jobs, once said if you want to be a leader and win, you must give up the right to be liked.  Winning leaders have to make tough decisions.  Even though a team may eventually be better off because of a leader’s decision–no matter, someone will always be unhappy.

Normal people leading normal lives can seek both comfort and popularity.  Leaders must give up both and strive to win.  As Jobs said, “If you want to make everyone happy, don’t be a leader; sell ice cream.

 

 

Terminate or Tolerate?


A manager said to me, ““I assumed leadership of a department of sixteen people about three months ago.  Most are reliable performers.  A few are really good and one is marginal at best.”

“Would your team be better off if the marginal employee were gone?” I asked.

“No question, much better off.”

“Then why don’t you work with your human resources’ manager to professionally remove the employee?”

“The employee is sixty three years old.  He was one of the first persons hired almost twenty years ago when the department was formed.  There is scant chance of removing him.”

“Have you tried training and coaching?”

“He’s not really interested in getting better.  I think he’s just holding on for a couple of years until he retires.”

When dealing with a persistent, low performer whom you cannot terminate, I think you just have to learn to tolerate the employee.

Be respectful of the low performer as a person, but do not waste time attempting to train, motivate, encourage, or improve the person’s attitude.  Minimize disruptions as much as possible.  Find work-arounds when you have to.  Understand that you may have to check more often than you would like.   Quit worrying about it.

 

Relentless, Stoic Leaders Win the Day


“To be a good leader,” lectured a university professor, “you have to build up morale, appreciate what others do, pat’em on the back, show them that you care.  Take care of your people; they will take care of you.”

A hardened, construction superintendent addressed his team.   “All of you need to know that I expect you to work hard every day.  We will stay on schedule and we will follow all safety processes.  I’m not here to win a popularity contest.  I’m here to get the job done.  If you accept that, we will get along fine.”

Who’s right?  The polished college professor or the crusty, construction leader?

“It depends on the situation,” you say?  In some cases, fun-loving, pat-them-on-the back cheerleaders win the day.  In other cases, the no nonsense, get’er-done drill sergeant fills the bill.

Some argue that the really good leaders toggle back and forth between people-pleasers and task-oriented grinders.

Personally, I think Sam Walker, in his book “The Captain Class:  A New Theory of Leadership,” has a better answer.  Great leaders are relentless (They do not quit.), and they exhibit ironclad emotional control (Don’t get too high; don’t get too low).  Most other traits are inconsequential.

Maintain a Healthy Dose of Skepticism about Upward Communication


“I am frustrated!” a manager said.

“What is the issue?” I asked.

“We are implementing a significant software upgrade.  Every week, I meet with the project team to discuss issues and challenges.  Toward the end of each meeting, I make a big point about schedule and ask each team member to ensure me that we are on schedule.”

“Let me guess,” I said.  “All along, your team has confidently reported that they are on schedule.  But as the deadline approached, team members started describing “unexpected” occurrences and began asking for more time.”

“Exactly!”

While managers anguish over messaging and rumors, researchers Triandis and Gelfand report that upward communication contains more distortions than other directions.

While dealing with upward communication about complicated matters may be akin to wrestling with an eel, some managers erect unnecessary barriers by reacting negatively when they get bad news.  Employees sense this quickly and often stretch the data to avoid riling their leaders.

So what is the cure?  First, always treat employees with dignity and respect.  Second, when mistakes do occur, conduct an autopsy but avoid blame.  Third, drill down with question after question after question.  Insist on data, documentation and other support.