It started off well enough. I managed a small division in a big corporation and had been given permission to hire an employee. I posted the job internally (we wanted to hire from within) and a friend in another area called to tell me she had the perfect person. I trusted her and her praises of Evelyn were effusive. (Another adage comes to mind: If it sounds too good to be true, it is.)
I had a couple of interviews with Evelyn and so did my counterpart in an associated division and we agreed Evelyn would be good. (I made the final decision so no blame goes to my counterpart.) Evelyn came on board and we got to work.
Evelyn was a boon to my team that included some long-term consultants. We coordinated with my counterpart easily and ran our two divisions almost as a single self-directed work team. (Because of a reorganization, we had no direct "boss" for quite a while and sailed along.) Even once we were given a new manager, things continued to move very collaboratively, we were making progress on our goals, and Evelyn was catching on to the work. In fact, we were charged with developing new methodologies, standards, and procedures and she had good ideas. Several of us went to training programs and conferences together and were excited about even more new ideas we could apply back at the company.
It's hard to say where it started to go bad. Maybe it was a missed deadline here or an assignment that wasn't quite up to the mark there. Maybe it was just a "personality" thing or a "social" thing or a "thing" thing. Whatever it was, slowly Evelyn's performance and results began to slip a little. Knowing what I know now, I should have handled it very differently...
Instead, I became more and more frustrated, had more and more unproductive conversations with Evelyn, and griped to my colleagues. I got lots of advice (most of it bad) and followed it with continuing poor results. I lost my temper with Evelyn. I tried (too late) to set up a more structured approach to her assignments but by now it was really too late.
Evelyn was in a classic lose-lose situation. She really did not have the right talent. In Marcus Buckingham's First Break All the Rules, he talks about the need to match talent to the needs of the job. Skills by definition can be learned. Talent is that unique combination of what you are born with and what you develop to a high degree over your lifetime. Talent is evident in consistently high performance.
I had made several classic mistakes.
- I did not select for talent. I selected Evelyn because of her technical background and skills and experience with the company. I had not made a thorough analysis of the talents I needed. Once I learned the powerful technique of Behavioral Interviewing (selecting for needed talents) I never made another hiring mistake.
- I did not set out a clear plan. When Evelyn first joined the team, we did not sit down and develop a written plan together of her work and how it would contribute to our goals and objectives. She wasn't encouraged to develop a detailed tactical plan with some input and course correction from me.
- I dumped instead of delegated. With no clear plan in hand, Evelyn did the best she could to figure out what was needed. It should be no surprise to know she often missed the mark. In good delegation, Evelyn would have a plan she had been involved in creating, with clear metrics and timetables AND EVERYTHING SHE NEEDED TO EXECUTE THE PLAN.
- I didn't "motivate." This is a tough one because in reality, you cannot motivate anyone. What I failed to do was understand what really inspired her and then set up a situation in which she would motivate herself. Instead, I constantly de-motivated her using the wrong carrots and sticks.
- I didn't coach. Coaching is really about sitting down regularly and going over results and discussing what went well and why and what went wrong and why. It's a perfect time to give praise and specific feedback about what worked. It's a time to ask the person to analyze what didn't go well and figure out what needs to be done to make it better. Encouragement not badgering is the key here. At the end of such a session, Evelyn would be ready to create a modified plan and get on with it.
- I let things slide. Avoiding conflict was a strong motivator at that moment. Like many poor managers, I let the little things slide when they could have been fixed quickly. I finally got to the point that most bad managers get to: I'll deal with it in the annual evaluation. What a cop out. By then it is always too late.
- I didn't seek coaching from experts. I relied on friends, colleagues, HR, and anyone else who would listen to my sad victim's tale. I didn't seek out the coaching and help of successful managers who would have set me straight, pointed out where I NEEDED TO CHANGE, and helped me correct my own poor management behavior.
- I allowed Evelyn to fail miserably. It all came to a head in an event where Evelyn was to conduct an important session with folks from other departments and facilitate implementing a new procedure. Within 30 minutes we had to pull the plug...it was all going down in flames...were this a cop show instead of a corporate meeting the room would have looked like the last act of Hamlet.
- I passed the problem to HR: Now came the final dereliction of duty. I went to HR, presented an indictment of poor Evelyn to my sympathetic buddies there and they showed me how to document everything, build a case, and get her fired. It was all very mechanical and legalistic. I was vindicated. Evelyn was all wrong. End of story.
This happened many years ago but I still think about Evelyn and how I botched our work together and her chances for success. She got another job - as we all did - companies were hiring and there was no stigma in having been kicked off a sinking ship. (In fact, we had our farewell party on Friday and I started my new job on Monday.)
I owe Evelyn a big debt of gratitude. Because the whole experience, which lasted for over a year, was so painful, I was forced to go over and over it in my mind for a long time. I had to tease out all the lessons and analyze them. I had to completely reconstruct how I went about managing my team. I had to make amends by becoming a better manager, never repeating the Evelyn story again. I took the amends further and for many years I have been educating and coaching new and experienced managers in how to create an engaged workforce and setting up programs that groom managers for success.
So Evelyn, where ever you are: I'm sorry I made your life so miserable. AND thank you for teaching me the lessons of good management I needed to learn and can now pass on to others.
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(c) Rebecca Staton-Reinstein, president Advantage Leadership, Inc.
Author: Conventional Wisdom: How Today's Leaders Plan, Perform, and Progress Like the Founding Fathers
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