Sunday, March 11, 2012

Poor Evelyn: My 9 steps to destroying a good employee

I didn't set out to destroy poor intentions were to "help her grow." Unfortunately, my mother's constant admonishment was correct: The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

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.
  1. 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.
  2. 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. 
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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 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.
  9. 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.
There is no happy ending to this story and it took me a long time to admit my own part in the debacle. As it turned out the company had gotten itself into a pickle...we read about it on the front page of the papers one morning on the way to work and the entire department and its divisions were axed. Nothing personal, just a typical downsizing bloodletting that put hundreds of us on the street -- with nice severance packages to ease the blow.

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

Want to improve your own management performance or develop the capabilities of your managers? Contact me to discuss bringing our unique Management Power Tools into your organization. We have also developed a special program for engineers and IT and technical professionals who find themselves in the uncomfortable world of managing people. We customize the program to your specific needs and organization and develop case studies based on your experience. The program can include education, coaching, and integration with your existing infrastructure.


Ken Okel said...

People's talents and abilities come in all shapes and sizes and it can be hard to get them to all fit together. Rebecca, your situation is not uncommon.

A failure of one person should be seen as a failure of an entire organization. It's too easy to label someone as a "bad hire" when only some of the blame has been "earned" by that person.

You've obviously learned from what happened and hopefully Evelyn has as well. Staffing challenges should not be opportunities for selective amnesia. These situations can present correctable problems in employees and supervisors. But you must first be willing to evaluate all involved.

Mace said...

It's tough being human...making mistakes and having to live with them. If we learn from them, as it seems you did, then maybe we find some redemption. I would like to hear Evelyn's story!

Joachim de Posada said...

This is a great article about hiring, motivating and coaching under performing employees. Rebecca, you have provided a road map for managers to follow in order to increase an employees performance. You have also demonstrated how every is an experience and something good can come out of it. By the way, how can I meet Evelyn? LOL

Rebecca Staton-Reinstein said...

Ken, Mace, and Joachim, thanks for your comments and additional insights.
Ken, your points are so true and I loved the "selective amnesia" observation.
Mace, I did run into Evelyn a few years later - she was working as a contractor in the company where I was working. She was friendly and said she loved what she was doing a lot maybe not such an unhappy ending after all.
Joachim, it's true...we all have to remember to ask "What did I learn out of this to improve" instead of beating ourselves up.
Thanks to all of you.

Alicia Blain said...

Rebecca, As usual your post is insightful and touches a nerve. I think every corporate leader today can relate to your experience with Evelyn. I know I can and like you, I still remember those occasions where a hiring decision was not a good fit. It doesn't matter that you had many more great hires; the ones that didn't work out always stand out in our mind.

I agree with some of the thoughts that others have left on your post. It's our failures that make us better leaders but the trick is to acknowledge it and learn from it. To me, that's what separates great leaders from the mediocre ones. Thank you for sharing Evelyn's story with us and I look forward to more great insights from you!

Jolene Hart said...

Thank you for sharing your story - and helping us all learn. As I read it, I could relate - both as "Evelyn" and as you. I've also had my own process of maturing.

I checked your set of Management Power Tools at the link you provided. They seem like they would be very useful.

amydawn said...

Well stated Rebecca.
I had an Evelyn once and it was about half way through I realized I was not motivating her, coaching her, etc. I hired her too so the buck stopped with me.

The book, Good to Great, was an eye-opener to me as well. I have finally realized that some employees, though good, are not great because they are in the wrong position. My goal going forward for others and myself is to always make sure the person is truly a fit talent wise. If a person is teachable, skills can always be taught and are not near as important as talent.

The school of hard knocks can be expensive, can't it? But, we are all are human and must always strive to grow and do better.

Good for you for learning at Evelyn and your expense and not repeating the same mistake twice.

Thanks for sharing Rebecca.

Rebecca Staton-Reinstein said...

AmyDawn, thanks for your story too. I think if I rework this as an article I might also add a 10th point about "blaming" Evelyn for way too long. I agree about the message from Good To Great. Thanks

Silver Rose said...

I think this resonates because it's not theoretical, it's reporting "from the front." The fact that you are outlining what you did wrong is compelling. And finally, if you've managed anyone (even someone in your family), you've made one or al of these mistakes. It's so much easier to see it in another person than ourselves.

Thanks for being a willing mirror and presenting your story in a memorable way so we can think of you and Evelyn and stop before we make the same mistakes.

On a side note, I hope you make an effort to find "Evelyn" and make your amends in person. You both deserve it.

Rebecca Staton-Reinstein said...

Silver Rose, thanks for your comments. You asked about Evelyn and in fact I did run into a couple of years later. She was back working in the field where her true talent lay and said she was enjoying her work. As I said, the real amends were changing my own actions and outlook.