Here’s a goal for managers: Create a system that doesn’t rely on finding top performers — you’ll get more top performers this way
It seems that many organizations are on the quest for finding top performers. People who have the ability to get the job done, to do what no one else can do, and really “exceed expectations.” This quest makes sense intuitively: Find top performers, and your organization will succeed. After all, who would want an organization full of mid-range and lower performers?
But here’s the problem: When you are on the quest for finding top performers, you risk ignoring the quest for systemically creating top performers.
Here’s the quest to find top performers. This quest tends to involve finding great hires, offering big bonuses, providing quick promotions, and conducting annual reviews that attempt to identify who is great and who is not-so-great. In this quest, top performers are found and elevated.
Then there’s the quest to create top performers. This quest is more boring. It involves creating systems and processes that ensure basic level performance, creating teamwork that creates better output than any one individual, having a positive work environment that fosters creativity, productivity and collaboration, and opportunity to express ideas and see them through without political ramifications.
Tenets of Management Design: A role in management is not an extension of performance as an individual contributor
In this post, I continue to explore the tenets of the new field I’m pioneering, “Management Design.” Management Design is a response to the bad existing designs that are currently used in creating managers. These current designs describe how managers tend to be created by accident, rather than by design, or that efforts to develop quality and effective managers fall short, often to damaging consequences. We need to turn this around.
Today’s tenet: A role in management is not an extension of performance as an individual contributor
Most people start their careers as an individual contributor (IC). They bring skills that they learned in school or at other organizations, and then develop their skills in their role as an individual contributor, both through initial training and on-the-job experience. As I’ve documented, people in individual contributor roles tend to get lots of performance feedback and guidance on how they’re doing this job. If the manager of the individual contributor is doing her job, the manager is one of the sources providing ongoing, specific and immediate feedback to the individual contributor.
If the manager is doing an even better job, she is also strategically developing the skills of the individual contributor to what the organization needs to be successful.
When this works, this is a good design!
OK, so now how do you find people in management? From individual contributors of course.
Here’s where the mistake frequently occurs:
The management team will identify individual contributors for their skills as individual contributors, and then “reward” them for their outstanding work in this area with a promotion into management. The simple theory is that if the individual contributor could do X amount of positive work as an individual contributor, with a team of say, 3 people, the individual contributor can achieve four times the amount of productivity. That is 3X with direct reports plus the X that the individual contributor could produce. On top of that, the high performing individual contributor is rewarded with a promotion to management, which is typically higher paying and has higher status.
For example, Jim is an amazing business analyst. He creates insightful reports from a series of diverse sources, they are easy to read and understand, and always seem to provide recommendations that are spot on. He also comes up with useful pivots and ratios that allow the decision-making teams to ask in-depth questions that can be answers. The management team wants more. So they promote Jim to Business Analyst Manager, and he inherits a team of three other Business Analysts (Betty, Sarah and Amari), with the idea that they can produce what Jim does on his own to 4X the amount — 80 reports — with Jim-level quality.
That’s the implied theory I’ve observed.
If you really want to evaluate performance across individuals, here are some things that need to be in place
In my previous article, I discussed how many organizations spend time identifying who the top performers and stack ranking employees, to the detriment of assessing other areas that drive performance. Management teams obsess on determining the best performers are. Once done, this implies you now have what it takes to get ahead in business. It’s an annual rite. Despite this process causing lots of angst, the appearance of accuracy in the face of tertiary impressions, and the general lack of results and perhaps damage it causes, this activity continues to have a high priority for many organizations.
OK, so if you really want to do it – you really want to compare employees — here are some things that have to be in place if you don’t want to cause so much damage and angst in the process:
1. You can compare people only across very similar jobs
Many organizations attempt to compare people across the organization, in kind of similar jobs, and under different managers. Then they try to assess the value of the various outputs of the jobs that had different inputs and outputs. If there were different projects and different pressures, different customers and different challenges, then it will be difficult to say who is the better performer.
Malcolm Gladwell wrote an excellent article called “The Talent Myth”, which appears in his book What the Dog Saw. In this article, he discusses companies that obsess over getting the top talent and the consequences of this. He focuses on Enron, and how it sought obsessively to attract and promote those with the most talent, which, amongst other things, resulted in a high degree of turnover within the company and made it difficult to figure out who actually was the best talent. In the article he asks:
“How do you evaluate someone’s performance in a system where no one is in a job long enough to allow such evaluation? The answer is that you end up doing performance evaluations that aren’t based on performance.” (What the Dog Saw, p. 363)
Does this describe your organization?
I’ve recently written about how many organizations go through a painful, angst-ridden and rhetorically charged process of identifying who the top performers are in an organization. Different managers assert their cases and advance some employees as “high potentials” and others as “needs improvement.”
This effort inures the concept that there is some sort of truth about an individual performer in comparison to her peers, and that this is relationship is static. Or, when it comes to annual reviews, true for at least one more year.
The process of deciding who’s on top and who needs improvement is an ongoing assertion that talent is the most important thing. If you can get more talented people, the more successful you will be. That is the thesis that this activity of ranking employees seems to advance.
But as Malcolm Gladwell’s article shows, this isn’t such a great idea, and it’s a weak thesis at best. There really is no way to judge performance in a highly evolving situation, and the judgment quickly moves from who has the most talent to who appears to have the most talent or who claims to have the most talent. As I showed in my article On the inherent absurdity of stack ranking and the angst it produces in employees, such decisions are usually made by tertiary impressions rather than a first hand examination of performance.
A common practice for a manager is to ask their employee to do something for them. We’ve seen this a lot. One example: The VP asks for some sort of recommendation, analysis, or revision on a strategy document that wasn’t expected before. Now your team has to do this new thing. It’s going to take time, effort, money. Perhaps also teamwork, new processes, sourcing new information. Lots of stuff. This is one example, and I’m sure you can think of other times where your manager has said, “I need something from you. . .”
As the manager put in this situation, you agree to your VP to get this done and you decide to put your top performer Jackie on this. Jackie is great at doing all sorts of things, and fulfilling this important request is something she can do.
So you go to Jackie and you say, “Jackie, I need to get a revised strategy document ready for the Vice President’s briefing next week. I know that you can do this.”
Jackie replies: “OK, I can do that. I appreciate being trusted to do this. However, I have the following things that I’m working on:
–I’m interviewing six candidates over the next three days
–I have meetings with our vendor to resolve issues with our contracts
–I need to present updates to our stakeholders on our top six projects in the next two days
–I have a deadline on creating a project plan for the project you assigned last week
–I’m filling in for Alex who is out of the office this week and next week
–I’m in the process of resolve a few issues that came in this morning from our operations team
–And I fly out early next week to meet with a potential new partner
Clearly Jackie is a busy woman! However, the manager replies, “I need you to get this done for our VP.”
Jackie replies, “OK, so what should I drop?”
Your answer: “You need to get it all done.”
In the last few articles, I’ve been discussing managers’ too-frequent negative reactions to problems. The “red” stuff on a scorecard, for example. They will act surprised and/or angry. As I pointed out, this is not the manager’s job to act surprised and angry when problems arise.
But let’s say that the problems aren’t the most important thing – maybe the more important thing has a status of “green” on a report or scorecard. If you ignore the stuff that is going well, you are missing opportunities to be a great manager.
The green stuff – things that are not problems – these should be reinforced positively. Rather than focus on the stuff needing improvement, talk about what is going well. Discuss specifically what it was that the employees did to earn that green status. Identify the actions taken, and call out why this is a good thing.
1. You’ll discover who is doing well and why
You may discover in this conversation that people on your team did many things that prevented problems in the first place. You may learn methods that could be used elsewhere on your team.
You may identify high performers who create “green status” without any drama. Many managers descend into a dynamic where they are close to only those who are reacting to problems – the firefighters – at the detriment of those who prevented the fires from starting in the first place.
Focusing on the green items on the status report is a chance surface the people on your team who get the work done right the first time. They are the ones who try to prevent drama rather than create drama.
In this post, I continue to explore the tenets of the new field this blog pioneers, “Management Design.” Management Design is a response to the poorly performing existing designs that are currently used in creating managers. These current designs describe how managers tend to be created by accident, rather than by design, or that efforts to develop quality and effective managers fall short.
So today’s tenet of Management Design: Design ways that managers consistently identify and reward employees who do good work
This seems like a somewhat obvious tenet that should occur naturally in any organization. The employees who do good work should be identified and rewarded. However, it doesn’t seem to work out that way enough. How many times have we seen it that underperforming employees jockey for visibility and accolades, while the high performing employees feel like they are being ignored or taken for granted? How many times have we seen managers not give thanks or offer praise when it is well earned?
A mistaken notion that many managers have is the belief that on a performance review they need to comment on and provide examples of both the good things and the bad things that an employee did over the course of the review period. This is sometimes taken to the next level, where the manager says one good thing and one bad thing about each area of the employee’s performance.
Here’s an example of something a high performer might see on a review:
Jeff exceeded sales expectations by 15%, placing him in the top 10% of the sales force. Jeff was below expectations in submitting his weekly status reports on time, and the reports he did submit were wordy.
This is a mistake and this practice should be stopped.
Many managers value loyalty in their employees, and even state it up-front as something that they expect. In my previous post, I discussed some of the dangers that asking for loyalty can create. In today’s post, I’d like to focus on what asking for loyalty does to high performers. In this scenario, the new manager declares, “I value loyalty” to their team.
If the manager announces this to the team, here is what the high performers (those who align themselves to the org strategy, create quality work output, and add value to the organization) are likely to interpret this:
Oh brother, this has nothing to do with work quality.