CHAPTER EIGHT (abridged)
This chapter addresses ways in which you can stand out from the typical mediocrity that exists in middle management, by becoming an outstanding manager and avoiding common mistakes.
I found personnel management to be the most rewarding part of my job. It’s not easy because people are infinitely complicated (and fascinating), but the joy of developing people, the power of a productive team, and the satisfaction of a group’s accomplishments can create memories that last a lifetime. A team really is bigger than its parts, and figuring out how to form a group of individuals into a team and motivate them is quite inspiring. It also made me incredibly happy to watch an employee gain skills and confidence and to think, “I was part of that.” I hope you take on these tough jobs with high expectations and that your efforts are mightily rewarded.
Your Employees Are Your Business
You’re responsible for your employees—their development, success, and happiness. When you become someone’s manager, first admit how ignorant you are—you don’t know how to do all your employees’ jobs, what they’re going through, or what they need. Meet with them and tell them they know more than you do. They’ll appreciate your willingness to admit what they already knew. Then tell them what the trade is: They teach you about their jobs, and you’ll get them what they need.
When you have direct reports, you’re responsible for their success, and your job is to support them. You must care for them, help them develop, make sure they’re fairly compensated, give them interesting, rewarding projects and the necessary resources and training to succeed. If they have shortcomings, you must develop and improve their performance. I tell my employees my goal is to make sure they have more skills and knowledge in their tool belts when they leave me than they had when they came to me. I remind them to include their accomplishments on their resumé and watch it grow. That’s my job.
Part of your job is to coach—to teach your employees how to advocate for themselves. That’s not at odds with the company’s interest because employees mustn’t feel taken advantage of. You may have to coach your female employees differently from the males. Women are socialized not to ask for higher pay or a promotion when it might appear self-interested, and they’re acutely aware of the ugliness of being “me-oriented.” By teaching your female employees to think about what they should be paid, what opportunities they should have, and to take responsibility for their own careers, you’re ensuring that they feel that their compensation and chances are equitable. In turn, they’ll stay with you longer, and the lowered turnover will benefit your company.
As the boss, you’re the most important person in your employee’s work life. You alone have the power to make it terrible or tolerable. The most common reason people give for leaving an organization is that they didn’t like their boss. Take this part of your job seriously. Pay close attention to your employees; check in with them frequently, at least daily. Make sure they know your door is always open to them. Meet with them formally each week, and always do performance appraisals on time—how rude and telling it is when the supervisor is “too busy” to write someone’s performance appraisal. Wow, what a message that sends.
Here’s a trick to make writing performance appraisals easier. I like to have my employees submit a monthly report to me, limited to one page, that includes bullet points of their accomplishments that month, and what their goals are for the next month. This is a low-key way to provide feedback—positive and negative—about the accomplishments themselves as well as how they were achieved. You can make notes in the margin for yourself while you’re reviewing the report together during one of your weekly meetings that month. Revisiting the goals every month helps employees stay on track with their annual goals as well as highlight when one has become meaningless or when a more pressing goal should be substituted. The previous month’s goals should move up to the accomplishments section on the next month’s report. If this isn’t occurring, you can find out why and see if procrastination, resources, or a lack of understanding is the problem. Complex goals should be broken down into smaller monthly tasks so the employee isn’t overwhelmed by an onerous hurdle staring them in the face.
At the end of the year, you have a great record of the good and the bad, which makes writing the performance appraisal easier and more accurate. That way, you’re not overly influenced by something that just happened in the last month and instead can take the whole year into consideration. You can also look for patterns of behavior that showed up over the course of the year and provide useful insights to your employees about their performance. In addition, these monthly reports help the employees, if they’re required to write a self-evaluation. Rather than sitting down at the end of the year and trying to remember everything they did, they can easily review their monthly reports and draw from them.
Employees go through ups and downs, just as you do. If you want a long-term employee (and you do), you may have to weather some times when his or her performance takes a turn for the worse. I found it better to be upfront, particularly with men.
During one weekly meeting, for instance, I asked one of my male employees with whom I had a good relationship: “What’s going on with you? It seems like your productivity is way down.”
“I’m going through a divorce,” he said.
Oh. Glad I asked. And a few months later, he was back to his old self.
The bottom line is that the buck stops with you. Their performance, good or bad, is your fault or to your credit. You can’t blame your employees for poor performance. It’s your responsibility to fix it or get rid of them. It does no good to whine about performance shortcomings—you have to address them. Most managers complain about their employees but shy away from taking positive action. Don’t look the other way, and don’t give employees the benefit of the doubt for too long.
My boss was once critical of one of my employees, and I found myself defending her. She wasn’t a stellar employee, but she wasn’t awful.
“You wouldn’t behave that way,” he scowled at me. By golly, he was right about that. What a wakeup call about my own egotism, as though no one could hope to measure up to me. From that point, I started using a different yardstick to measure employee performance.
Be Honest with Your Employees
That’s how you build trust. Employees are stunningly perceptive about whether you’re telling the truth or not, and they have extraordinary memories. Be aware that they’re listening to your every word because what you say affects their livelihood, the most important aspect of their job. They’re always on the lookout for bad news, and they feel betrayed when they discover that you hid some from them. Don’t try to deceive them and then wiggle out of it. If you’re unmasked as a liar, even once, they’ll never trust you again. This is hard for managers, especially senior managers, because they want so badly to reassure employees and not let them worry. Too bad—you’re better off treating them as adults. They’ll appreciate it, and you’ll be surprised at how philosophical even lower-level employees can be about negative company news. They think a lot more about the company, how it’s run, and what its prospects are than most senior managers realize.
Employees are acutely aware of management’s tendency to share good news and spin or hide bad news. In company meetings, they listen carefully, but are often reticent to ask questions. Encourage tough questions, and answer them honestly. That’s how you keep rumors and incorrect information from dominating the communication pathways. In the absence of real information, employees just make stuff up (usually negative), and all kinds of crazy rumors run out through the grapevine. I’ve even gone as far as to model tough questions after my own presentation to employees, to set an example and lighten the tone. If I called for questions, and no one asked what I thought was probably on people’s minds, I would say, “Nobody’s going to ask me about the lawsuit? Okay, let me show you how you ask tough questions. Tough Question #1: ‘Jennifer, I read in the paper that we were sued. What’s the company update on that?’” It gave them an opportunity to chuckle and then lean in very closely to hear the answer. Eventually, the employees took over the tough questions, and then we would really sweat! But it made for a more productive Q&A session.
Sometimes you can’t answer a tough question. You might be legally prohibited, you don’t know the answer, it’s too early to know, someone’s privacy is at stake, outside negotiations are underway, or the data isn’t in yet—there can be lots of reasons. In this case, first, try to understand the motivation for asking the question. Do they genuinely have a legitimate need to know, or are they just curious? That will guide you as to how to address a genuine concern or let you know if it’s just a prurient interest in someone else’s business. In my experience, in an open forum, employees almost always ask questions because they have a legitimate need to know. In private, they might ask questions just because they’re curious, but usually, in a big meeting, they don’t want to look like a gossip. It’s perfectly all right to say, “I can’t talk about that,” and explain why. If it’s a good reason, they’ll understand and will wait until you can talk about it. Just be sure that you do get back to them, bring up that old tough question, and answer it. Don’t let unanswered questions hang around for a long time. Your employees won’t forget them, so you’d better not, either.
Talk to Them
Employees often know what needs to be done, and if you ask nicely, they may tell you. Ask all your staff members the same six questions in private. Devise serious questions: “What’s the biggest challenge we face? What do you want me to focus on? What’s our scariest risk?” I bet you’ll be amazed how thoughtful and insightful their responses are, occasionally more astute than those you would get from your board of directors!
Make sure that you appreciate your employees and that they know it. Tell them frequently how important they are and how their good work contributes to the organization. Celebrate their tenure anniversaries as much, or more, than their birthdays. A long-term employee is incredibly valuable, and every year that goes by is something to be proud of. The success of you, your team, and your company depend on your employees. The better they perform, the better the team gets and looks, and the more you excel as a leader. Be extremely attentive to your employees.
I truly believe that people are a company’s most valuable assets. Try moving your company to another state, as one company I worked for did, leaving behind all the key employees because they wouldn’t leave California, and you’ll discover what they did—within six months, there was no company. I think it’s strange that a company’s two most valuable assets, people and patents, don’t show up on its balance sheet. How strange is that?
Keep your conversations with your employees professional. Don’t treat them like your therapist and unload your personal problems on them or chitchat at length with them as though they’re your friend. They’re not your therapist or your friend, and they don’t want to be either. They do want you to behave the way you’re supposed to, but they can’t come out and tell you that, because it’s an unequal relationship. You’re the boss. Act like it.
On the other hand, don’t make the mistake that I made when I was a beginning manager. Because I took my job very seriously, I didn’t share any personal details with my staff. I thought they weren’t really interested, but would pretend to be, just to be polite. It wasn’t until my first 360° assessment, when I got feedback from my subordinates, that I learned they did want to know more about me. In fact, some of them knew so little about me that they didn’t even know I was into physical fitness. That really shocked me. How could they not know that? Didn’t they see me riding my bike to work? But, of course, they didn’t know—I’d never told them. Instead I started being more open about my personal life and getting comfortable with letting the employees know a little more about me. Employees want to feel that they know their leaders—it builds trust and motivation. So don’t make my newbie mistake.
Don’t Hide Their Weaknesses
Here’s something else that bad bosses do, and it’s not because they’re mean—it’s because they’re weak. They won’t tell their employee what he or she is doing wrong. This is such a disservice to someone who needs your feedback. I know it’s difficult, especially for kind-hearted women, but you have to grit your teeth and do it. It’s your job. You can’t let an employee be passed over year after year and not tell him or her why. It’s just shameful. Employees have to get clear, direct feedback from their managers. How many evaluations have I read in which a female manager has omitted the most important information the employee desperately needs to be told? Often, ironically, this may be the one thing that all the senior staff knows: She’s too emotional, she nitpicks her employees to death, she’s snotty to her co-workers, she’s too defensive, she’s too nice and won’t tell her employees when they screwed up, everything’s a crisis with her… And the person who should be armed with this information is the one the manager is withholding it from! Most bosses are scaredy-cats—be different. Be a lioness.
But Be Very Gentle
When you do communicate negative feedback, use delicate and sensitive language and put it in neutral job-related terms. Explain why it affects their job performance. Human resources may be able to help you. When I had to communicate difficult feedback, I sometimes wrote it down and asked a senior human resources manager to read it to make sure it was clear, but not harsh. Most employees are extremely sensitive to negative feedback and can really be hurt, or even damaged, by it. Try to couch it in the context of self-improvement—that we’re all trying to get better, and we all have performance issues we need to focus on. Emphasize how wrong it would be if the manager didn’t bring up areas for improvement.
I try to use language such as “I would suggest…,” “In my observation…,” “It appears to me…,” so I don’t present myself as all-knowing. If the feedback is accurate, the employee probably suspects it and doesn’t need to have his or her nose rubbed in it. And it’s the employee’s responsibility to act on the feedback; you can’t force a change in behavior. If you present it as advice or a suggestion, it’s empowering to the employee to understand that it’s up to him or her to embrace the feedback and put it into action. Finally, I like to link the change in behavior to greater success and happiness on the job. Problems in job performance hinder the employee’s ability to advance and are often quite frustrating.
Terminations and Layoffs Are Terrible
You’ll probably have to fire employees from time to time, and while it’s no fun, I found laying people off, or making them redundant, as they say in the U.K., to be the worst experience of my work life. Layoffs are nearly always the result of poor management, particularly when they follow a spate of hiring. And yet, managers are nearly always reluctant to acknowledge who’s at fault. It’s heartbreaking to tell employees that they no longer have a job through no fault of their own. At least, when you fire someone (assuming you do it correctly, with an organized process following a series of warnings, both verbal and written), he or she had a pretty good idea it might be coming and why. With a layoff, they’ve had no notice and no time to prepare mentally or financially. Occasionally, firing someone who’s in the wrong job gives that person a chance to start a new life with better prospects. When you lay someone off, there’s no such hopeful component, especially if the economy is tanking. Laying off a talented, loyal employee is just horrible.
Amazingly, many employees exhibit tremendous loyalty, even following redundancies or a downsizing. I’ve seen employees work incredibly hard, getting a company ready to be sold or closed, simply because they’re productive, ethical, and want things done right. It’s quite moving to work with a group of employees who’ve been given pink slips and observe their remarkable maturity and dedication.
The Management Partnership
As your management skills improve, you establish a powerful dynamic with your employees. As you learn how to draw an improved performance from your employees, they will flourish and respond positively as part of your team. In turn, you become a stronger manager and can work on more subtle and challenging performance issues. Yay! Everyone is getting better!
Management is an area where you can truly differentiate yourself. If you treat your employees respectfully, honestly, and with care, they will make you successful and teach you more than you can imagine. When you become an outstanding manager, the path ahead of you is wide open.
© 2012 Jennifer K. Crittenden