Whether you are in the business of manufacturing goods or providing services, people are your most important asset and require continual investment. Remarkable people managers are maniacally focused on hiring the right people, delegating effectively, and coaching for ongoing success and professional development.
Hire the best people for the target salary range
If you ever start to question the value of time spent recruiting and hiring new employees, simply recall your own experiences with a bad boss, coworker, or staff member. Such an individual, often unintentionally, leaves a wake of destruction in their path that impacts the entire organization. They devour time, energy, and morale.
To combat this risk, you need to be systematic about hiring the best people for the target salary range. This recommendation has two pieces. First, what does it mean to “hire the best people?” Very specifically, you need to start the hiring process by determining the single most important business objective the individual will be asked to achieve in the near term. If you are hiring a new product development manager and the principal objective is to release one new software product every six months, then hire a person with a proven track record of success and the skills needed for the job. The biggest mistakes that hiring managers make is hiring people based almost exclusively on either cultural fit or a general sense that an individual has a broad base of skills that could be used to take on most tasks. To be a great people manager, you instead need to focus on hiring people that will achieve overwhelming success on the specific business objective at hand.
The second piece of the recommendation “…for the target salary range” requires little explanation. If you have a one hundred thousand dollar budget for a position, you are not going to be able to hire Steve Jobs, Jack Welch, or Louis Gerstner. Make peace with this fact and move on.
Once you have determined the single most important business objective the new hire will be expected to achieve in the near term, the next step is to engineer away any hidden biases that you and your team have by identifying the “must-have” general skills and specialist skills that are required for success on the objective. These skills should be based on the attributes of star performers already in the role.
In the aforementioned new product development job, you might establish the following prioritized list of generalist skills:
- Communication (especially with executives)
- Problem solving
- Leads through influence and with passion
Nice to have:
- Uses business judgment/Sees the big picture
- Cultural fit
- Willing to challenge to get to the truth
- Able to synthesize mountains of information
- Time management
Prioritizing the list and sticking to your guns on the “must-have” skills is key. If candidates do not have the specific must-have skill, then do not hire them, as they are unlikely to succeed on their primary objective.
In addition to generalist skills, you must similarly prioritize the essential specialist skills. For the new product development job, you might prioritize as follows:
- Client interviewing
- Ability to prioritize scope based on business merit
- People management
Nice to have:
- Technical skills such as programming
- Long range strategic planning
- Analytical ability
- Presentation skills
There is of course a fuzzy line between generalist skills and specialist skills. You do not need to get that classification precisely correct. What does matter is identifying the must have skills required for success on the candidate’s primary business objective that allow you to make a go/no-go decision in an unbiased way. How many ‘must-have’ skills are required? The short answer is as many as you need to all but guarantee success on the business objective. At the same time, you do want to keep the list short enough so that you and your hiring team can evaluate the candidate practically during the interview process.
Once you have established the primary business objective for the job and the associated ‘must-have’ skills to ensure success, it is time to start interviewing. To do that, you are going to need a pipeline of qualified candidates. All great people managers continually cultivate a pipeline of potential future hires. In most circumstances, this can be done informally since hiring velocity is not rapid nor are potential candidates extremely difficult to find. In other circumstances, say Cirque de Soleil, finding a qualified candidate to fill the pipeline is like finding a needle in a haystack. According to a 2007 Wall Street Journal article, to fill its 500 new roles per year, Cirque de Soleil has “created a database of 20,000 potential performers. Among them: 24 giants (including a Ukrainian who is 8 foot 2), 23 whistlers, 466 contortionists, 14 pickpockets, 35 skateboarders, 1,278 clowns, eight dislocation artists and 73 people classified simply as small.” If you do not have a sufficiently rich pipeline of your own, the next best source is referrals from other people within your organization. Outside recruiters and public job postings should be a last resort.
To build a strong candidate pool, you should look to the current star performers in similar roles within your company. By analyzing their background and how they came into your organization, you can establish a pattern and use it to target similar sources. Moreover, your current star performers are likely to be your best referral source for likeminded prospects.
Time spent recruiting and hiring the right people is the best investment an extremely skilled people manager can make. However, your time is still precious and should be used as effectively as possible. To make the best use of your time, prescreen candidates over the phone. Though you should never make a hiring decision over the phone, you should eliminate candidates for whom there is clearly no fit. The phone interview gives you an opportunity to learn about the candidate and for the candidate to learn about you. Since the most promising candidates have many attractive opportunities, you are selling to them as much as they are selling to you. The key information to look for during the phone screening interview is whether or not the candidate has had specific experience on the primary business objective that you are hiring for. What matters is what they have done, not what they would do. Encourage the interviewee to provide specific examples with concrete outcomes.
Once you have narrowed the field and have decided to bring in a small number of top candidates, you ought to interview as rigorously as possible. Make sure that your interviewing team clearly understands the primary business objective that the potential new hires will be responsible for. Remind the team to suppress their biases and to systematically test for the must-have generalist and specialist criteria required for success on that objective. Be direct with the interviewee by sharing the primary business goal. Ideally, the winning candidate should be able to vividly describe a specific instance in their employee where they accomplished the exact business objective you are hiring for. You can prompt for this insight by asking the candidate the question: “Tell me about a time when you…” In addition to testing for prior success on the primary business objective, you should validate – again with vivid actual detail – that the candidate possesses the must-have skills.
The best candidates have had prior overwhelming success on a similar primary business objective as well as all of the requisite skills. Sometimes, though it should be extremely rare, the business objective is so esoteric that you simply will not be able to source candidates with prior direct success. That is alright. However, you must immediately eliminate any candidate that does not possess every one of the must-have skills. An astute people manager is never deceived by the hope that the new hire can pick up the skill on the job. Let people pick up new skills on the job, but first make sure you hire only people that walk in the door with the right set of skills to be successful on their primary business objective.
Hiring well requires a comprehensive, team-based process. Final candidates should interview multiple times with multiple people. This ensures that the individual is looked at from different angles and will be a good overall fit on the team. The group consensus should always have the power to eliminate a candidate. However, the hiring manager must have the final say in a “yes” decision since they must believe in the person in order to be an effective coach and in order for the individual to be successful.
After you have interviewed a competitive set of candidates, it is time to make a hiring decision. If the decision feels hard, then you have probably not found the right person yet. Avoid hiring “the best of the rest.” Many successful managers describe the decision to hire an individual with language evoking falling in love. When you interview the right person, you are going to feel it in your bones. Do not hire until your visceral response is “I must hire THIS person and not let them get away.”
Some organizations, often the most flourishing ones, possess a core ideology that defines the corporate culture. The core ideology might be inward facing such as ‘deliver the cutting edge of innovation’ or ‘provide unlimited growth and opportunities for employees.’ Or, it may be outward facing such as ‘bring happiness to the world’ or ‘improve the quality of human life.’ Whatever it may be, the best way to maintain and enhance the strength of your ideology is to seek and hire people that already espouse the defining purpose. If this is the case, it should be one of the ‘must-have’ skills.
Zappos, the internet shoe and apparel retailer snapped up by Amazon for nearly $1 billion in stock, possesses the core ideology of providing the best customer service possible. The company internally calls this its WOW philosophy. New customer service representatives are put through and intensive four-week indoctrination in the company’s strategies, culture, and customer engagement practices. At some point during this period, the company actually makes people an offer to quit! In addition to their full salary from time served, the company offers employees $1000 to leave. The obvious rationale is to have individuals weed themselves out when they are not a cultural fit.
Poor managers fall into one of two camps – those who under-delegate and those who over-delegate. Most managers land in their position of authority by being outstanding individual contributors. They often hold the belief that no one in the world can do what they do faster or better. This attribute tends to make new managers atrocious under-delegators, who hand off only low risk tasks since they do not possess sufficient trust in their staff. Although new managers are canny enough to realize they must delegate to be successful, their fear of their team’s possible underperformance prevents them from doing so.
By contrast, the over-delegators, overwhelmed with their new responsibilities, hand over projects that exceed a staff member’s motivation or ability. The pressures of the managerial role override their do-it-yourself individual contributor mentality before they have learned the art of more restrained delegation.
The most essential skill in being a judicious delegator is being able to clearly define the concrete, measureable objectives associated with a given task or work-stream. Share this objective with the individual you are delegating to by communicating to them what success looks like. The objective not only gives the individual a clear compass to sail by, but also gives them an unambiguous way to know when they are done.
As you formulate your objective, you should also think about the skills required for success. In almost all circumstances, you should delegate to individuals that already have the requisite skills to complete the task. Delegating is different from coaching. Delegating is about efficient use of your time and about success on your projects. In contrast, coaching aims to help your staff grow by introducing new responsibilities. Coaching involves a significant and worthy investment of time on the part of you and your staff. Both have value and as a perceptive manager you need to strike a balance between tasks that should be delegated and tasks that should be used for coaching.
Once you have formulated the objective and selected the skilled individual, you need to hand off the task in a way that all but guarantees success. First, provide as much information as you have and guidance on how to find missing information. Second, answer any questions that the person has about the task. Third, have the individual play back his or her understanding of the task to make sure it is fully understood. Though one of the most important parts of successful delegation, this is also the piece most frequently forgotten. Last, agree to a deadline for completion that provides adequate time for success. In larger projects, you may also need to agree on milestones or to require a written progress plan.
Detailed step-by-step guidance is intentionally missing from the hand off process just described. If the person needs to be micro-managed, then he or she is the wrong individual to whom to delegate. Moreover, working out step-by-step instructions is a poor use of your time. By being flexible in the process, you are showing trust in your staff; but, remember, though flexible in the process, be fixed in the result.
Once you have delegated the task, make yourself accessible to answer questions and to provide guidance. Depending on the scope, duration, and importance of the task, you should monitor progress toward the objective to ensure success by the deadline. Finally, remember that whoever does the task, it remains your responsibility as a manager if things go wrong. By giving credit and taking blame, you maintain accountability and build trust.
With highly motivated and highly skilled employees, you will reach the nirvana of delegation – the ability to ‘fire and forget.’ With such individuals, you will be able to lengthen the time between check-ins, as they are likely to be more expert than you are at a particular task or work-stream. Still, employ two mechanisms at your disposal to assess the quality of the work. One way of doing this performance ‘audit’ is dig a couple of deep wells. In accounting, this is the equivalent of counting every unit of a single type of product in inventory. The other way is to sniff test at the macro level. Again, in the accounting world, this is comparable to making sure that there is at least one box of every type of product in inventory.
Coach for ongoing success and professional development
Coaching is a close cousin of delegation but with a key difference. In both delegation and coaching, great managers must define clear, concrete objectives. However, effective delegation hinges on transferring tasks to individuals that already possess the requisite skills for success. When you are in coaching mode, you need to invest time and energy since you are going into the situation knowing that the individual needs to develop a new set of skills.
The fundamental secret of being a great coach is tailoring everything, absolutely everything, to the person and to the task. This personalization philosophy extends from the skills you identify to work on together to the style you utilize in providing feedback, and everything in between.
The most common mistake that managers make both consciously and unconsciously is projecting their own professional desires onto their staff. In their defense, they are following admirably the Golden Rule of doing unto others as you would have done unto you. However, a better rule in coaching is to do unto others as they would have done unto themselves, a powerful update to the Golden Rule that transcends the world of coaching. Though you are on a general management track, many of your employees may wish to remain on a functional track at this phase in their career. Talk to people to understand who they want to become and what their motivations are.
Great coaches understand that their employees possess strengths, latent skills, and weaknesses. Consider a baseball player early in his career who is a good hitter and right fielder, a terrible pitcher, and an unproven first baseman. In this instance, it is fairly obvious that the player should maximize time spent with the batting coach and minimize time spent with the pitching coach. That is the only way to manufacture the next Babe Ruth. Though everyone sees the truth in the baseball analogy, many managers in the business world spend their time identifying weaknesses and then toiling futilely to improve them, a criminal waste of everyone’s time.
Instead, be a shrewd coach by spending eighty percent of your time identifying strengths and helping people become more of who they already are. Here is what to do with the other twenty percent: dip into the pool of latent skills and test for aptitude. It will become apparent very quickly if the latent ability can be developed into a strength. If it is not a strength, toss it in the weakness bucket, cut bait and do not look back. There are a million treasures hiding in the pool of latent skills and they are generally easy to uncover.
Identifying strengths to build on and latent skills to develop is not a solitary managerial activity. Since you cannot be there all the time, the individual must be fully invested in his or her own development. Because people are most successful in personal and professional growth when they have identified for themselves the skills they want to build, do not automatically project your own strengths or the traits you want to develop onto others. Though employees often have a good idea of their strengths, you can be an effective partner with them in selecting latent skills to develop that they are passionate about and that will build their career.
Inspirational coaching requires empathy. Every human being has both a deep rooted need to feel vital and a deep rooted fear of criticism. The feeling of importance is one of the foundations of self-confidence and should be nurtured. True, in the process of coaching, you will routinely give both positive and negative feedback. To remain a nurturing coach, then, in every interaction, strive to have the positive feedback outweigh the negative, preferably leading with the reassuring. Avoid being heavy-handed with the initial positive comments; do not insult your employee’s intelligence. But understand that this requisite spoonful of sugar, if genuinely felt and expressed, will keep any ensuing criticism constructive.
Remember to be as specific, sincere, and concise as possible in your feedback. Simply saying “You did a great job” is flattery, not feedback. Such non-specific praise will not have its intended effect even if you mean every vague word of it. Instead, provide details of what was done well and why it was important to you or to the organization. For example, tell the individual “You did a great job on the analysis of last month’s capacity utilization. The data showed that we need to accelerate the addition of new capital equipment to meet demand.”
When providing constructive comments, you also need to be more Socratic rather than didactic. This means having an open and enlightening conversation that eventually shows how you would have performed the assigned task, rather than simply announcing the information by terse decree. Although the latter is a tantalizing time-saver, remember the dictates of real coaching require the former.
In addition to feeling indispensable (or nearly) and talked to (not at), your employees generally wish to be independent. It is a source of pride for them. Thus, for many, being coached may feel like being micromanaged. To avoid ill-will, you must be as transparent as possible. Coaching is not meant to be a stealth activity; let the individual know when you are in coaching mode. Though it may be obvious to you, it will not be to your employees, as they generally will expect you to be in delegation mode. You should tell the person which skill you are coaching and remind them that your goal is his or her professional development. While it is possible to always be coaching, avoid the temptation. After a person receives criticism, even the constructive kind, his or her self-confidence takes one step back. Give the person time to heal and to independently take two steps forward.
In general, people prefer and derive the greatest benefit from immediate feedback. However, in some circumstances, people may grow more effectively with delayed feedback so it is a good idea to confirm the person’s preference. If they express no preference, opt for the immediate approach.
Either way, a great framework for providing feedback is the “Build On… / Think About…” method. For example, if a person is giving a presentation, take a sheet of paper and make two columns. On the top left, write “Build On…”. On the top right, write “Think About..” During the presentation, capture positive feedback in the “Build On” section and constructive criticism or open action items in the “Think About” section. Again, strive to have the positive outweigh the negative. At the end of the presentation, hand the feedback form to the individual. Avoid the temptation to make copies since coaching is a gift to the individual and should not have the emotional baggage of a performance evaluation. Great coaches that adopt this method use it in every interaction. Occasionally, and only if warranted, fill in only positive feedback. This well-earned reward gives the feeling of getting a report card with straight A’s.
Not only do employees need real time comments, they also need to understand their trajectory on skill building over time. To accommodate this requirement, great managers schedule comprehensive feedback conversations at intervals of no shorter than two months and no longer than six months. These sessions should be independent of any formal performance evaluation tied to compensation or promotion. If your organization has the capacity, provide the individual with 360 degree feedback every six months. During the gathering of 360 degree feedback, the manager should interview the individual’s subordinates, peers, and superiors to gain insight on how well the person is building the specific skills on which you are coaching.
Only keep your A-players
To be a great manager, you have to have a great team. Though painful for you and for underperforming staff members, you must remove and replace underperforming individuals. This is a reality during a period of layoffs as well as during a period of normal business operation.
During a layoff, euphemistically referred to as a ‘reduction-in-force’, just remember that your mission is to keep your A-players. When deciding between two individuals, keep the stronger current performer. Often managers will fall into the trap of retaining the wrong person for purely emotional reasons. Avoid the following rationalizations:
- “We owe him”
- “It is my fault as a manager that she is not succeeding… I just need more time to coach her”
- “He is new…”
Even during the normal course of business, you have a managerial duty to optimize your team’s performance. The damage from a B- player (or worse) is widespread. Your precious time as a manager will be drained. The other members of your staff will be de-motivated or even directly negatively affected by an underperforming peer. Additionally, underperformers are under constant personal strain. Though the immediate transition period will be painful for them, the individual has a right to be happy in the long term by becoming an A-player on another team inside your company or beyond. If you have been providing periodic effective feedback, it should not be a surprise to the individuals being managed out. They should have adequate time to pursue other opportunities.
Here are the concepts you can immediately apply to be a great people manager:
- Hire the best people for the target salary range
- Delegate effectively
- Coach for ongoing success and professional development
- Keep only your A-players