Gardeners constantly do three things: pick the best quality seeds, prune regularly to keep the plants shapely and healthy, and spend hours preventing pests and then treating the plants for any damage sustained. Those same three things should dominate any leader’s approach to people management and staffing, whether on the small scale of a team or through a worldwide performance management system.
Seeding the Staff
In organizational leadership, the equivalent of seed for your garden is the behaviors and values of your people. That vision must be clear and ultimately linked to strongly held values and specific behaviors. If you have a fuzzy vision or weakly held values, your organization can grow?but it will not have the health and productivity you intend.
Vision starts at the very beginning of the hiring process. Ask yourself the question, Can this person become a leader in the organization? It doesn’t matter whether you’re hiring functional specialists or line employees. At McKinsey & Co., where I was involved in recruiting and hiring for several years, we always asked the question?even about the youngest associates?Can we envision him as a partner? More often than not, it was that question that either distinguished a candidate or sunk him.
If you can find and bring in the best, then use consistent principles in developing them. At my current employer, the federal General Accounting Office, the leadership team has three core values: accountability, integrity and reliability. They are so deeply held within the organization that, one way or another, they influence key hiring decisions.
Be sure to concentrate on specific behaviors that you want to encourage. Specificity and consistency inspire hope, investment in self-development and healthy expectations. In contrast, there is nothing more damaging than an attempt to create leaders that is vague and inconsistently applied. It breeds cynicism, miscommunication and destructive competition. I have worked in organizations where this consistency exists and others where it is absent. The difference is like night and day.
Prune for Shape
You need not only a vision of your ideal employee but also of your ideal organization. Specify the right skill and knowledge mixes that will add up to a well-shaped company. Then make sure other leaders in the organization understand the shape as well, because more than one person will be pruning at once. Above all, know how the target shape relates to your overall strategy. I’ve seen countless staff development systems that seem completely disconnected from business purpose.
A leader’s worst enemy is a performance management system that cannot differentiate employee performance. Whether you’re starting a new organization or leading an old one, pruning the staff is a chore that must be adhered to religiously to avoid trouble. In a small organization, where every person takes on huge importance, it can feel like lopping off a vital branch. Whereas in a large organization, with its interlocking networks, the difficulty is avoiding inconsistency or whole areas of neglect that can damage organizational health. The key with pruning is to be regular, consistent and precise. Once you’ve decided how you want your company to grow, do not shrink from cutting off branches that are going in the wrong direction. That means you have lost the ability to shape your organization’s destiny.
To know what to trim and what to grow, you need information. Information on performance is valuable only if there is true dispersion and separation in ratings and evaluations of people’s performance. Avoid grade inflation; force distributions, and use that information for your decisions. Don’t trust your own systems to verify this point?have outside organizations come in and test your system. Otherwise, you’ll never really know.
When you find a performance problem with one of your people, either heal it, cut it off or let it fall away, but don’t ignore it. Keep trimming and shaping at every performance cycle. Move closer and closer to your ideal shape. Many leaders get caught in the trap of discussing individuals or units in the performance cycle instead of consistently asking the question, How much closer are we to our target shape?
As a leader, I’ve been consistently awestruck by how damaging one bad employee can be. Every leader I’ve ever met has a secret name for these employees: “bad apple,” “black hole,” “cancerous.” These people have an insidious and disproportionately negative impact on an organization, but getting rid of them is not easy. The best way to avoid bad employees is a tough screening process. Best practices include multiple interviews, diligent reference and background checks, group decision making, and comparing multiple applicants for every job. I think that having probation periods for key positions is a good idea. After a set time, everyone?the organization and the employee?can reevaluate.
If you think you might have made a mistake in hiring, you probably have. Don’t question your intuition?you’ll just lose time, money and probably end up with a lawsuit. Hiring mistakes need to be dealt with immediately. I’ve experienced the pain of waiting too long to deal with a problem employee because there always seemed to be a reason to wait. But the opportunity cost, especially for key positions in small companies, can be astronomically high.
If you run an organization or take over one, then your immediate and regular task is to look for employees gone bad. They’re usually easily identified if you actively look for them. The process of culling them while keeping the organization running takes a lot of discipline over many months. It’s hard work to maintain fairness while avoiding poor morale and lawsuits. But you’ll soon be able to measure your success by the increase in job satisfaction and productivity of your other employees. They’ll take great heart from seeing your courage to deal with a problem they’ve had to live with every day.
So even though it might not fit your image of yourself as a leader, develop that green thumb. You won’t regret it, as over the space of a few years your organization begins to take on the shape of a well-tended garden. And you’ll find other people recognizing your efforts and wanting to take a look and even stay awhile.