At some point early in my “management” career I realised nobody had sat me down and academically explained what managing people actually involved. I didn’t know what I was doing, other than being helpful-on-demand and organizing meetings. Being empathetic came naturally, but it was overwhelming when an employee wasn’t performing well. I didn’t always know what to do, and I didn’t really have the language to explain what I didn’t know.
Leading people was far less mystifying; I had been lead by good leaders, worked in groups where I was the leader, and “leadership” was a topic well-worn in TED talks and college papers. I had a framework for leadership in mind. But it wasn’t helping me convince someone that they shouldn’t quit after a boring project that under-utilised their skills.
Over time, many people helped me build a model of managing people, and it hinged on this idea that your job is to organize people’s lives through the employee lifecycle.
People get hired, become productive employees, and eventually leave. What they do in that lifecycle is up to you to manage. Tada, management.
Engagement and Performance
The lifecycle is organized into two important, somewhat binary, things about an employee:
- Are they engaged, or not. Employee enagement is, as of writing, the best* predictor of employee success. This is something you can only get if you ask (with surveys, reviews, or 1-on-1’s).
- Are they performing well, or aren’t they? This can be measured in many, controversial ways. As a manager you can generally answer the question “Is this person a high-performer, or not?”
The lifecycle looks like this:
Every employee starts the same way: someone recruits them. Recruitment is a shared responsibility in the organization, typically involving a dedicated talent department (ex. HR). Where HR is marketing and operations, managers are sales and fulfilment.
Managers have to:
- Find and attract talent beyond what other departments are doing (ex. attend meet-ups, write tech blogs)
- Screen, interview, and assess applicants.
- Provide a good experience for everyone involved; applicants talk to their networks.
Once an employee has been recruited, they are likely pretty engaged (unless recruitment didn’t go great). They are likely not performing at their version of “high level”. Developing an employee into a fully-functional member of the team is a managers responsibility.
Development is a continuous activity. An employee can be highly functioning in one part of their role (ex. technical skills), but struggling with others (ex. leading a project, professionalism). This changes over time, as new skills are required and the job changes.
Developing employees requires managers to:
- Onboard, and support their early learning and concerns.
- Coach the development of required competencies, both professional and personal.
- Set goals and provide progressive feedback; help overcome blind spots and local maximums.
This is different than training; development is personally tailored, and goes beyond core skills.
Employees find themselves in garbage situations when they do not have the tools or base skills required to perform parts of their job. It’s a manager’s responsibility to resolve those needs with training.
- Identify under-developed core skills, particularly for groups of employees.
- Create time in projects to pursue this “on the job.”
- Watch for missing or incorrect tools, or usage of tools. (ex. wrong software, outdated guidelines)
Expecting people to train at home, or in the case of my industry on hobby projects, is a tad demanding and unpredictable.
Leaving the team (or the organization altogether) is an important moment in an employees lifecycle. Managing exits professionally, whether voluntary or involuntary, has a downstream effect on recruitment, and rest of the team’s engagement.
It doesn’t matter if the employee is let go, leaves voluntarily, stays with the company or not, a managers responsibilities are similar.
- Prepare a replacement plan for every person on your team. Assume no replacement is coming.
- Take part in the company “off-board”; administration can miss things that are team-specific.
- Assess your team processes (ex. document ownership, meeting schedule) after every exit.
- Maintain a conduit for a personal relationship; the time for learning from the experience may come later.
- Keep the whole process positive and professional.
Exiting employees are actively networking and sharing their experience about your team with others. They can either be building your bridges, or leaving negative Glassdoor reviews.
Put bluntly, retention is avoiding exits. It’s expensive, disruptive, and bad karma to lose any employee (aka “churn”).
If you recognize someone is un-engaged and underperforming, the “exit or retain” decision should follow quickly. Retaining means putting that person on a path to engagement (not necessarily high performance), and investing in their longer-term development.
This decision is difficult, and requires you to identify and address conflicts head on. That ruthlessness doesn’t always come naturally.
Retaining employees requires managers to:
- Be clear and consistent about necessary behaviours and goals.
- Foster a team identity that’s inclusive, honest, and aligned with business objectives.
- Develop a personal “improvement plan”; the goals isn’t to make someone a rock-star, but set expectations on all those behaviours required to be successful.
- Team-build; call out conflicts and have employees resolve them together. Friends need strife.
The pattern here is managers retain people by being clear about the team, it’s goals, and navigating people into appropriate roles.
If you’ve taken management training since the late 1990’s, likely it was focused on engaging your employees. Engagement supersedes concepts like “job satisfaction” and “morale” as a predictor of employee success.
Research that precedes this terminology still stands. A formative, data-based text on engagement + management is the (terribly named) First, Break all the Rules by the good people at Gallup.
Many activities required to engage high-performers are the same ones managers need to do in other parts of the lifecycle:
- Ensure people have the right tools, equipment for the job.
- Consistently communicate what is expected of the team, and the value of that work to the company.
- Define plans for development and training.
- Support development of team identity and friendships.
While retention requires setting up the team and roles, engagement focuses on the one-on-one relationship with the manager:
- Know your employees as individuals, people with personal stories.
- Find work that plays to their strengths and opinions; advocate for projects that match their skills.
- Recognize and celebrate successes; small wins that have creative output are great (ex. a well-written document that solved a client’s long-standing problem)
- Discuss their growth regularly, including strategies for getting promoted, compensation increases.
The extreme end of supporting the one-on-one relationship is identifying when to exit someone for a role better suited to their growing skills. Encouraging an employee onto a better opportunity is an act of being a great manager.
Hopefully you’ve found the above lifecycle helpful! A good first step is to place your employees on the diagram above, and maybe your next one-on-one will prove insightful.