Author Archives: Kate

A Guide to Performance Planning: Part 3

Today’s post is a continuation of two earlier posts on performance planning. If you have not read those yet, I suggest starting here for Part 1 and here for Part 2.

So, now that you’ve done your planning and had the conversation with your employee, you’re in the clear, right? Not so fast. As I mentioned earlier, the reason you are investing in a performance plan is because it is in everyone’s best interest for your employee to succeed. To maximize the probability this will happen, you both still have a lot of work to do. Today I’m going to address some best practices for managing an employee on a performance plan.

There are many different ways to structure a plan, and while I have my views on that, I’m going to focus here on best practices for approaching the follow through, rather than the format of the plan itself.

1) Document It

In many corporate settings, managers are required to document performance plans. Even if it is not required at your organization, I recommend you document performance plans. The first reason for this is to increase the effectiveness of communication between you and your employee.  You may think you have agreement in a meeting only to learn much later that your employee misunderstood you.  Having them review and sign off on their understanding of the document is a great way to guard against miscommunications.  Documenting it also ensures that everyone agrees on the expectations and the ways in which progress will be evaluated. Additionally, having a living document  is  an easy way to track progress and make the plan transparent.  No matter what format you choose, make sure it is written down and shared with all relevant parties.

2) Make it a Collaboration

While you as the manager are ultimately responsible for creating the plan and evaluating your employee, you should still approach performance planning as a partnership. After all, your employee is the one who has to actually change their behavior, so you need to make sure they understand the plan and that they believe it is attainable. Involving your employee in the creation of the plan has some other benefits too. Firstly, having them partner with you to create it gives them a sense of control over the process. This, in turn, will increase their motivation to follow the plan. Secondly, they likely understand the daily details of their role better than you do. Therefore, their input on what is reasonable and attainable is key to making sure your plan is realistic.

3) Check in regularly

One of the most common reasons why performance plans fail to result in actual behavioral shifts is that they become static documents that are abandoned soon after the initial feedback conversation. The plan should be a living document, used to track progress and document examples. That said, the plan itself cannot substitute for continued open conversations between the manager and the employee. Set regularly scheduled meetings, review the plan, and agree on progress or setbacks in an open and direct dialogue. This ensures that you are getting on the same page regularly, so that you won’t be surprised by a major disagreement at the end of the assessment time frame.

4) Get outside opinions

While you and the employee are the main owners of the plan, it is very helpful to get outside opinions on how much progress is being made. Just as you checked in with relevant co-workers to gather the initial feedback, you should continue to follow up with those people to get their views on the progress being made. This ensures objectivity, and it helps you to get a more accurate picture of your employee’s performance. Perhaps there are some aspects of the plan where they are excelling while they are still hitting major roadblocks in other areas. You might miss this if you don’t regularly get feedback from people who interact with your employee on different aspects of their role.

A Guide to Performance Planning: Part 2

As a follow-up to last week’s post, today I’m addressing tips for how to approach a performance conversation with an employee who is performing below expectations. If you haven’t read last weeks post, which was about how to prepare for the conversation, I suggest starting there.

1) Get Their View

First of all, you should make it clear to your employee what the topic of the meeting will be. Performance conversations are always stressful, and making it a surprise will not create the best starting point for open communication. I recommend that managers start by asking the employee for their view on how they are doing. This is for a few reasons. First, you get a sense of where they see themselves- sometimes their self-perception is more accurate than you expect. Secondly, it is very helpful to know how disparate your perception of the performance is from theirs. This way, you start the conversation aware of whether you need to explain your perspective to them completely (and rely on your examples), or whether you can use the time to focus more on understanding the reasons behind the poor performance.

2) Stay Inquisitive

A mistake many managers make is going into a conversation with the mindset of proving their point. While it is important to go into a conversation prepared, you also need to keep an open mind and consider that you may not have all the facts about a person’s performance or the challenges they are facing. Stay inquisitive by sharing your examples and your view on what’s going well as well as what is going poorly; but be sure to also ask questions of your employee. For example, what are the biggest challenges for them? What are the weaknesses that they feel are getting in the way of their success? Staying inquisitive ensures that it remains a conversation, not a one-way lecture.

3) Put It In Perspective

I bring this up a lot when discussing performance conversations, but it is so vitally important that it bear repeating. Putting the feedback or criticism into perspective of where the employee is against expectations and what the  consequences are of their current position. For example, if you have a very high-peforming employee, and you want to give them some critical feedback because you think they have the potential to be even better. If you don’t put this feedback into perspective, they may get discouraged and lose motivation. On the flip side, if you try to have a performance conversation with an under-performer and you don’t make it very clear where they stand, they may leave the meeting thinking they have some room for improvement without realizing they are on the verge of losing their job. Therefore, putting it in perspective is important and must include and overall status of where they are against where they should be as well as a clear indication of the consequences of their performance.

4) Diagnose

Once you have gotten their perspective and learned about their situation by staying inquisitive, it is time to shift your focus to diagnosing the root causes behind the poor performance. There are many things that could be to blame: bad or unclear organizational design, poor processes or technology, a lack of training, or a personal weakness. The most common pitfall is to assume that it must be the latter- that if an employee is under-performing it MUST be because of an incurable personal weakness. While that very well may be the case, it is your responsibility as the manager to make an accurate diagnosis.

5) End With Clear Next Steps

If you have taken the time to have this conversation and develop a performance plan for an employee, which is a large investment of time and effort, you want to do everything in your power to maximize their chances of succeeding. Ending a difficult conversation with clear next steps will ensure that your employee has a concrete action plan to focus on. Without this, it is very easy for most people to get caught up in a negative emotional cycle. Since these meetings are often tense, and it is hard to concentrate and think logically when you are upset, it is best practice to follow up with a written summary of agreed-upon next steps. This is a great way to make sure you are on the same page with your employee, and it gives them the opportunity to challenge or ask questions.

A Guide to Performance Planning: Part 1

One of the challenges my clients frequently present to me is how to handle an employee who is under-performing. It is undoubtedly one of the hardest management skills to master, and of course it is also one of the most important. Since I spent the majority of my career focusing on how to transform poorly-performing teams, I have learned the hard way what works and what does not. Of course, there is no one way to handle this situation, and customization for each employee is a key aspect of success.

I’m dividing this guide into 3 parts. Today’s post will focus on your preparation for the conversation with an employee who is not performing well. Parts 2 and 3 (to follow over the next week) will review the conversation itself and the follow through after the conversation, respectively.

1) PREPARATION

The first key to having a good conversation around performance is preparation. I cannot state this enough. If you go into a performance discussion without having done your due diligence, it will not go well. But what exactly do I mean by “preparation”? It is vital that you understand both your employee AND what they do on a daily basis. Think you’re familiar with the technology they use but haven’t spent time looking at it in a while? Ask to shadow them for an hour or two or have them walk you through it. Not sure how they go about leading meetings? Attend one. Don’t assume that you know how they are acting based on what they tell you or your assumption from the results they are producing. Take the time to get to know them and their work.

2) HAVE EXAMPLES

Nine times out of ten, if you give someone critical feedback, their response is going to be, “Can you give me an example of that?” You want to be prepared for this, so make sure you have two-three examples of the relevant behavior. They should be recent, so that it is fresh in both of your minds. You should also have something concrete, not just an impression. For example, if your employee is struggling with client interactions, bring a negative customer review as an example. By bringing examples, you can illustrate your points and have a productive conversation about the other person’s development areas, rather than a debate about whether the development areas exist.

3) TRIANGULATE

You are probably confident in your assessment that this employee is not performing up to your standard. Even if you are, ask other people for their views. Even the best managers have blind spots and biased perspectives. You owe it to yourself and to your employee to ask people from different vantage points what they see. Make sure to ask people with both different perspectives (e.g. peers, other managers, customers, etc) and people with different personality types. That should help to give you a more comprehensive view and put a check and balance on any biases or assumptions you are unconsciously making.

Stay tuned for parts 2 and 3 of the Performance Planning Guide to learn more about what to do in your initial conversation and how to follow through afterwards.

 

Tough Question: What Are Your Strengths?

As a follow up to my earlier post addressing the question “What are your Weaknesses?” today I’m going to cover the other side of the coin: strengths. Although it may seem easier to discuss what you are good at, it can be daunting for a lot of people. Additionally, even if you can think of some strengths, this question is a great opportunity to highlight your personal brand and position yourself as the best fit for the job. Therefore, you want to make sure that your answer isn’t just good, i’s targeted and strategic. Here are some ways to think about crafting a response that will help you stand out.

1) Think about the things you love to do

Often when we are discussing this question my clients tell me they can’t think of any strengths. When I ask them to tell me what they love doing, the answers start to flow freely. Start by thinking about this question in terms of preferences and you may find that plenty of things come to mind. Most people excel at things they love, so strengths flow naturally from preferences. If you start here, you will probably find that you have quite a few to choose from. The next two tips will help you narrow down what you should share in your limited interview time.

2) Make it something Unique

In the interview process, you are basically selling a product — it just so happens that the product is you. So treat it the way you would approach selling anything else: focus on what makes you unique compared to the competition. For strengths, this means highlighting something that is both relevant to the role and something that is unique.

For example, if you’re an accountant who is also a strategic thinker, that is a really smart attribute to highlight. Most accounting candidates will be good with details, but most likely you will be the only one who highlights a strategic thinking ability. Use this as an opportunity to shine the light on strengths or combinations of skills that make you uniquely qualified for the job.

3) Explain the “HOW”

Consider these two examples:

1: “Project management is a strength of mine. I’ve been able to manage really complex inter-disciplinary projects effectively.”

2: “Project management is a strength of mine. I focus on making sure that all relevant stakeholders are communicated to frequently and that the information they get is most relevant for their responsibilities.  This has enabled me manage complex inter-disciplinary projects effectively.”

The second answer is only one sentence longer, but it does two critical things that the first one doesn’t. First, it gives it some legitimacy. Most candidates will claim they are good at the required skills for a role. When someone says, “I am good at X skill,” the interviewer has to trust their own self-assessment.  After most recruiters and hiring managers do a few hundred interviews, you start to question every stated strength a candidate presents. So while you may be telling the truth, just stating it likely won’t be enough to convince your interviewer. Secondly, explaining HOW you do something effectively gives the interviewer much greater insight into how you think. Since this is the goal of most interviews, you will leave a much stronger impression if you are able to explain what you do differently that allows you to excel at a certain skill.

 

Weekly Reading

A really interesting look at the differing psychological effects success has on men and women. 

This one is actually a video, but a good analysis of the costs and benefits of getting an MBA. I certainly think that there are benefits other than increased salary post-MBA, but certainly something to calculate before making the leap.

How to stand out when your boss is trying to block your career advancement. 

Weekly Reading

A roundup of my favorite articles from this week. Happy reading!

A great summary of questions to ask a potential employer about company culture. I especially agree with #4: ask what employees don’t like about the culture, and listen carefully for inauthentic answers and red flags.

This is a very timely follow up to yesterday’s blog post. Employees really do want constructive criticism (emphasis on constructive!)

We all know the importance of having a strong professional brand on social media, but how to master your LinkedIn profile? Here are 11 strategies to improve your profile and attract more opportunities. The “relationship” tab is a very under-utilized feature that can make life much easier.

How To: Deliver Critical Feedback Effectively

Whether you’re an employee who isn’t getting enough input from your boss, or a leader who is struggling with how to deliver a tough message, feedback is a universal and unavoidable challenge. As a leader, it is critically important to be able to deliver feedback well.  One of the reasons critical feedback is so dreaded is that many managers think they only need to give it to employees who are struggling.  In fact, feedback is equally, if not more important, as a tool to help your top performers improve and take on more responsibility.  Quality constructive criticism can help a great employee become a star, and enables your star performer to have an even bigger impact on your team.

Although it may be uncomfortable in the moment, your employees and teammates will certainly appreciate your honesty in the long run. Keep these things in mind to deliver feedback most effectively.

1) Put things in Context

I like to use a 2-part formula for giving constructive feedback and performance assessments: The state of things + What does that mean.

Consider the differences between these two statements:

a) “You have been struggling with how to approach projects that are ambiguous.”

b) “You have been struggling with how to approach projects that are more ambiguous, but overall your progress is in line with what we expected based on your seniority.”

See how powerful that second phrase is? The employee would likely walk away with a totally different view on how they were doing. Whether it’s good or bad (the “what does it mean” might be that someone is performing below expectations), it is vital to give employees a sense of where their behavior falls against your expectations for them. Don’t assume they know where you think they stand or that they will be able to extrapolate it from your observation — be explicit.

2) Beware the Compliment Sandwich

I often hear people say that that the compliment sandwich is the most effective way to give feedback. This makes me cringe. It’s not! Don’t just take my word for it, research supports that it’s not an effective way to convey areas for improvement. When you put constructive criticism between two positives, the person you’re talking to mainly only hears the positives. They definitely won’t walk away with a clear sense of how that piece of feedback fits in with their overall performance. They will most likely brush it off altogether. Alternatively, it often has the effect of devaluing the positives. If you want to deliver positive feedback, do it separately. It should not be used as a warm-up for areas for improvement.

3) Partner to Create Next Steps 

There are few things as un-motivating as getting a bunch of critical feedback and feeling like you have no idea how to approach making the necessary changes. An excellent leader will not only deliver the feedback, but they will end the conversation by outlining some concrete steps to improve. It is also most effective if you give examples of what could have gone better. An effective way to combine the two is to discuss how a past example situation could have been improved, and to strategize together about how to handle a similar situation in the future. Motivated people want to improve- help them shift into action as soon as possible by being direct and specific about what they can do differently.

I feel so passionately about the importance of delivering quality, actionable feedback that I could easily develop a list of 20 things to keep in mind. However, if you follow these three guidelines, you are much more likely to have a productive conversation with your employee and lay the foundation for personal growth and improvement.

Book Review: The Start-up of You

I read a lot of books about career advancement and leadership, and in an ongoing series I want to bring you reviews of my favorite books.  There are so many options for professional books out there, and I hope this can help you sort through the options and decide where to invest your time.

Today I’m reviewing The Start-up of You, by  Reid Hoffman and Ben Casnocha.

The Premise: This book is based on the concept that everyone should manage their career the way that they would manage a start-up. While we aren’t all going to be entrepreneurs, we can still benefit from the approaches of an entrepreneurial mindset.

Ideal Audience: This book is truly relevant for anyone who wants practical strategies and approaches for managing their career. It would be particularly useful for younger professionals at the beginning or middle of their careers since it includes many insights on successfully building and using your network as you establish yourself.

Main Lessons: There are many lessons that I will take away from this book, but the top three that will stay with me are:

1) Permanent beta- This is the idea that you are always evolving and improving. I have worked with (and interviewed) many people who think that they have achieved their goals or reached their professional peak.  That’s a dangerous way to think in a competitive job market where the top performers are constantly learning and improving. Permanent beta is a great way  to think about yourself as a product that is always improving.

2) A, B, Z paths-  The A path is the path that you are currently on; for example, your current job.  Plan B is a slight iteration on your Plan A, it might be a bigger role at your current company or a more desirable job in the same field.  You want to create a plan B that allows you to learn new skills, try something different, or build a broader range of experience.  When you pivot to your plan B, that becomes your new plan A and you restart the cycle of developing a plan B.  Your plan Z  is the worst-case scenario fall back plan.  For example, if you are applying to business school, your Plan A is your current job, your Plan B is going to graduate school, and your Plan Z might be taking some time off and living off your savings. Because there is risk involved in making career changes, the plan Z is there to be your fallback in case the risks you take do not pan out. One of the most valuable things about this ABZ strategy is that it forces you to evaluate where you are and categorize possible future options. Having the Plan Z means that you can take risks without worrying that you will leave yourself in an unmanageable situation.

3) I^We- Not surprisingly, since the co-author of this book founded LinkedIn, there is a lot of focus on the power of networking.  The concept of I^We demonstrates how many people you are connected to through your network. Interestingly, it is often the “weak ties” in our networks that provide the most value in terms of career advancement. Weak ties are acquaintances or people you know through a closer connection.  They expose you to new ideas and opportunities more than your close connections, since by virtue of their distance from you, they are exposed to different information.  I struggle with networking, because I always worry that networking imposes on others or that I am coming across as inauthentic.  This section offers useful practical advice about how to get over the fear of networking.  The biggest takeaway for me was to think about how to give something, they call them “gifts” of information or knowledge, to the people in your network so that when you engage with them it is a back and forth rather than a request.

Overall, I highly recommend this book. If you are interested but do not have the time to read it, there is an incredibly helpful executive summary on their website, thestartupofyou.com.

Tough Question: What is your management style?

Today I’m addressing another one of the most-dreaded interview questions: How would you describe your management style? In my view, open-ended questions are often the hardest to answer.  It’s hard to know what information to include and what to leave out, as well as whether you should be detailed or high level.  Even if you have significant management experience, this can be a tough question to answer well.  If you are applying for your first real management role, it is even more important to ace this question so you give your interviewer confidence that you will make a good leader. So, let’s go over some strategies to make this potentially difficult question easier to tackle.

1) Think about what qualities defined the most effective leaders you have seen in action. 

It’s so much easier to think about what makes a good leader when you take yourself out of the equation. That’s why I think it helps to start by thinking about past leaders you have worked for or at least seen in action. What qualities helped to make them stand out? Were they particularly good at coaching, setting a vision, or staying in touch with their employees? Write down the top 3-5 attributes that made them effective, and think about how you could apply these to your own experience. This is particularly valuable if you have not officially managed someone else before. Whether you think about it consciously or not, you are likely going to start by emulating leaders you have worked with before. Over time, your style will become more your own, but modeling is a great place to start as you gain more leadership experience.

2) Know the major styles of leadership

This takes a bit more research, but a little effort will go a long way towards being prepared for your interview. It helps to have a basic framework for types of leaders to apply some structure to an otherwise ambiguous question. While by no means the only definition of management types, these are widely accepted and a good place to start*:

  • Commanding/coercive- dictatorship, “do what I say.” Often used in hierarchical organization (e.g. the military) or in times of crisis where there is no time for discussion or dissension.
  • Visionary- explains a vision and paints a picture of what is possible in the future to motivate people.
  • Affiliative- Focuses on diffusing conflict and creating harmony.
  • Democratic- Engages heavily with the entire team to get their input, makes decisions collectively
  • Pacesetting- Builds challenging, exciting goals for employees.
  • Coaching- Invests heavily in getting to know employees and developing their strengths and weaknesses.

Of course, certain leadership styles are more appropriate for different cultures and for different circumstances. One person is not one style all the time, and these are not hard and fast definitions. However, knowing this framework is a helpful way to categorize your style and organize your response to a tough question.

*More information on the leadership types can be found here: http://www.educational-business-articles.com/six-leadership-styles.html

Can I get a little Respect?

Almost everyone I know has had this problem at some point in their career: someone who reports to you or a more junior team member is not giving you the proper respect. This can take many forms. Maybe it is your direct report and they challenge you or ignore you rather than following directions. Perhaps it is not your direct report but still someone more junior to you on a team; they may go around you when they should consult you or intentionally leave you out of conversations to go directly to the top of the pyramid. However this behavior manifests, it’s frustrating and it gets in the way of teams performing at their best. Here are some strategies to use when faced with this situation.

1) Ask, Don’t Assume

Ask, don’t assume, is one of the most powerful lessons I’ve learned in my career. In this context, it’s especially important to step back from the frustration and consider where the other person is coming from. If they are your direct report, one of the best ways to diffuse the tension is to make sure you understand their goals. Often their reluctance to be managed comes from feelings that their career isn’t progressing quickly enough.  The tendency is for them to take this out on you. To counteract that, try to have an open dialogue where you explore what their goals are and make sure they are on a plan to achieve them. It may see counterintuitive, but spending more time to focus on their development is likely to make them a better team player in the long run.

2) Set Boundaries

Many times, the tension arises because the more junior person has one of two things: more experience at the firm (institutional knowledge), or subject matter expertise.  Diffuse this tension and unite your team by setting very clear boundaries around who is responsible for which things, and what each person’s strengths are. In many situations, I would walk into a team that had complex and business-critical responsibilities, and I knew they were thinking something along the lines of, “This girl doesn’t understand my job. What makes her at all qualified to lead me?” And that is a very good question. After much trial and error (seriously, a lot of error) I realized I needed a better approach. Start your first interactions by outlining your strengths and relevant track record in your areas of expertise. Take the time to acknowledge each person’s strengths and track records. It is important to make it abundantly clear that you know you could not do their job, and that you respect and appreciate their expertise. This is a fine line, though- do not sell yourself short- give yourself credibility by talking about past results and explaining the areas where you are the expert. This approach shifts the mentality away from you vs. them, and creates a conversation where each person realizes how their strengths fit into the overall organization of the team.

3) Be Direct

In conjunction with the other two strategies, being direct and clear about your concerns is a necessary step. Some people find this very uncomfortable, and some work cultures are more encouraging of direct feedback than others. So adapt this to suit the environment you work in, but know that expressing your concerns in a constructive way is necessary for creating change in behavior. As with point #1, it may seem obvious to you that they are acting inappropriately, so you may think they are already aware too. This is a dangerous assumption. It’s best to have the conversation, frame it as your observation and your concern about what the behavior will result in. For example,  “I’m concerned that if you don’t keep me informed we will not be able to explore all sides of this problem and we may not present complete information to the people who need to know.”  Above all, know that what is obvious to you may not be obvious to others, so the only way to know for sure that they understand they are acting out of turn is for you to tell them.