Category Archives: Book Reviews

How to Get the Most Out of a Star Performer

While it is easy to focus on how to deal with employees who are under-performing, I have found that it is equally important to know how to get the most out of your star performers. Not only do top performers contribute to the output of the team, but they also help challenge and inspire every other member of the team to be their best. As a manager, it’s easy to overlook your top performers because they often excel at operating independently, and they are delivering good work. However, doing so can lead to losing your best people as they get bored or look elsewhere for more challenges. Think of it this way- you’ve done the hard work of hiring well and training this person, so don’t stop there! The following strategies will help you keep your star performers happy and engaged.

1) Ask About Their Priorities

It may seem counterintuitive, but one of the hardest things your top performer will face is the number of options he or she has. Don’t fall into the trap of assuming that they will follow the progression that you did. For example, in my previous life as a manager I had a strong tendency to assume that everyone on my team who was performing well wanted to end up in a management role. This is so not true! Someone who excels at the content and the technical areas of their role may want to grow into a management role, or they may want to continue to develop subject matter expertise. They may want to become an expert who focuses on one specialty, or maybe they are itching to gain broader experience. The point is, “professional growth” means different things for everyone, and in order to help your employee feel challenged and engaged, you need to ask questions and listen in order to identify his or her priorities.

2) Make a Plan

Now that you know what is most important to your star performer, work together to put a plan in place. While you may be constrained by resources like time, budget, and team design, the simple act of having a plan will make both of you feel better. Setting expectations with your employee about what is reasonable will help him know how things will unfold. Often, uncertainty about professional growth or career direction is at the root of unhappiness and boredom. Therefore, even if your plan isn’t perfect, just having it in place (and sticking to it!) will do wonders to give your star confidence that you are attending to his career development goals.

3) Think Beyond Your Group

Now is not the time to be selfish. Although you most likely want to keep your top performers for as long as you can, you need to think creatively about how to keep them engaged and happy while still keeping them primarily focused on your team. One way to work around organization design constraints is to help them get involved in projects around the company. This does a few things. Firstly, it gives them an opportunity to build relationships and get exposure beyond your team, which will certainly help in their long-term career goals. Secondly, it gives them a way to test new responsibilities and challenges in a low-risk setting. If they don’t end up excelling at a possible new path, they will still have your team to come home to. This ensures that this proposition works well for both of you. You get the benefit of keeping them most of the time, when you most likely wouldn’t otherwise, and they get the exposure and experience without all the risk of switching roles. Another things to consider is to have them help you build up bench strength by training and mentoring more junior members of the team. We’d all like to learn from the best, and this gives your star a taste of leadership. It’s a win for you, your star, and your junior team members.

We’ve all heard that some teams excel while others never really hit their stride, and that it isn’t necessarily about just having the right people. This is true in sports and it’s certainly also true in business. One often-overlooked component is how the manager treats the high performers to make sure they stay engaged, interested, and continually challenged.

 

 

 

 

How to Get the Feedback You Need

Most people recognize the value of feedback, whether it is positive affirmation or constructive criticism. However, most managers don’t give enough feedback. In fact, a recent Gallup poll found that 72% of people feel their performance would improve if they got more constructive feedback from their managers. This makes sense, because constructive feedback allows you to understand how others are perceiving you, and it gives you insight into potential blind spots. Since most managers don’t give their employees enough feedback, it is wise not to rely on your manager to do this for you. Although it may seem intimidating to request feedback, starting this conversation is a smart move.

The following tips will help you feel comfortable asking for feedback.

1) Think beyond your manager

The obvious place to look for feedback is to one’s direct supervisor. While they may have some very good insights, they shouldn’t be the only person you to go. They will give you a certain perspective, but it’s important to get a well-rounded view of your performance. Be sure to ask people who see you in different aspects of your responsibilities. For example, ask your peers, your clients, and those who report to you. While your manager should have a big picture view of your strengths and weaknesses, others around you will have had meaningful interactions with you and can therefore provide very useful thoughts on your performance.

2) Ask for specifics

One of the hurdles to getting enough feedback is the feeling that asking for feedback requires a lot of work from someone else. Especially if you want to ask your manager or another senior person, you should be very mindful of taking up too much of their time. One of the ways to ensure you aren’t asking for an extended conversation is to be very specific with your request. For example, if you are working on a specific development area, ask how you did with regards to that area on a recent project or in a relevant meeting. Something along the lines of, “I have been working on making my communications more concise. Can you offer any feedback on the recent project update I sent out?” That is much more targeted than generally asking for feedback. As a result, it requires a lot less from the other person. Being specific will not only allow you to get more helpful feedback, but it alleviates the concern that you are taking too much time from a busy  person.

3) Timing is Important

Putting some thought into when to ask for feedback will have a big impact on the quality of the feedback you get and whether you annoy the other person in the process. The first thing to consider is whether to set up a separate meeting or just find a spare moment after a meeting. There is no one right way to do this, so consider your company culture and your manager’s style. If they are someone who usually likes to have meetings scheduled, follow their lead and set up a short meeting to discuss feedback (I recommend 15 minutes). If, on the other hand, they tend to pop by your desk for short conversations on a regular basis, it’s safe to assume you could do the same for this conversation. The second thing to think about is how their day is going. You want to avoid asking for feedback on a day when they have an important meeting, a big presentation, or an urgent problem. While this may sound obvious, it can be difficult to think these things through if you get too wrapped up in worrying about the feedback. Therefore, it’s worth it to take a few minutes to consider the context and map out a good strategy for the logistics of gathering the feedback.

 

How to: Get a Raise

A raise: everyone wants one, but how to get it? And more importantly, how to ask for a raise without jeopardizing your relationship with your manager. No one wants to come across as money hungry, but the reality is that taking initiative about your career and salary will have a major impact on your lifetime earning.

1) Ask for It
The most common reason that people don’t get the salary they want is because they don’t ask for it.  While the unique value you offer to your company is clear to you, it may not always in be in the forefront of your manager’s mind. They likely have other direct reports and other responsibilities to worry about. Many people assume that their hard work will be noticed and rewarded, so they feel that asking for a raise will be unnecessary or have a negative impact on how they are perceived. However, if done calmly and logically, negotiating for a raise could actually improve your manager’s opinion of you. Wouldn’t you want to work with someone who was eager to challenge themselves and confident in their strengths? I know I would.

2) Time it Right

Timing is very important when it comes to increasing your salary. Most people wait until the end of the review period to bring this up, which is a big mistake. By then, you don’t have any more time to prove you are deserving of a higher salary.  If there was something specific your manager was hoping to see from you and hasn’t, you won’t have time to correct this. Additionally, there is a lot of review and oversight that goes into setting yearly compensation. Your manager has most likely gone through rounds of reviews with her superiors and gotten approval from HR. If you wait until your review is about to be delivered, chances are your raise (or lack thereof) has already been determined.  So, to give yourself time to prove you are deserving of a higher salary, bring up your goals at the beginning of the review period. Be honest about what you you want to achieve in terms of responsibility and salary increases. It’s also a good idea to ask them to be specific about what they want to see from you in order to increase your salary.   For example, “I would like to be making $80,00 by this time next year. What do you think my biggest development areas are?  Which projects could I work on to build these skills and demonstrate that I can operate at a higher level?” By asking up front, you will ensure you are on the same page about what’s required to move into a bigger role and earn a higher salary. That way, you can spend your time working on what is most important, and by the time your next review period rolls around, you should have a very strong case for getting a raise.

3) Track Your Accomplishments

Once you have had a conversation with your boss and discussed your goals, don’t go silent. Keep the conversation open throughout the review period. Make sure you are checking in with your boss at least once a month to assess your progress. This will help you avoid getting out of sync with them by decision time. It is also incredibly important that you advocate for yourself. No one else is paying as much attention to your accomplishments as you are, so be sure to keep a running list of examples where you were successful. By staying in charge of your own development this way, you will have a tangible record at the end of the year. This is so much more powerful than relying on someone else’s memory and interpretation of events.

 

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.

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. 

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.

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.