Driving Performance Through Others
When I think of what it means to grow and develop talent outside of a formal process, it’s really about improving your ability to drive better performance through others. That starts with understanding each person’s strengths and development needs, how those can be leveraged to meet the goals of the team, and having candid conversations that promote learning for both parties. That sounds pretty benign, but I don’t know many leaders who really sit down and plan out the work of their team plotted against everyone’s strengths. There’s a lot of focus on changing people’s development needs, but I’ve seen, there’s precious little focus on leveraging strengths.
I had a team working for me a few years back with two very different employees. One was a PhD…a real expert in his field. He could design and build really effective programs like nobody’s business, but was new to the company and really struggled to get leadership aligned and execute what he had built. The other knew absolutely nothing about leadership development, but if you told her what to do, she’d figure out how to get it done right or die trying. I realized early on that I could spend countless hours trying to turn him into an executer and her into an expert or I could pair them up and have them work together. In the end, great programs got executed, our team had tons of success and both of them worked on their development needs while leveraging their strengths. I don’t have to tell you about the confidence that grew in both of them as we had win after win. Today, we’re all with different companies, but both of them are tremendously successful…and I really did very little other than focus on how to divide up the work and watch them win. That’s what leveraging strengths is all about.
The other critical piece of driving performance is a leader’s ability to have candid dialogue about performance in a way that engages people and promotes learning for both parties. I could write a book on this topic, but suffice it to say that great leaders need to have the humility to admit that sometimes, they don’t know everything and good performance dialogue starts with an open mind.
As an example, while running a learning organization, I had an instruction designer who was missing deadline after deadline. I tried putting deadlines on a whiteboard in our team space. I tried have him set his own deadlines. I evaluated his workload and took work away from him. Nothing worked. We were missing time and time again. And oddly enough, he seemed to be working more hours than anyone else on the team. The day before I wrote his performance improvement plan, I took him for coffee. We sat down and I leveled with him. ‘Look,’ I said, ‘I don’t want to write you up for poor performance, but in 2 months you haven’t made a deadline. Is there something I’m not aware of? What do you think about this.’ Now, notice, I didn’t get upset (although I was) and I tried to be as neutral as possible in my tone. I didn’t ask him a leading question he could just say, ‘yes’ to. I asked him what he thought. In that moment, his eye’s, full of pain, met mine and he quietly admitted that he didn’t know how to type. This guy was trying to type pages and pages of content with two fingers and it had caught up with him. A $15 typing tutorial saved his career. Now we can argue about why he didn’t do that himself, but the fact remains that I could’ve lost a really good employee had I not been open to hearing his point of view. That’s what leadership is all about – and it take more time than most of us put into it.