Browsing the archives for the managing people tag.

Coaching: Making the vague more specific

Geek 5, Managing people

Last week I gave some advice to a less experienced manager.  She and I are friends and have worked on projects together in the past.  About a year ago she was promoted into her first role in which she manages people.  Unfortunately she inherited a tough team.  Early on she had to manage a long-time employee out of the business.

Last week, she had to coach someone on performance issues.  She was stressed out from the conversation.    So we talked that through and I think she felt better.  She just needed a friendly ear.

Then we talked about the action plan she was setting up for her direct report.  He was struggling with some tough issues.  They were more about “will” versus “skill”.  Skill issues are easier to fix – they usually require teaching and time.  Will issues are about someone not wanting to do something or not being willing to change.

This direct report, let’s call him Charlie, has solid skills and does his job reasonably well.  However, he is difficult to work with.  He can also be argumentative and closed to other perspectives.  His body language screams when he was unhappy.  Maybe he even has a bit of the cringe factor.  One key problem is that he often ignores input from internal clients about his project work.  He will not incorporate changes if he does not agree with them.

The manager did all of the right things – she had the difficult conversation and and used specific examples.  However, she wasn’t sure how to turn that information into an action plan for fixing the problems.   Similar to advice given about performance reviews, there are some basics about writing good action plans.

In this case it was about being more specific and behavioral.  Originally the plan stated that he needed to be more open to input from internal clients and incoporate their feedback into his work.  The problem was captured but this description was not specific enough to help him understand what he needs to do.

So we worked together until the manager had an idea of what to tell him to do.  In this case the action plan was modified to say that he needed to send an email after content meetings with internal clients.  In the email he will specify what he had heard in the meeting and what changes and work he will do as a result.  He will copy the manager, so she can follow up on progress.

I don’t know how this story will end.  But the manager handled it well with a few tweaks to the action plan.  Charlie has a chance to turn things around and the manager has grown as a leader of people.

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5 Tips for Effective Performance Reviews

Geek 5, Managing people, Uncategorized

In previous posts, we discussed some of the ins and outs of delivering effective performance reviews as a manager.  One of the Geek 5 risks is around managing people – and managers often fail at doing effective reviews.  Here are five tips that can help you be successful:

1.  Prepare – If done well, reviews can be very impactful.  They wrap up the previous year and set expectations for the future year.  To have an impact, you as the manager need to prepare – and that means doing more than filling out the forms.  You should: 

  • look back over the whole year for successes and opportunities
  • seek feedback from co-workers who interact with your direct report
  • consider “what” got done but also “how” the work got done
  • compare your direct report to expectations for his or her level and job description
  • think about the value or pain that the person brings to the team dynamics
  • come up with concrete examples of good and bad behavior
  • fill out the paperwork so it reflects the message you want to send

2.  Build off coaching in the moment – Remember, if you are coaching in the moment all year long, you should be continuing those conversations.  That means that there should not be any surprises in the final review.  If you haven’t been coaching all year, then this is the place to start.  Set firm expectations for the year and continue the conversation all year long.

3.  Have the difficult conversation – Remember, having the honesty to help someone improve areas of opportunity is kinder in the long-run than pretending everything is okay.  Have mercy by being tough but honest.  To prepare for a tough conversation: 

  • have concrete examples of behavior (instead of saying “you are not a team player” you can say “you were asked to assist Sally with a critical deadline last month, but you refused to help because it was not a normal part of your job”)
  • think about how you will phrase the feedback – having a script makes it easier if you are nervous
  • anticipate emotion – your direct report might get angry or cry – you should give them time to calm down and then continue
  • work with your HR Manager if you need some coaching on how to give tough feedback

4.  Remember the positive – These posts have focused a lot on having difficult conversations.  Many geek managers struggle with giving direct, negative feedback.  With that said, don’t forget the positive.  Reinforce the behaviors he or she does well.  Re-state your confidence that he/she will continue to improve and be a valuable member of the team.   Unless someone is in serious trouble, try to leave all reviews on a positive, future-focused note.

5. Follow-up – Remember to extend your conversations throughout the year.  This is especially important if someone is on an improvement plan.  One common mistake is that managers put a direct report on a plan and then never follow-up.  The performance does not improve or is not sustained, but the manager is not paying attention anymore.  Put a note on your calendar for check-in points.  If you don’t hold your direct reports accountable, you lose credibility as a leader.

Managing people is not always fun, but it can be rewarding as you help your direct reports develop and improve.  In any case, performance reviews and giving feedback are key parts of your role as a manager.  Do it well!

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No Surprises in Performance Reviews

Geek 5, Managing people

In my company, we are in the middle of performance review season. Part of my job is to run the process including developing procedures, creating forms, communicating steps and time lines and following up. Yes, I am THAT person from HR who keeps pestering you about your reviews. As such, I see reviews for people all over the company from senior leaders to hourly workers. I also hear a lot of feedback about what works and what doesn’t.

Folks in my company complain a lot about the process. We don’t have a system that runs the process, so everything is done manually. Our review forms are on Word documents and Excel spreadsheets. Documents are shared via email and the final forms have to be printed out and signed and kept in central storage – otherwise we would not have a historical record. So obviously not a perfect process. We’re working on that and hope to have something better in the future. Believe me, the manual process is harder on my team than it is on other folks in the company.

With all of that said, the process should not matter. Performance reviews are not about the process, they should be about having the right conversations. Good processes and an automated system will not make up for weak conversations.

One of the Geek 5 risks is about managing people. Geeks often struggle with people management. An important skill to develop is having difficult conversations and giving appropriate feedback. One formal opportunity for giving feedback is the annual performance review. However, more often than not, performance reviews become a check the box activity and don’t provide real value.

I am a firm believer that there should never be any surprises in performance reviews. One responsibility of a manager should be to give regular, ongoing feedback. This is referred to as coaching in the moment and should happen virtually every day. Coaching in the moment means giving feedback and praise immediately after the behavior is done. If you witness a direct report doing something great, tell him or her. Be specific about the behavior you saw and explain why you appreciate it. Verbal praise and recognition go a long way to keeping your team engaged and productive. You are also reinforcing the behavior you value and want to see more of.

Coaching in the moment also means immediately giving corrective feedback when you see a behavior that is not appropriate. Don’t wait six months to tell someone that they were rude and abrupt in a meeting or that their presentation was poorly written. Do it immediately. Give them specific feedback about what was wrong – explain the behavior – and set expectations for the behavior you want to see. By giving immediate feedback, you help them correct the problem faster and they can easily remember what happened.

As a manager if you are coaching in the moment, there should be no surprises in the performance review. You have been giving feedback and guidance about good and poor behavior all year long. At the annual review, you can re-cap the year and discuss progress and additional needed progress.

If your direct report is surprised in an annual review, it is a reflection on your management style. Constant feedback means no surprises.

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Introduction to the Geek 5

Geek 5, Overview

In my experience in coaching geeks, I’ve seen five recurring themes.  Some or all of these might apply to you.  Many of my coaching suggestions will center on what I think of as the Geek 5.  If you are struggling to advance or to excel in a professional context, consider your standing on these five areas.

  1. Broader role – Geeks often prefer to stay in the cocoon of their technical specialty.  They resist giving up their expertise to move in to broader roles.  Sometimes they are pushed in a new direction and sometimes they pursue a new role to increase status and salary.  To be successful, a geek has to find peace with this decision.  In addition, geeks tend to have analytical work styles and introverted personalities.  These tendencies can make it less natural to focus on professional success strategies such as developing relationships, selling ideas and personal branding.
  2. Organizational savvy – Organizational savvy is about understanding how businesses or organizations work – and specifically how to get things done easily and effectively  in your workplace.  Some geeks refer to this as “playing politics” and cringe at the thought. “Politics” does not have to be a dirty word.  Organizational savvy is about understanding how to get things done, build networks, communicate effectively and protect yourself.  You’ve got to learn the rules of the game in order to win.
  3.  Managing people – Technical experts often make it to a mid-career point as well-paid individual contributors.  They are responsible for their own production, performance and success.  When they move into their first role managing other people, they are often missing basic knowledge around directing the work of others, delegating, communicating expectations, having performance conversations and developing their direct reports.  Managing people well is not an easy thing to learn – and it is not as clear-cut as technical knowledge.  A chemist who knows that two chemicals will always react the same way can struggle when two employees need completely different management styles. 
  4. Leadership skills – With a narrow technical focus, geeks are often not stretched into bigger leadership roles.  Leadership means setting a vision and clarity of intent for the organization or group, so everyone is moving in the same direction.  It involves building cross-functional relationships and always considering the systemic impact of decisions.  It involves strategy and motivating others.  It is often fuzzy to define, but yet remains critical to success.  Leadership skills are gained through experience and by learning from other leaders.
  5. Business acumen – Geeks who are not already in financial and business areas often lack basic business and financial fundamentals.  Moving into higher level roles or getting attention outside a technical area, requires geeks to think about bigger organizational issues.  This often involves an ability to understand and discuss financial metrics like EPS, EBIT, Margin, etc.  If you don’t know what these are, my point is made.  Go look them up.
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