The Weekly Reid: Is your team strategic? Advice for managers who want to say "yes"

It never ceases to amaze me how few managers can describe their function (and team) as an integrated system. When I ask them about their teams, they tell me about activities, projects, tasks, people. When I ask them to draw me a picture of the system they’ve built and the strategic purpose of that system, I too often get blank stares in return.

The truth is, there are levels to management. To thinking about management and developing a team. To becoming “strategic”. And, in my experience, the upper levels don’t even reveal themselves until you’ve built a strong enough foundation to understand them. I am sure there are many levels I can’t yet comprehend because I haven’t learned enough to be aware of their existence. I don’t know what they are yet, but I’m pretty sure they’re out there waiting for me.

 Today I’m going to walk you through how I think about the various levels of management and team development (at least the levels I’m aware of). I hope it’s helpful as you build a vision and model that makes your team more strategic.

 Level 1 – Activity Centric

Early in a team’s development they tend to chase activities. This is especially true in early stage companies, where established systems and processes do not yet exist. Teams move from one activity to the next, focused almost entirely on the execution of those activities. They tend to measure success by the individual successes of the activities. Did we run a good event? Did we write a good report? Did we close a deal?

The biggest challenge with an activity-centric approach, (aside from it not being strategic) is that it doesn’t scale. You can’t continue applying the soccer game model as your team and company grow. It won’t work. Moreover, the activity-centric approach tends to be disconnected from the real goals and objectives of the company. When you assign intrinsic value to any one activity e.g. an asset or event or project, you miss the point. Tactical activities actually have no intrinsic value – their only value is in how they connect to a strategic business outcome. You can miss this entirely if your team is too focused on activities.

 Level 2 – Function Centric

At a certain point, a manager, and her team by extension, come to realize an activity-oriented model is insufficient. Typically, the leader wakes up one morning with the painful realization that while their team can execute activities, they lack expertise and knowledge of best practices for key functional disciplines. At one time it may have been enough to have generalists working together to execute sequential activities, but that isn’t enough anymore. The best companies in the world have expertise in every function, they have specialization, they have depth. And so, we start building out functional excellence on our teams.

The biggest challenge with a functional-oriented approach is that while it may add quality to your activities by applying best practices, it is still largely disconnected from key strategic business outcomes. Now, your functional teams operate well, but they operate in silos. Instead of assigning intrinsic value to activities, they now assign intrinsic value to functional processes. They aren’t integrated. They are functions that aren’t connected to a higher-level system or process.

 Level 3 – Outcome Centric

Once you’ve moved away from a fixation on activities to develop functional depth, the next level is to integrate those functions to achieve strategic business outcomes. The challenge with both the activity-centered and functional-centered approaches, is they are inherently wasteful. Resources are not efficiently aligned towards the pursuit of high priority business outcomes, they are aligned either towards activity execution or functional best practices.

There comes a moment in every manager’s life when she realizes just how disconnected the team’s efforts (and budgets) are from the actual outcomes the company cares about. They are directing resources and energy towards building expertise and best practice, but that’s not what the business is really about. And so, we re-engineer our organizational structures and processes and KPIs to focus on the pursuit of real business outcomes e.g. revenue acquisition, customer value expansion etc. We build a real architecture and model for our teams and tactics work together in an integrated system with a focused business outcome in mind. This makes a big difference and tends to bring with it, new levels of resource efficiency and connectedness between employees and strategic business initiatives.

Level 4 – Leveraged Model

Now that you have an organizational structure and model that is oriented around delivering to business outcomes, you can begin to scale it. Scaling too early only results in pain and problems. Too many teams try to scale poorly architected models and wonder why its ineffective. Too many managers get infatuated with new trends and the promise of technology and overlook the prerequisite steps to be able to take advantage of them.

But once you have a solid system and model in place, you can begin to apply leverage through the use of data and technology and automation. You can find new levels of scale. You can begin to add additional value to the business as your focus moves away from fundamental model design and towards incremental value creation. You can be strategic.

There are levels to management; to team development; to becoming “strategic”. I am sure there are more than four. I just don’t know what they are yet. My advice to managers is to plot your team against these levels and build a vision for advancing – one step at a time. I hope this was helpful to you and, as always, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section.

The Weekly Reid: 3 Things Every Manager MUST Do in December

We’re winding down the year. It’s easy to take your eye off the ball. It’s easy, in between the holiday parties and family festivities, to overlook a few best practices that can be very important to your team’s momentum and your own career advancement.

Today I’m going to share three things I do every December to put the cherry on top of the current year, and to set my team up for success in the year to come. They won’t take you a ton of time, but in my experience, doing these things can be extremely valuable.

Publish a year-end highlight real

It’s very easy for your boss and other company leaders to forget all the great things your team has done this year. Even you may have forgotten some of them. If you’re not careful, some of your great efforts and accomplishments can be inadvertently swept under the rug.

One of the most important jobs you have as a manager is to create visibility for the great work your team has done. That recognition is critical to building a winning culture where people feel their work has value. It’s great for the culture of your team. It’s also great to set you up for a strong performance review in the new year, since your accomplishments will be top of mind.

Each December, I create a highlight real to summarize my team’s greatest accomplishments for the year. I spend time on it. I go back to projects from January and February and March so I don’t overlook anything. I find wins from across the team, and I remind everyone of them.

A highlight real can take several forms … a PowerPoint deck you present at a team meeting, a booklet you distribute to your team members and leaders in the company, a fun video you make with your team. It doesn’t matter so much what format your highlight real is in. What matters, is that you take the time to summarize all the great things your team did this year and tell people about it.  

Publish a vision for next year with key strategic initiatives

Too many teams start slow in January. Some teams barely get going until February. A slow start makes the rest of the year harder. You can lose momentum. It can cause the leaders in your company to question your vision and plan for the year. It can make you appear to be stagnating. It can cause anxiety on your team.

Every December, I bring my entire team together to share a vision for the year to come. I try to paint a picture for how we will evolve and change to get better. I give context for why this change is important, and how it relates to the highest-level goals of the company. I break this vision down into key strategic initiatives so every member of my team can understand what we are doing and how they factor into it.

By sharing a vision for the year to come, you allow your team members time to process and understand it. This way they can enter the new year with confidence and purpose vs. questions and concerns. By sharing a set of strategic initiatives, you demonstrate to your team (and to leaders in your company) that you have a plan, that you’re evolving, that you’re improving. Every leader needs to do this.

Individually thank your team members

You may think this one is obvious. Maybe it is for you. I’m not sure it is for every manager. We can all agree it’s important to thank our team members for a great year. But I want to highlight how important it is to do this individually – personally. I don’t think it’s enough to send a “thank you” email to your team or hand out some templated holiday cards. I think you need to do more.

I’m not talking about expensive gifts or grand gestures. Quite the opposite. In my experience, the most impactful thing you can do to show your team members how much you value their contributions, is to personally thank each of them. I write a personal letter to each of my direct reports to thank them for their great work and partnership. I spend time on this. I think back on the year, where they’ve come from, what they’ve had to overcome – the ups and downs – and I put it all in there. They’ve worked so hard, on so many things, they deserve this depth of acknowledgement.

My recommendation to managers is to get a little more personal this year. Spend a little more time on your recognitions. It will mean a lot to your team members.

December is an easy month to get distracted. But that is akin to slowing down at the finish line. If you’re not careful, you can dull the impact of all the great things your team did this year, and lose momentum going into next year. I hope these three tips are helpful to you, as you close out another great year. 

The Weekly Reid: Do you need to be liked to be a leader?

Do you need to be liked to be an effective leader?

The answer to this question is not simple. I wish it were as easy as saying yes or no. It’s not. Although that would make for a very clear and concise blog, wouldn’t it?

The truth is, I have seen leaders who were incredibly effective and universally disliked.

I have seen incredibly well-liked people who were extremely ineffective leaders.

As you ponder your own career, my guess is you’ve seen something similar. It’s just not that simple.

What I can do is share my personal experiences with you. And hope that in so doing, I can offer a perspective you can use as you shape your own career strategy and mindset and plan. It’s entirely possible you won’t agree with me. I suppose some of it has to do with who each of us is as an individual, how we see the world, and others in it. Nevertheless, here we are, so let’s talk about it.

Do you need to be liked to be an effective leader?

My simple answer to this not so simple question is, “No, but it helps.”

Let’s start with what makes a great leader. Some things that come to my mind:

Can inspire and motivate a team.

Can develop and operationalize a strategy.

Are decisive and have integrity.

Can communicate clearly.

Can activate a group of people to work in unison towards a desired result.

Great leaders do these things well. But do they need to be liked to get it done?

The reality is, there are highly effective leaders who are not likeable. There are monsters and tyrants and bullies who are very successful, at least in their own definition of what success means. They direct teams (or entire companies) to achieve amazing results. They technically hit on all the points above. They do this through brute force, leverage and fear. It happens all the time and there is no sense in pretending it doesn’t.

I should say, these leaders – who are effective but not liked – seem to be rare. They’ve chosen, in my opinion, a harder path. Typically, they are very unique people in very unique scenarios. If a young leader came to me and asked what type of leader I thought they should strive to be, I certainly wouldn’t guide towards being a tyrant.

I have found, over the course of my career, it is much easier to be effective as a leader if you are liked. Note, I did not say “soft” – I said “liked”. If you build strong personal relationships with your team and your peers and your manager, the path to success is cleaner, with fewer obstacles. I imagine it also feels better on the inside. Being liked is not mandatory for a leader, but it’s easier.

But what do I mean exactly?

What does “being liked” mean in different contexts? For your peers? For your boss? For your team? Let me spend some time on each.

With your peers

Being liked by your peers is extremely important in my experience. Especially when we talk about peers from other departments in the company. Working with people, over whom you have no legitimate authority, requires diplomacy. It’s a constant negotiation to get things done. You need to influence these people. You can’t tell them what to do. They aren’t obligated to help you with anything. It helps if they like you.

When you don’t have positive relationships with your peers, they tend not to share information with you. They tend to avoid working with you. Sometimes they purposely oppose you just to take a stand. These are massive headwinds to your performance. By contrast, if your peers like you, they will share more information, earlier. They seek you out to work on projects. They search for reasons to support your projects and initiatives. These are all tailwinds to your performance. They make things easier.

My advice to leaders is to invest more time building positive relationships with your peers. Find ways to help them. Spend more time with them. Listen to them. It’s a much more pleasant way to operate, and it makes being successful a lot easier.

With your boss

There are people who say it’s not important to be liked by your boss. That you just need to deliver results. I have not found this to be the case in practice. In my experience, it’s extremely important to have a positive and personal relationship with your boss. You want your boss to see you as a partner. As someone they can trust. You want your boss to enjoy spending time with you.

Being liked by your boss provides a natural boost when things are going well i.e. you can be presented with more opportunities for success. It also provides some natural protection when things are not going well i.e. you’re more likely to be given the benefit of the doubt or assessed through a positive lens.

You often hear gossip around the office about a boss playing favorites. He’s never hard on this person. She loves everything that person does. This person always gets her budget requests accepted. My advice is to stop complaining about it and start building a more positive relationship with your boss. If, indeed, your boss plays favorites – try to become a favorite. You can only play the best you can with the cards you’re dealt.

By contrast, if you’re not liked by your boss, you will face a natural pullback on everything you do. It may be ok for a while, when you’re performing well. But the moment you slip up, or stumble or fail, that pull will grow exponentially.

My advice to leaders is to invest time and energy into building a positive personal relationship with your boss. You don’t need to be “friends”, but you do need to be in a good place.

With your team

This one is a bit trickier. That’s why I saved it for last. I’ve just told you it’s important to build a positive and personal relationship with your boss. Now I’m going to advise you not to be “friends” with your team members. On the surface these pieces of advice seem to be at odds with each other. And that has everything to do with my use of the term “friends”. There’s a lot of nuance in here and I’ll do my best to be clear.

Some managers fail because they have a deep seeded need to be “friends” with their employees. Some managers get into trouble because they don’t know the difference between being liked and respected, and being “friends”.

When you are friends with someone and they ask you for feedback, “do you like this?” Your priority is to make them feel good. Even when you need to give a friend some tough love, you still do it in the kindest way possible. Your top priority is for them to be happy – they’re your friend. This can’t be your mindset as a manager. Yes, you care about your employees. Yes, you want them to be great. But you can’t sugar coat feedback. You can’t package it. You need to be brutally honest. And you can’t do that if you’re trying to be “friends” with your team members. You wouldn’t fire your friend.

In my experience, to be an effective manager, your team members need to know that you care about their wellbeing, that you want them to be successful. This is mandatory to build a high-performance team. BUT … and this is a big BUT … you must be completely honest with them to accomplish this. And this is where we depart from the friend zone.

When it comes to the relationship a manager has with her team members, my advice is to focus more on being honest, than on being friends. When your team members see your honesty comes from a positive place, they will like you … just maybe not in the same way they like their friends.

The question of whether or not we need to be liked to be effective leaders is more complex than it appears on the surface. There are just too many examples of unlikeable leaders who are successful (at least in a business context). In my experience, it is not mandatory, but it certainly helps. Being liked provides a natural tailwind to everything you do, and it protects you when things don’t go well. I’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments section.

The Weekly Reid: 3 Critical Weaknesses that Often Disguise as Strengths

If you’re a regular reader, you already know how seriously I take interviewing. How much respect I have for the art and science of it. I will never proclaim to be a great interviewer, because as soon as I do, I’ll be proven wrong. But I do care about interviewing. I want to be a better interviewer, as I’m sure you do. And so, I try, with every interview, to get a little better.

I have noticed recently, some interviewers getting fooled by weaknesses that disguise themselves as strengths. On the surface, they seem to indicate confidence, experience, reliability, when in actual fact, they are red flags. I’m going to share them with you and give some advice on how to adjust your interview style to discover them sooner. I hope this is helpful to you.

Absolute Certainty

One thing I am 100% sure about is that you should never hire someone who operates with absolute certainty. (See what I did there 😊) Ok, this is a tricky one and possibly a little controversial, so let’s give it a go. With the benefit of 20 years’ experience, I have come to appreciate that we are never really certain about anything. We execute with best practices. We build models. We test solutions. We do research. We do these things to maximize our chances of success, but we never really know for certain. Sometimes, you think you know, but then you realize, you don’t. It happens over and over and over again. That’s just the nature of the game.

The world is changing. Rapidly. What worked yesterday, may not work tomorrow. The path you took to reach the level of success you have today, will not lead you to the successes you long for in the future.

I get worried, whenever I work with people who are overly certain about things. People who speak in absolutes.

There is only one way to do this.

We MUST choose this option.

I’m 100% sure this is the right course of action.

When I hear people talk like this, I get nervous. It looks like confidence, but it’s actually naivety. Or hubris. Or a lack of experience. It sounds great in an interview. Decisive. Clear. Enthusiastic. But is it real? Can you trust this level of certainty? In my experience, people who operate with absolute certainty can be dangerous to your team. They can very confidently lead you over a cliff.

My advice to hiring managers is to look for candidates who possess an appreciation for how uncertain business is. Look for candidates who have built decision making processes and models that allow for variance. Look for candidates who think in terms of probabilities instead of absolutes. They may not seem as confident in the interview, but their value will show through when tested in the uncertain realties of work life. I recommend adding questions to your interview repertoire designed to probe into how the candidate thinks about decision making.

Tell me about a tough decision you had to make recently?

How did you know it was the right one?

What would have had to happen for you to change your perspective?

What would you have done if you were wrong?

Process Possessing Intrinsic Value

All of us want to improve our processes. Our companies and teams are growing so quickly we feel starved for process. Our teams often operate in what seems like chaos, to produce and deliver amidst so much change and uncertainty. We are so desperate for a little control that we can be wooed by weaknesses masquerading as strengths during the interview process.

I’m going to overly simplify for a moment to illustrate a point – I realize the world is not quite this simple. Nevertheless, in my experience, there are two kinds of process oriented people in business. The first, are people who believe process is a valuable means to an end. They identify a valuable business outcome to pursue, and they build a process for attaining it. They can be excellent additions to your team as it grows. The second, are people who believe business process has its own intrinsic value. They believe the process itself, is the valuable outcome to pursue. They conflate process outcomes and business outcomes. They can be very determinantal to your team. Discerning between these two types of candidates can be trickier than it appears.

My advice to hiring managers is to ask questions designed to probe more deeply into a candidate’s view of process.

How much process is too much?

How do you measure the value of a process?

How do you know when a process is no longer effective?

How do you create alignment around a process?

By going one level deeper in your questioning, you’ll have more information to be able to determine whether or not you’re hiring someone who will help or hurt your team.

Binary Thinking

When I look back on the teams I have managed, the most valuable contributors were those who possessed the ability to perform integrative thinking. They were creative. They could look at two seemingly fixed options, and imagine a third possibility. Integrative thinkers can be game changers for your team and company. Finding them is the tricky part.

While there is value in being able to perform rigorous, logical analysis to make a well-judged decision between to options, you can run into problems when you build a team of people who can only think in black and white. A group of people whose thinking is constrained and rigid. Hiring a team of binary thinkers can limit the potential of your team to be creative.

My advice to hiring managers is to seek out integrative thinkers and be wary of hiring too many binary thinkers. You can have a mix of both on your team, but integrative thinkers are certainly scarcer. With that in mind, I recommend crafting interview questions designed to discern between the integrative thinkers and the more constrained, binary thinkers.

How do you decide between two seemingly equal choices?

Who would you assign to manage your highest performing product? Your best person or your weakest? (note – you are looking for the candidate to pose a third alternative)

Craft questions that force candidates to reveal how they think about problems. It will provide another data point you can use to make a solid hiring decision for your team.

Interviewing is hard – did I say that already? Sometimes, candidates who seem decisive are actually naïve. Sometimes, candidates who appear to be strong process oriented leaders are not focused enough on driving real business outcomes. Sometimes, logical decision makers are unable to be conceive of creative alternatives. It’s hard to tell the difference. I hope this blog will help make it a little easier.

The Weekly Reid: Sink or swim or something in between?

Before I argue against the sink or swim philosophy of management, let me make clear I do not advocate the opposite approach either. There are some managers who, for various reasons, are completely unwilling to give their employees a shot at anything. They protect them and shelter them and effectively block them from growth. I would never support this. We need to help our people develop – that’s the duty of a manager. We need to push them. The question is, how best to do that? Is the sink or swim approach optimal or is there some other, better way?

My experience tells me, there is no substitute for winning. Winning begets more winning. Winning creates momentum, and momentum can take you places you didn’t think possible. My fundamental philosophy as a manager is to create as many winning situations as possible for my team and the members of it. I look for potential wins, I focus my energy on winning opportunities, I celebrate and reward and recognize wins as much as I possibly can. A culture of winning is hard to beat.

The counter argument to this is if you never place team members in situations that will test them – where they will likely fail – they’ll never be able to win at the highest levels of the game. That if you create artificial winning scenarios for people, they’ll eventually have to learn the hard lessons anyway, and by that time it will be too late. I see merit in this argument too.

The right question, in my opinion, is how do we strike a balance between building a culture (and habit) of winning while also challenging our people enough so they keep developing and can ultimately reach the highest levels of performance?

Here are 3 tactics I use to strike that magic balance between winning and development.

1.  Fail in practice, win in the game

In martial arts there is a saying – train hard, fight easy. I think there is a lot of wisdom here that can be applied to the workplace. The essential point is you should challenge and test yourself relentlessly within the relatively safe confines of training, so when you’re on the big stage you can be confident and shine. You lose a hundred times in practice so you can win when it really counts.

As much as I can, I try to create this environment at work. I try to build a safe training space where team members can be challenged and fail without suffering the repercussions of failing on the big stage. This way they can develop and grow and adapt AND create a habit of winning.

A good example of this is when team members have big presentations like an executive briefing or a customer presentation or some other high-pressure event. In these situations, I get deeply invested in helping prepare my team members. Probably more than just about any manager I know. I review presentations and talk strategy and ask hard questions and give extremely critical feedback. I push and push and push during the preparation phase. I create a safe space to fail so they will be ready to win when its show time.

At first, it can seem like micromanagement. Like I’m getting all up in their business or like I don’t trust them to deliver. But over time, as team members win and get recognized and rewarded, and as they build stronger and stronger reputations, they come to embrace the process, they seek out opportunities to learn hard lessons in private so they can win big in public.

My advice to managers is to create safe learning environments for your team members. Create opportunities for them to learn tough lessons and get difficult feedback in an environment that doesn’t carry the same consequence as failing in public. I have found this approach helps build deeper levels of trust between you and your team members as they come to realize your harsh criticism and feedback is designed to help them succeed under the bright lights.

2. Tough love in private, praise in public

I have found the best way to build trust with team members is to praise them in public while being tough on them in private. At first this may seem like a truism but I don’t think it’s as self-evident as you might think. Some managers are hard on their people 24-7 - in private and public. They push and they push some more. Other managers are way too soft on their people. They praise and praise and praise and don’t have the stomach to provide honest, critical feedback to their teams. Neither of these approaches work.

I want to be able to be hard on my team members so they can push themselves to new levels. I want to be able to be very direct and honest with my feedback. I want to be able to continuously raise the standard of excellence. But if you’re constantly criticizing your team, they’ll eventually give up on you, and then everyone loses.

My experience tells me there is a balance to be struck between praising and pushing. I want team members to know I will support and praise them in public when they’ve won. I want them to know I’m their biggest fan and that I’m personally invested in their success. But in exchange for that, when the lights go down and we’re back in a safe space, I will be quite hard on them. I will push them. That’s the bargain.

3. Find the win in failing

Win or learn. Another great philosophy that applies well to leading a team. No matter how much you support your team members in the preparation for big moments, they will fail from time to time. It’s a reality of life and work. The question is, how do we maintain a winning culture in moments of failure?

Great managers help their team members be as prepared as possible for big moments. Great managers are also supportive when that preparation isn’t met with a win. Sometimes we lose. Winners lose all the time. Our job as managers is to give our people the highest probability of winning and then help them find a win even in defeat. The worst managers bail on their people when they fail. They avoid talking about it. They lay blame. They shirk responsibility. Never do this.

The bargain you strike with your team members is to do everything possible to put them in a position to win and then accept whatever result happens. Your team members need to believe you won’t give up on them when they’ve prepared well but still fail.  

My advice to managers is to talk openly about failure. Don’t pretend it doesn’t exist. Don’t hide from it. If a member of your team gives maximum effort and still fails, help them find a win in the lessons learned. That way you can continue building a culture of winning even in defeat.

The sink or swim mentality has some merit to it, but I don’t think it’s always applied correctly in the workplace. Too many managers place their team members in unwinnable situations under the auspices of sink or swim. I reality, they’re just creating a losing culture. My experience tells me we can push and test our people AND create a culture of winning. I’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments section

The Weekly Reid: How do you manage "ok" performers?

Most good managers act in basically the same way and with basically the same mindset when it comes to top and bottom tier performers. That’s a bit of a generalization, but true for the most part. The wider variance in management focus and approach can be found in that middle performance tier, the average and slightly below average team members. I don’t think we all approach them the same way. It stands to reason, if this variance does exist, that there is a lot of ground to be won vs. your competition by making better decisions about the middle group – the “ok” performers.

Why do I describe the issue in this way?

My mindset is always to strive for “best in the world.” In fact, the number one attribute I look for when hiring new people is a genuine desire to be great. Truly great. Irrespective of where your team may be today, you should be working towards being the best in the world at what you do. It may take 20 years. You may never have the budget to do it. Your company many be in a tough industry. I get that. But what matters to me is the mindset – the commitment to a process that ultimately (even on an infinite timescale) gets your team to best in the world status.

If your team is striving to reach best in the world status, you need to find every edge you can get. In my experience, how you manage your middle tier, or “ok” performers present a real opportunity to find that edge. Most managers tend to ignore this group. It’s easy to do that. And sometimes, frankly, it’s the right thing to do if you have many other burning priorities. It’s easy to place all your attention and investment on motivating your top performers and managing your low performers. Part of the reason for that is it’s just so much more obvious to know what to do with them. The optimal approach for managing average or slightly below average team members if a much more complex problem. As a result, most of us do nothing. And therein lies the opportunity for competitive advantage.

If similar departments in other companies in my industry are ignoring their middle performers, I want to exploit that weakness. I want to outplay them in this area of management. Over the long run, as my middle performers become stronger and their middle performers stay flat, my team becomes better and my company has a new edge in the market. That’s the point of this article.

You may not often think of your team in this way. But what else is there? You’d compare sports teams on the strength of their starting lineups and the strength of their bench. Look at my beloved Toronto Raptors. The had a great season, by in large a result of their middle tier team members. Rather than ignore this group and attend only to the top and bottom players, they focused on building a stronger middle contingent, and it led to a competitive edge (for the regular season at least ☹)

Hopefully, I’ve made a decent argument for why you need to spend more time actively thinking about the development of your “ok” performers. Here are a few tips for how I do it:

Differentiate between “ok now” and “ok forever”

I pay very close attention to forward momentum when evaluating middle tier performers. If I can spot progress, even if it comes at a slow pace, I will happily continue investing in development. As much as I can, I take a pretty long-term view when it comes to team management. I don’t want to be trading people around like baseball cards. It’s important for me to develop long terms relationships with strong performers so we can build great teams together for many years and across many companies. This is not to say I would keep someone in a specific role if they aren’t competent – I wouldn’t. But I won’t give up on a team member if I see some evidence of forward momentum. That is, if I believe there is a reasonable probability the person will someday be great.

On the other hand, when I don’t see evidence of progress in a team member, I immediately start managing in the same way I’d manage a low performer. Either find a role that is a better fit or aggressively performance manage. That may sound harsh to some people. If the person is doing ok, why treat them like a low performer? And my answer is, because I want to be the best in the world.

My advice to managers is to look more closely at your “ok” performers. Specifically, I recommend looking for signs of momentum. If you find it, great, keep challenging them and don’t give up. If you can’t find it, I recommend managing them more as you would a low performer.

Aggressively move people to where they can be great

I need to be a bit careful on this one. I am not really a supporter of moving people around the organization from one role to another when they have not been successful anywhere. You see this happen in a lot of companies. Moderate performers moving from one group to another, ostensibly for their experience, but really because it seems easier than letting them go or hiring an unknown from outside the organization. I call this group, “serial movers”, and advocate against doing this.

With that said, there are cases where otherwise talented, high potential team members are just misplaced in the company. Strong individual contributors who moved hastily to management is probably the best example. Another example are team members who were very effective when the company was small, but now that it’s much bigger, seem a bit lost.

Many managers are reluctant to take action on this group. For the reasons I mentioned above or out of a sense of loyalty to long time team members who were once successful. I think this is a mistake. In my experience, team members are happiest when they are winning. It can be demoralizing for a habitual winner to start losing for a prolonged period of time. So, while you may be reluctant to have a tough conversation about a role change with someone on your team, they may well be silently wishing for it.

My advice to managers is to study your middle tier performers and identify those who could be great if placed in a different role. But really hold yourself to that standard – could this person be great if placed in a new role? If the answer is “yes,” then I recommend moving aggressively. If the answer is “no,” then I would immediately start managing them like you would a low performer.

Hire for the desire to be great

I won’t belabor this one since I kind of already made the point. In my interviews, I actively search for signs that the person I’m talking to has a deep seeded desire to be great. I look for people who are obsessed with best practices, and are well versed in what the best companies in the world are doing. When I find these qualities, I hire. It’s very rare, that a person who genuinely needs to be great will disappoint you. They may struggle here and there, but ultimately their drive and ambition for greatness will overcome.

Note, there is a big difference between wanting to be truly great in the purest sense, and wanting the trappings of success. You need to learn to tell the difference between the two. I’m looking for people who want to be true masters of their craft – to be great ... intrinsically. That’s the kind of magic that can transform a middle performer into a future star.

It’s not always clear how to manage average performers. It’s very easy to do nothing. To ignore them and place your all your energy on top and bottom performers. My contention is there is a competitive edge to be found in out-managing your competition in this middle realm. By raising the level of your “ok” performers, you could well become the Toronto Raptors of your industry (except hopefully you won’t’ collapse in the playoffs). Have a great week.

Want to Lose Your Top Performers? Do these Four Things

I have been critical in the past about managers and media speaking about engagement as an abstraction. As some high-level program or company-wide initiative that lumps everyone together. You’ve read the stat that more than 50% of us have quit a job because of a bad manager. You’ve heard the saying, people quit managers, not companies. This completely lines up with my experience. My observation is that employee engagement is the biproduct of a very personal relationship between an employee and a manager. It’s the result of a partnership based on fairness, opportunity, challenge, and development. I get frustrated when I hear people speak about engagement at the surface level only. As though some system or program or policy is actually going to change how engaged a high performer is.

I spent some time thinking this weekend about the periods where I have felt unengaged at work. They weren’t during the most challenging times, or the times when the company was struggling. They weren’t when I had a crappy vacation plan or a when I couldn’t wear jeans to work. My lowest periods of engagement came when I felt I was being treated unfairly. My engagement withered when I felt the game was rigged, when I couldn’t win. My great efforts no longer resulted in great outcomes.

If you want to retain and engage your top performers, you should never do the four things below. You may find these to be extremely specific and tactical. They are. They are directly related to creating and maintaining a fair playing field at work. I’m sharing with you because after 20 years of career, these are the four things tattooed into my subconscious as guaranteed engagement suckers for top performers. They caused me to leave companies which tells me they’re likely to have the same effect on others.

1.       Friday-night Flames

I used to work with a leader who made a point of sending incredibly harsh emails every Friday afternoon. At first, I thought it was unintentional, but as the months and years went by I became quite certain it was purposeful. Every Friday afternoon around 3 or 4 o’clock, this manager would send a nasty, pointed, critical email seemingly designed to create chaos and anxiety. He would target key members of his team and stakeholders from groups he worked closely with. For about three years, I went home just about every Friday, thinking about or worrying about some critical message this guy had sent.

This was obviously an extremely divisive and frankly, sadistic management technique. And, as I reflect on it now, it was clearly an attempt at exerting control. We’re all nodding our heads as we read this – what a jerk – but ask yourself, do you have any habits like this?

I make a point now, of saving my harshest criticism for a time when we will have the chance to actually talk it through. This may sound like a truism, but I try not to ruin people’s evenings and weekends whenever possible. Even when something really upsets me, and I feel compelled to admonish a person, I’ll hang on to it until Monday and deal with it in a 1-1.

My advice to managers is to dial up your level of self-control. Stop sending flame emails or harsh criticism on Friday afternoons or weekends or evenings when the target of your admonishment isn’t able to talk to you and resolve it. If I’m still painfully recalling those Fridays and Saturdays I spent stewing over flame emails, you can bet your top performers feel the same way about yours.

2.       Copy Staff Members on a Critical Email to their Manager

Don’t undermine your leaders in front of their team members. There is little worse as a manager, than getting crushed on an email or in a meeting in front of your team. If I’m honest with myself, I’m sure I’ve done this more than I should. You tell yourself you want to send a message to the team, or you come up with some other justification for why a hard, public reprimand makes sense. The problem is, when you admonish a manager in front of her team, you create an amplification effect that may have unintended consequences.

When you de-pants a leader in front of the team, you give the team members tacit permission to question his or her competency. You send a clear message to the team that you’ve lost confidence in their leader. It’s easy to imagine the trickle-down effects of this. You crush the manager, the team sees this, they question the leader’s skill and career prospects, they start second guessing direction given to them by the manager, projects start suffering, the member and team perform poorly as a result. Your “message” accomplished exactly the opposite of what you wanted it to.

My advice to leaders is to give hard, critical feedback directly to managers. If you want to send a message to the larger team, I suggest first engaging with the manager and then delivering a purposeful message to the team together. That way you preserve the manager’s ability to lead the team, you have the opportunity to voice your criticism, and you get to deliver a larger message to the team.

3.       Harsh Criticism Too Soon After a Big Effort

I’ll never forget this one time my team and I pushed hard for two months on a massive project – really went above and beyond – the team was completely fried by the end of it. By all accounts it was a success. And then, not even eight hours after it was over, when we were still basking in the glow of our crazy hard effort, we received a flaming email about a mistake we’d made on some other, unrelated project.

If you want to take engagement from 100 to 0 in 5 seconds, this is how you do it.

As a manager, you must pick and choose when and how you criticize. I’m the first person to point out we need to be more critical of our teams. I wrote an entire blog on the subject. But be smart about it. If your team has just worked hard on a tough project, give them a minute to enjoy the success. Have the self-control to hold your criticism for a few days.

In the same vein, if your team is in the heat of the moment – during a big event, in a big customer meeting, about to do something pressure packed, hold your feedback until its done. I’ve never understood managers who insist on crushing their people in the heat of the moment. If they were unprepared, nothing you will say now can fix that. All you will do, by admonishing them in the moment, is make things worse. Performance and engagement will suffer. Wait until it’s over and set up a productive feedback session to share your criticism and advice.

My advice to managers is to be more purposeful in your delivery of feedback and criticism. Too many leaders operate from emotion instead of purpose. Yes, you may be pissed. Yes, your team may have screwed up. But that doesn’t mean you have to react recklessly to satisfy your emotional needs. That is short sighted. Stop reacting. Think through how you want to deliver criticism. Act from purpose, not from anger.

4.       Coddle Underperformers

I wrote about this one in my blog, How to Lose a Team in 10 Days. I won’t dwell on it. Except to say, a guaranteed way of losing your top performers is to be seen coddling or favoring underperformers. Some managers, who aren’t comfortable delivering pointed, critical feedback, or who are unwilling to make hard changes on their teams, can get sucked into a habit of lowering the bar for low performers. You must never do this. I realize it can get exhausting having to constantly provide performance feedback to low performers. It can be tempting to give them a pass just to save the energy. The problem is this behavior sends a clear message to your higher performers. It says the game is not fair.

The worst thing we can do as managers is to sacrifice the engagement of our top performers to coddle our low performers. My advice to leaders is to set a consistent standard for performance and stick to it. Your high performers need to see you pushing lower performers, otherwise you risk losing them.

I think we speak about employee engagement too generically. We rarely get past the surface level in our discussion of it. If we’re not careful, we risk missing the real point. Our goal as managers is to behave in a way that motivates, engages and retains our top performers. I’ve shared a handful of behaviors I’ve seen over the years that do the exact opposite of that. I try really hard not to do these things. I’d love to hear from you about other behaviors you’ve seen that are sure fire ways to suck the engagement from high performers.

The Weekly Reid: 3 Strategies to Reduce Surprise Turnover On Your Team

It’s getting harder to retain talent. Especially young, high potential team members. There are a bunch of reasons for this.

A few that come to my mind:

The widespread availability of salary information and benchmarks can make people impatient. Employees, especially those early in their careers, can earn relatively large salary jumps by moving from one company to another.

There is a near universal expectation of empowerment and autonomy, even from entry level employees. There is almost zero tolerance at this point for menial work, rigid direction, or tough performance management. It can be easy for a team member to justify making a quick career move in search of what may seem like greater freedom and responsibility somewhere else.

These days, company culture is marketed as aggressively as the products companies produce. More than ever, the grass can appear to greener at other organizations. It’s easy for your team members, especially the less experienced ones, to imagine themselves in the job of their dreams at some utopian company they’ve read about in promoted articles on LinkedIn or Glassdoor.

As managers, we need to stop pretending things haven’t changed. We need to stop bemoaning the situation and start changing our behaviors. I had to give my own head a shake a couple of years ago when one of my favorite employees left the company. It was a total shock to me. It made me question everything. Here I was thinking I was being a great mentor, a great teacher, and then … she was gone. I was forced, in that moment, to confront the truth of my management practices. I took a hard look at what I was doing and what I was not doing, and made some specific changes to my approach.

Here are three strategies I adopted to reduce the amount of surprise turnover on my team. I can’t promise this will eliminate it entirely for you, but it will help.

More Dedicated Career Conversations

Most managers will claim to conduct career conversations with team members. You need to be honest with yourself about this one. The occasional 5-minute conversation during performance review time is not enough. Waiting until your employee comes to you asking about career path or asking about a raise is also not enough.

In my opinion, managers need to have an ongoing, active career conversation with every employee on the team. What I mean by “active” is that it is something YOU make happen. Some managers espouse that it’s the employee’s job to manage their own careers – I disagree. That perspective is too passive. It ignores the reality of the situation we’re in. A manager needs to get personally invested in the careers of team members. “Active”, in this sense, also means “purposeful”. You need to schedule time that is dedicated only to having career conversations – in addition to the ongoing dialogue you have in your regular 1-1 cadence. This may seem like a lot to you, but my recommendation is to have one career conversation every month with each employee. In this meeting you only talk about career. That’s 12 dedicated career conversations a year with each of your team members. It’s a lot – but these are crazy times – I believe it’s necessary.

If you are not personally invested in the careers of your team members, who is? If you don’t understand what your team members are striving for, who does? A manager should never be surprised when an employee leaves. That is not to say your team members will never leave – they will. Sometimes there is a disconnect between what they want for their careers and what you can offer. Sometimes there is a gap between their assessment of their abilities and yours. It happens. By having more career conversations, you can’t prevent people from leaving entirely, but you can make sure you’ll never be surprised when they do.

Give More Context for Everything

A big reason employees leave is they don’t feel like their work is meaningful. They can’t see a connection between what they do and the highest-level strategy of the company. This is especially true of entry level employees. When you can’t connect the dots between your work and the outcomes the company is pursuing, it can be demoralizing. It can also make that start-up down the street seem extremely attractive.

While you can’t give every team member a job on the strategic front lines, you can help them find meaning in their work. Since I vowed to change my behavior, I’ve made a point of investing more time providing the full business context for every request I make and project I assign. Some managers feel they don’t have time for this. They just want to give direction and have that direction followed. In my experience, this leads to lower quality work and dramatically increases the risk of surprise turnover.

My recommendation to managers is to begin every project or task request with a clear articulation of what the company is trying to achieve and how the request is connected to it. The task in question may be multiple steps removed from company strategy but you should still have the patience to connect it. Since I have started making this investment, I’ve seen a dramatic improvement in overall work quality and employee engagement. When your team members understand why something is important and what you’re ultimately trying to achieve, they can act with greater creativity and purpose.

Engage in a Longer-Term Plan

Most employees are too short-term focused. Most managers are too. That’s easy for me to say given I’m 20 years into a career, but bear with me. When you’re two years out of school, still living pay cheque to pay cheque, it’s hard not to be short sighted. The challenge is, without the benefit of experience, it’s almost impossible to appreciate the real value of patience in a career. It’s so easy to convince yourself that making a quick jump to the company down the street for a 10K raise and “Senior” on your title is a good move. For an entry level employee, that can be the difference between getting car and taking the bus. It can be the difference between living with roommates and getting your own place. Job hopping can be extremely appealing.

Managers should not restrict the scope of career conversations to the next rung on the ladder. If your conversation with an Associate is restricted to what it will take to make Specialist, you’re not looking long term enough. Go all the way with your career conversations.

My recommendation to managers is to create a long-term plan with employees. They don’t need to have all the answers right away – they may not even know what they want to do in 15 years – but you should still have the dialogue. Help them see multiple moves ahead. Help them understand how salaries will change dramatically three or four levels from where they are today. Where a 10K difference in salary isn’t as significant as it may now seem. Show them how you’ll help them develop and grow. Get them thinking more long term and you’ll get surprised much less.

You can’t eliminate regrettable turnover altogether. It’s impossible to keep everyone engaged. You can’t always offer exactly what your team members want. But you can avoid getting surprised when people quit. Get more invested in your team member’s careers. Start really caring about them. Dedicate time to talking about them. Since I’ve adopted these strategies, I’ve noticed a marked reduction in surprise turnover. I hope they’ll help you too.

The Weekly Reid: How to be a Great Manager Even When You're at Your Worst

Finding success in your career takes many years (decades even) of consistently high performance. You need to build a track record of achievement to keep advancing. One or two blemishes on your record can easily stall out your progression. It’s hard enough to perform when everything in your personal life is great. But when things are bad, it’s easy to let that bleed over into your professional life.

I won’t pretend there is some magic checklist of things you can do to keep it together when your world is falling apart. There isn’t. But there are specific things you can do to partially quarantine your professional life from your personal life when times are tough. Having just gone through one of these periods myself, I thought it would be helpful to share the tactics I employed to keep the momentum at work going at a time I could have easily let it sputter out.

Rely on Structured Management Cadence

When your mind is elsewhere, it’s easy to let things slip at work. When I’m distracted by my personal life, there is always a temptation to skip non-essential things at work. I’m tempted to cancel 1-1s, push out team meetings, take a pass on a review session. My mind tries to convince me that anything not desperately urgent can be skipped so it can focus on the other issues weighing on my emotions.

When I’m feeling down or distracted, I stop being proactive. I stop taking action unless I’m compelled to do it. It won’t surprise you to know that if you behave like this for many weeks or months, your performance will suffer.

I recognized this tendency early on, and made a deal with myself. I vowed, no matter what, I’d stick to a structured management cadence. I also added some additional structured touch points to make up for the fact my natural proactive energy might be suffering. I made a conscious choice to add formal cadence to counter a lapse in natural proactivity and attention.

For me it was weekly 1-1s with every direct report, a weekly full team standup, a weekly leaders meeting, and quarterly 1-1s with every member of my extended department. I felt that if I could stick to this, at a bare minimum, I could maintain a reasonable enough connection with my team to keep performance improving even if my own energy and emotions were not fully engaged. But upping the amount of formal cadence I did, I was protecting against any natural drawdown in activity and attention I might be experiencing.

Build New Routines and Follow Them Religiously

When you’re having problems at home or your energy is being consumed by something other than work, it’s really hard to make professional progress. As regular readers of The Weekly Reid will know, I’ve always been a huge proponent for continuous learning. When my personal life is calm, I find it easy to naturally build learning into my daily routine. My mind is free, I’m intellectually curious, and so I just find opportunities to learn. But when life is chaotic, when I’m down or preoccupied, learning is one of the first things to go for me. Innovation is another - I all but cease to be creative. For whatever reason, I just can’t summon the creative energy to do these things when my mind is elsewhere.

When I started realizing this tendency in myself, I decided to add more rigidity into my routines to force myself to do these things. I won’t lie to you and say it always worked. It didn’t. But it did help.

For me it was going to work 30 minutes earlier every morning and spending that time reading and learning and brainstorming. I still had to battle with distractions, but this routine got me to focus more on learning and being creative than I would otherwise have. I came to love this special 30-minute period every morning and I still do it now, even as my personal life is as happy and healthy as ever. I also started doing private yoga classes. I realize not everyone can do this (or wants to) but for me, committing to a private session where someone would be waiting for me at 7 am, was exactly what I needed to force me into a behavior my mind didn’t really feel like doing.

The act of building a specific set of routines and committing to them, was exactly what I needed to keep my momentum building when my natural inclination was to retract into my own thoughts and concerns.

Focus on Helping Other People

I have found that when I’m upset, when I’m fixated on problems in my life, it helps to shift my focus onto other people. I tend to obsess about things. And that has served me well in my career but has the opposite effect when I face challenges in my personal life. When I catch myself brooding over my personal problems, I purposely try to shift my selfish energy onto helping other people.

One of the great things about being a manager, is that when you’re doing it right, its inherently a selfless endeavor. You must have empathy to be a great manager. You need to put yourself in the shoes of others. You need to put the team first. Whenever I catch myself stuck in my own head, I’ll find someone on the team to help.

For example, I might to a special mentoring session with a team member. I may do a round of career conversations with my team. Anything to redirect my self-centered energy. I have found this helps keep my management performance high, and calm the obsession I might otherwise focus on my personal problems.

Make a List Every Day and Keep Track of Your Wins

I won’t dwell on this one for very long since it appears in every book ever written on personal productivity. It works. When I’m not at my best (and when I am) I start each morning by writing a list of target accomplishments for the day. Then I order them by impact. I tackle the biggest impact ones first. As it happens these are also often the toughest. I find it best to take these on as early in the day as possible while I have maximum energy and positivity.

At the end of the day I reflect on my list and make note of a few wins I had during the day. I find a minute or two spent acknowledging your wins, goes a long way to building and maintaining momentum especially when you’re down or distracted. That may sound a bit corny to some, but for me, it makes all the difference in the world.

Finding success in your career is challenging enough when your life is firing on all cylinders. Unfortunately, none of us is immune to the inevitable ups and downs of life. I hope these tips were helpful for you, and I’d love to hear what has helped you keep performance up when other aspects of your life are down.

Is there an optimal level of employee engagement? (And, is it 100%)?

Employee engagement is good, right?

Of course, it is, if you look at it as an abstract concept.

We want our teams to be engaged, motivated, driven, purposed. We want to provide a positive environment where great people can thrive and grow and develop.

But there you have it … right there in the details … we want GREAT people to thrive and grow and develop. We want to maximize their engagement. But do we want to maximize engagement for everyone? Can we maximize engagement for all employees and still maximize engagement for our top performers? Are there tradeoffs? Is that even possible? Is an environment that engages high performers also an environment that engages low performers? Should we be pursuing 100% employee engagement or is there some other optimal level we should strive for?

I have lots of questions as you can see.

Let me make a few points for your consideration and then I’d invite you to share in the comments section so we can have a dialogue about the subject.

Engagement on Your Real Team

There is a difference between teams in the abstract and teams in reality. It’s extremely rare that a manager has a team where each and every member is a top performer. That is a desired state – something we all strive for, but almost never reach. I can tell you with no measure of embarrassment, that I’ve never reached a level in my management career where every member of my team was a top performer. Most of the time in fact, I find myself in the middle of some type of transformation. I take on new teams, business conditions change, people come and go, it’s almost impossible to reach a universal level of performance. At least it has been for me.

For argument’s sake, let’s assume that most managers have similar experiences to mine. They typically have teams with a quasi-pareto distribution. 20% of team members are absolute stars and really move the needle in a major way. The other 80% range from developing stars, reliable performers and some under performers. If you team doesn’t look quite like this, that’s fine, the principle still holds well enough.

Some Questions for You

Knowing this, do we want stars and underperformers to be equally engaged?

If underperformers are highly engaged but still not performing, what does that say about their competency and fit for your team?

If your approach to recognition and rewards creates an environment where both stars and underperformers report high engagement, are you sure you have the right program?

If you’re answering “No” to these questions, then isn’t that an argument for the optimal level of engagement on your team being less than 100%? Is there a disconnect between a near universal worship at the altar of engagement, and what we actually should want?

A Counter Argument

One argument against what I’ve just laid out is that as a manager, you want to get the best out of every employee you have. You want to maximize performance. In any given moment, you want to field the best team you possibly can, whether they’re top performers or not. And that you should seek to maximize engagement for everyone regardless of performance level.

I have argued in the past – including in my blog about Unicorn Recruiting Strategies – that you don’t necessarily want or need a team of “A” players. That it is a fool’s errand. Rather you want to build an environment where people can pursue their own personal bests. One could argue that the way to do this is to maximize engagement across the board.

The challenge with that argument is that it assumes (falsely I think) that the only way to maximize performance is to maximize engagement. More precisely – that the only way to maximize performance is to maximize engagement SCORES. It also assumes that everyone on your team can and will eventually maximize their own performance and that it will be at the level you need.

The reality of my experience, is that at any given time, there are going to be some underperformers on your team who, no matter how positive the environment is, cannot reach the level you require. In these cases, managers need to apply pressure - to aggressively manage performance. And, in some cases, manage people out of the organization. In these unfortunate (but not uncommon) instances, do you really want these underperformers at maximum engagement? I would argue that if you’re applying the right level of pressure and giving the right amount of critical feedback, this could be impossible.

Some Questions for You

Do you want your top performers highly engaged and your underperformers less engaged because of intense pressure on their performance? Or should they both be equally engaged?

Can you apply pressure on underperformers and still maximize engagement for them? Is this even possible?

Should an underperformer be highly engaged right up until the end?

My Ask of You

As you can see, I don’t have many answers. I can argue both sides of this debate. And that’s exactly what I’ve been doing in my head for the last week or so. I wanted to invite you into my internal struggle and ask you to share your thoughts and experiences with me so we can advance our collective understanding of the subject.

Is a little bit of micromanagement ok?

Tell me if any of these scenarios hit home for you:

You give your team a project to manage. You provide direction up front about the desired outcome, timing, budget and other relevant details. High level direction, but certainly enough for the team to work with. Three or four weeks pass, the deadline is rapidly approaching, you ask for a review of progress, only to discover, the project is completely off the rails – now you’re in big trouble.

A senior-level person joins your team, they have all the credentials and a ton of experience. When the first big project comes along, you want to offer a lot of space for them to operate and be creative. They’re experienced after all. With the deadline bearing down, you do a status review only to be shocked by how “off” everything is. You need to jump in at the last minute to save the project which causes a lot of frustration and some measure of embarrassment to both you and the new manager.

You’ve been pulled onto a strategic project and its seriously hampered your ability to manage the team like you normally would. You’ve been acting as an individual contributor way more than you probably should. Because you haven’t been paying close enough attention, several projects have been operating for weeks without a meaningful check point. When you finally have time to check in, you discover things are way worse than you thought. Projects are behind, quality has suffered, people are unhappy. Now you have to dive in and repair.

Some of you may read these and say, “well you’re just not hiring the right people.” That’s easy enough to say, but I think it’s an overly simplistic and somewhat naïve perspective frankly. My experience tells me that teams are made of people, and people are inherently imperfect, so the strategy of just hiring better people is never the complete solution. Certainly, it’s not a solution to this problem specifically.

We all want to build great teams and hire great people – that’s an ever-present management goal – it doesn’t go away. It’s also not something that happens overnight. Most managers, myself included, are constantly in a state of transformation - taking a team from one place and building towards another. The real question is, how do you maximize empowerment, autonomy and flexibility for your teams while also ensuring great quality and results?

Here are a few techniques I’ve adopted over the years that improve the probability projects will be done with quality and stay on track without having to micromanage the entire way. Think of them as tiny bits of micromanagement at certain points of a project that provide the right guidance to ensure a quality result without sacrificing empowerment, autonomy and flexibility for the team.

Help Build the Framework

I encourage my teams to include me at the very beginning stages of a projects. When we’re first building the basic skeleton and framework for the major deliverables. If we can agree on the core principles, outline and structure for the project, the probability of having a great outcome goes up significantly. I also find that this level of collaboration, at the outset, still allows for a lot of creativity and autonomy in how the team executes within that framework. Moreover, as the likelihood of success increases, the level of frustration that often comes from discovering a last minute disconnect, reduces as well.

My advice to managers is to get deeply involved in the first stage of a project rather than micromanaging the entire thing or removing yourself completely. You’ll find the overall quality of outputs will go up and the team will gain confidence as they execute creatively within a framework you’re aligned to.

Find Examples of Great

It’s one thing to align in principle and another thing to align in practice. A source of great frustration for teams everywhere, is when they think they have alignment with the leader only to discover when the project has been delivered, that they weren’t as aligned as they thought. Everyone loses in this scenario, and it’s an extremely common occurrence. The leader, who didn’t have enough time to properly focus, nodded when she was presented the initial high-level direction. Then, in the final review, discovers she didn’t fully understand or appreciate the direction in the first place. The project is off the rails and everyone is frustrated.

To avoid this situation, I find it helpful to align up front on some actual examples or mockups of what the result will look like. I’ll often ask my team to look for examples of how other great companies have done something similar. If we can align at the very beginning on an outcome we all agree is great, the chances of success go up significantly. A little bit of “micromanagement” up front, frees everyone up to execute with confidence and creativity for the remainder of the project.

Discourage the “Tadaa” Moment

Many team members try to pursue big “tadaa” moments. In an effort to show they can be trusted to “own” big projects, they operate in isolation for days and weeks in anticipation of a big reveal. This approach, while well intentioned, is misguided. More often than not, projects that run in isolation like this, fail miserably in the so-called “tadaa” moment. I discourage this entire line of thinking and prefer my team members to work collaboratively with each other and with me. Rather than have a big reveal at the end, you and your team should be in sync the entire way through a project. This increases the likelihood of a quality results and shouldn’t be any less empowering for your team members.

It’s a mistake to equate empowerment and isolation, and many less experienced managers and contributors do this. It’s an important lesson for your team that you can be collaborative and empowered at the same time.

My advice to managers is to discourage the “tadaa” moment. Encourage your team to collaborate with you and with each other throughout the entire project to protect against it veering too far off course. I think you’ll find it has a positive impact on quality and engagement.

Make Yourself Approachable to Share Work in Progress

This is one I need to work on. If you want a truly collaborative environment, your team needs to be comfortable showing you unfinished work. This one is on you. If you overreact every time you see work in progress; if you create fear and tension for people, you’ll never get the level of collaboration you want. If your team fears you, they will operate in isolation for too long, they will hoard unfinished work, and you’ll get a lot last minute surprises with projects that have fallen off the rails. It’s easy to blame your team for this behavior, but you also need to look inwardly.

My advice to managers is to make yourself more approachable for early stage collaboration. Reduce the fear and anxiety and consequences of showing you unfinished or misdirected work so long as there is enough time budgeted to repair and redirect. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the improvements in quality and the overall reduction in stress and anxiety during projects.

We’ve all grown up loathing the very notion of micromanagement. But my observation is that some managers have over-rotated to the point where we are sacrificing quality in exchange for empowerment. I don’t think these things need to be mutually exclusive, but I do think there are some specific hands-on management techniques managers can apply to preserve the best parts of autonomy and empowerment while maximizing the probability that projects are executed on time and with quality. I appreciate this is a delicate subject and would love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

The Weekly Reid: Are You Critical Enough of Your Team?

Do you ever look around at other leaders in your company and wonder how it’s possible they don’t see problems with their teams that seem so obvious to you?

Do you think other leaders look at your team and wonder the same thing?

My observation is that many (if not most) managers, are not critical enough of their teams. They are critical of other teams. They are critical of peers. They are critical of corporate policies. But, for whatever reason, managers tend to look at their own teams through rose colored glasses.

Today I’m going to walk through some key factors leaders should consider when calibrating that optimal level of critique. My goal is not to send you off to be tyrants. Far from it. In fact, I’ve written on several occasions, how being critical and being negative are not the same thing. Check out the blog below if you want to read more about that now.

3 Tips for Giving Negative Feedback to Employees

The question of how hard to push my team is something I battle with all the time. There aren’t clear cut answers I’m afraid. Every situation is different. The job of the leader is to read the pulse of the team and the needs of the business situation, and throttle criticism commensurately. I’m going to share some concepts for you to consider as you calibrate criticism to the level that makes the most sense for your team.

Engagement vs. Improvement

Employee engagement is critical – there is no news here. We want our teams to have purpose and autonomy and the opportunity to learn and grow in a positive way. But as engagement scores have become metrics we all monitor so closely (and publicly), it’s had an impact on the amount of pressure we feel comfortable placing on our teams. There is a debate playing inside the heads of most managers as they worry about how critical they can be of performance before the engagement score begins to fall. No manager wants their team at the bottom of the engagement list at the end of the year. So, its easy to hold back. It’s easy to push a little less. It’s easy to search for a positive spin whenever we can. It’s easy to coddle when we should criticize. I understand why we do this, but we need to be careful.

In the long run, in my experience at least, great accomplishment and meaningful development lead to higher engagement. Even when that comes at the end of a long, difficult struggle. If you try to game the engagement system by going soft on your team, you may lose in the long run. My advice to managers is to focus on building a high-performance team with a culture of learning and development. Make honest feedback a hallmark of your team culture. In the long run this will lead to higher performance and higher engagement.

Believing Your Own Press

If you’ve read my book or my blog, you’ll know I’m the biggest proponent of building visibility for yourself and your teams. You must promote your accomplishments across the company. But sometimes, managers start believing their own press a little too much. They get confused between promotion and truth and mistakenly throttle down the critical feedback.

In my experience, you want to praise and promote your team publicly as much as possible. This helps with engagement and helps build relevance and respect for your team in the company. When you do this, your team will see that you have their backs – that you’re their biggest fan. But you need to pair that with an equal dose of critical performance feedback.

One of the great things about being so aggressive in promoting your team internally is that it buys you the right to push them very hard. It’s a fair exchange. I’m very happy to be pushed hard by my manager if there is a commensurate reward/recognition on the other side. That’s the essence of a performance culture.

My advice to managers is to separate the public promotion of you team’s success from their development towards optimal performance. Don’t believe all your own press. Promote your team’s success but never stop pushing for greatness.

Focused Criticism vs. White Noise

It can be overwhelming to take on a new team or transform and underperforming one. There are so many areas you could be critical of, but should you? I’ve had several experiences like this in my career, and it takes a lot of patience to get it right. This is one case where I think you need to be more conservative in the volume of critical feedback you give out. If you’re critical about everything, nothing stands out. It becomes white noise to your team. Managers need to identify the areas that need the most improvement or that are most negatively impacting the business, and focus criticism on them.

It can be painful to watch inefficiencies happen and do nothing about them. But manager’s need to have the patience and perspective to take a pass sometimes. If your team has many challenges, my recommendation is to focus your critical feedback on one of two areas only. Just let the other stuff simmer until you can address it properly. This is not an argument for being less critical, rather for focusing your criticism to ensure you make progress instead of just creating noise.

Every manager has an inner dialogue about how critical to be. We see suboptimal behavior and performance everywhere. But, when you should react and when should you let it go? In general, I think managers need to dial up the criticism and do so in a more focused way. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below.