The Rules for Growing Individuals

by abclarke

(4a of 5 in The Rules of Naked Management)

Last week I talked about how to use your entire Naked Team to hire new people. This week I talk about how to why you also need to grow the members of your team.

Farming

I recently finished The Omnivore’s Dilemma(1), a book about how the food we eat is produced. There is a section in the book that details a “healthy” farm called Polyface based in Virginia. Polyface uses the natural tendencies of nature to create a farm that produces some of the best eggs, beef, chicken and produce of any farm in the country. This form of farming, in particular its reliance on harnessing the innate tendencies and cycles of crops and animals, is very similar to managing a Naked Team. Managing Naked Teams is all about recognizing what natural energies motivate most people, and using transparency to channel that natural energy towards your team’s goal.

But it’s an imperfect analogy: While growing and running naked teams your team will quickly gain momentum, your people will get more and more confident and your stars will start realizing they can do even more. Like a successful crop on a farm left unattended, your team will start expanding outside its area (or at least want to). Your star employees will want to take on new challenges. The same thing happens on a farm but the good farmer harvests his crops right before things start getting overcrowded and thereby keeps a stable healthy system running.

Unlike a farm, it’s generally frowned upon if you harvest or cull your team to keep it at a stable level.

Harvesting

Here’s the problem: The consequences of not harvesting your team are just as serious as not harvesting on a farm. On an un-harvested farm, crops overcrowd themselves and start dying. Some aggressive crops spread into other areas (like weeds). And disease spreads rapidly in the confined and overcrowded herds. On a team that is running naked but needs to expand outside its area to keep everyone growing, either some team members quit out of frustration at not being able to keep moving in their careers (the best case situation), or they resign themselves to immobility, get bitter, and poison the team (the worst case).

How do you solve that problem? You do two things, one obvious and the other not so obvious.

On the obvious front, you weed your teams, removing the poisonous attitudes and the folks who don’t believe in the strategy you’re following. Get rid of them and quickly! That’s all I’ll say on that.

But on the non obvious front, you must ignore the natural instinct of most managers and instead, you actively harvest the best from your team.

This is the last step to running naked teams. First you focus on the team itself; then you use the team to help add more people to the team; and finally you aggressively grow and remove the stars on your team to keep your “crops” rotated and your harvests high.

The Joy of Farming

Harvesting your team, or actively removing your best team members and replacing them with new team members, is one of the most powerful tools in your bag of manager tricks. If you do it, you get the following benefits:

  1. You get to control the timing and attitude of when your stars leave. That’s right; your stars are going to leave anyway because they want to keep growing, but if you focus on moving them, you get much more control over when that happens.
  2. You force your team to be more resilient and less dependent upon 1-2 key people. Once the star leaves, you have to train other (up and comers) to do the job. If you’re regularly recycling your top team members it’s easy to convince your stars to maintain transition materials as a condition of your help. And it keeps your focus on training and recruitment which means you think more about the “how” you do things than “what” you do, which increases resilience.
  3. You increase morale on your team. When your team sees (through your actions) that you’re actively pushing and promoting the stars, they feel more loyalty to you because they’ve seen your results, and they feel better about the team because they know they’ll move on. They may not be stars yet, but you’ve given them the best possible reason to try: you’ll promote them off the team if they achieve it.
  4. You raise the execution level of your entire team. This one is less obvious, but I’ve found that when a high-performing star leaves, especially one who has been on the team for a long term, there is a period of pain (usually 3 months) as people start to fill the hole, but then the team starts executing better than when the star was there. Why? Because folks who you never let try something new when the star was on your team, now try new things. They have the knowledge of seeing what the star did, but they try new evolutions on that theme because they are new people. And after 3-months they’ve either returned to exactly what the star did (because the pain is too high if they don’t), or their mutation on the star’s way of doing things is actually better. Ergo your team gets better, not worse.

Most management tool books tell you to get rid of poisonous team members (which I echo) but to do everything in your power to keep your stars. I disagree. Do everything you can to promote your stars into new roles. It’s true that it does come at a cost; usually for me 3 months of pain as the team adjusts to life without a promoted star. But I’ve been on excellent teams that didn’t harvest their stars, and the consequence was always a team that ended up bitter, ineffective, and full of hubris about how good they were (anyone else have the same experience?). Three months of pain is nothing compared to years of snarky bitter old-timers.

Don’t’ get me wrong; I’m not advocating that you get rid of all your stars tomorrow. Instead I’m advocating that you plan and actively push out your stars on a schedule that your organization can maintain, but never let a year go by without losing one star!

The Rules of Farming

So assuming I’ve convinced you that focusing on growing the individuals on your team, in particular the stars, is worth your while, How do you do it and still get your day job done? The good news is that most first time managers actually spend far more time on employee growth than they should(2).

I have found a way that for me has been very effective, but also very efficient on my time. It consists of the following rules:

  1. Get Over Yourself
  2. Be the Sandman
  3. Remember Michael Jordan
  4. Crack the Whip
  5. Fire Your Stars

I’ll explain next week

– Art

(1) It was highly recommended by several people I respect, and it’s a good read. I really hadn’t appreciated the importance of corn to my diet before. My biggest issue with the book is its descriptions of life on Polyface farm, a healthy farm in Virginia. I know from firsthand experience what it takes to keep a farm like Polyface going; due to the nature of farming in rural Ireland in the 70’s and 80’s, most farms ran de-facto healthy with crop rotation, multiple types of livestock, and self-sustaining fertilizing (i.e. manure) – artificial fertilizers didn’t become prevalent until the mid 80’s. I grew up on such a farm. Pollan’s view of Polyface doesn’t suggest it’s easy work, but the style of the writing certainly romanticizes the work, skimps on details of exactly how taxing the labor is, and suggests those who choose not to enter the field are morally and spiritually inferior to those who do engage in the work. It’s certainly within his rights to advance his thesis this way, but it makes me question the other parts of his thesis as well; what details that might make his thesis less strong did he omit? Are there positives to the corn-based-us-ecology that he left out? Who knows? It’s a popular book, not a doctoral thesis, so you get what you pay for. Despite all that, I will continue the chain of recommendations and recommend that people read this book if they would like a good non-fiction read for the winter. Definitely food for thought.

(2) This is partially because of good intentioned HR policies like developing career maps. First time managers often want to do such a good job with their first employees that they actually create full career maps. There are few better examples of complete wastes of time in the history of management. The actual HR policy is well intentioned (it’s that managers need to spend some time on growing their employees), and HR departments recognize that most managers don’t do it on their own, but the one-size-fits-all approach leads to just bullshit paperwork. But the main reason first time managers spend too much time on this is because they break the first rule of growing individuals: they have not gotten over themselves.