Growing Individuals: Be the Sandman

by abclarke

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

Two weeks ago I talked about the first rule of growing people on your team: get over yourself! Assuming you’ve done that, the next step is to Be the Sandman…

Cathedrals of the Mind

So your employee holds the key to growing their own career. If so, why the hell do we need managers involved?

Well, let’s revisit the process involved in getting something done:

  1. Daydream: Form a vision of what you want do.
  2. Be Lazy: Come up with one small step that moves you closer.
  3. Look at the Negative: Look at the opportunity cost of that step, and if it’s too large, go back to step 2.

Then, TAKE THE STEP!

In career growth therefore, the first thing you need to do is form a vision, a dream if you would, of where you eventually want to get to. It can be grandiose (“I will be the CEO of a fortune 500 company”). It can be noble (“I will create and run a charity that serves the needs of the homeless in Seattle”). It can be very specific (“I will be the Director of Strategic Projects within 2 years”). It can even by very vague (“I want to build something that is larger than just myself”), but it’ll need to get more specific over time. The most important thing though is to have that dream and to believe you’re going to achieve it. Every great achievement of mankind started as a dream, and so everyone who wants to be great needs a dream:

“A rock pile ceases to be a rock pile the moment a single man contemplates it, bearing within him the image of a cathedral.” -Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Flight to Arras, 1942

If your employee doesn’t have a dream of where they want to get to, then all the training, all the mentoring, and all the experience in the world is for naught; it’s just passing time.

Enter the Sandman

Now, why are managers needed? Because left to their own devices most people will never follow the process above. Sure, they know they need to follow it. But they also know they need to rebalance their portfolios, get that annual physical, and have their teeth cleaned.

Most people are incredibly frightened by the concept of looking internally, finding a dream, and then communicating it to the world. So they procrastinate.

But as a manager you have one power that applies here; you can force someone to do something, and fire them if they fail to do it (harsh I know, but ultimately that’s the only hard-power managers have). And in growing careers, that’s what you need to do.

Your job is to force your employees to think hard and articulate where they want to take their careers; in other words, you must be the Sandman and force them to dream.

Becoming Morpheus

The concrete step here is simple: make sure every one of your employees has clearly articulated to you their dream for where they want their career to be in five to ten years. Write it down if that helps you, but the key is that the employee (not you) articulated it, and he or she can recall it at a moment without referring to some bullshit document (so don’t just follow the HR plan).

This will be easy with some employees – they will have firm dreams already ensconced in their minds that you just need to extract from them. For others though, you’re going to have to force them to do a lot of work. The good news is pretty much everyone has a dream; you just have to get it out of them.

People have lots of different ways of doing it, but here are some of the techniques that have worked for me.

  1. Listen, don’t direct. This goes back to “get over yourself”, but when you have conversations with your employees about where they want to grow their careers, make sure you spend most of the time listening. Don’t be afraid of silences – make them break the silence.
  2. Ask open-ended questions. Don’t ask “do you want to be a CEO?” But also don’t ask “what job do you want to have in ten years?”: I have no idea what my job will be ten years from now; how can I expect my employees to know? Instead ask “what are the qualities you want to have in your job ten years from now” (I do know the qualities I want in my job 10 years from now)? Or “what types of things do you want to do in your job ten years from now? (I know the answer to that too; I’ll bet you know your answers as well).”
  3. Encourage made-up titles. I’ve found this one to be very useful. Once I’ve asked a bunch of open ended questions about the qualities they want in a job, I ask the employee to make up a title for that job. Sometimes they pick “CEO” or “CTO”, but more often than not they pick something way more personal to them. I once had someone pick “Director of Special Projects”, and another person pick “Judge.” I’ve found that when someone picks a name for their set of job qualities, it makes it more real for them and more memorable!
  4. Ask them what are the differences between themselves today, and the person who holds the title they made up. This is useful to find the gaps and also to give some ideas of the types of steps they should take to get to their goal. For the person who told me “Judge”, he rightly pointed out he didn’t have a law degree (any guesses what his next step was)? For the person who told me “Director of Special Projects” he told me he hadn’t really worked on a special project to date, so the goal became getting him assigned to a more important project with trickier technology.
  5. Be persistent. Every time you meet with an employee who is uncertain of their dream, ask them how it is coming. When they have made no progress, be harsh. Give them deliverables if that works with them. But never give up on this – without a dream, they will not take their career anywhere!

Stop Dreaming

Once you have a dream that is articulated, with some gaps identified between the employee today and the employee of the future, it’s time to move onto the next two steps: being lazy, and looking at the negative.

Being lazy is usually quite easy once you have a dream: you ask the employee to come up with some ideas of steps they could take within your organization that moves them closer to their dream. This is a time where you can seed them with ideas, but try to make them come up with ideas first – you’ll be surprised by the results.

But “looking at the negative”, well that deserves its own topic which I’ll cover soon.

– Art