Growing Individuals: Crack the Whip

by abclarke

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

A Coach or a Friend?

I started taking swimming lessons a few weeks ago. I’d started training for my first triathlon and I didn’t know how to swim.

My coach, Gus, is also a friend and I’ve spent a lot of time hanging out with him and his family. We’ve been to soccer games together (“Football” for the more worldly readers). I’ve babysat his kids. I’ve ridden hundreds of miles with him at my side. He’s a very good friend.

This morning I had a typical coaching experience with Gus. I had just finished a 50-yard dash in the pool, my breathing was heavy, and my legs were burning. I wanted nothing more than to rest and catch my breath. I looked up at my friend Gus and said “give me a second”.

But my friend wasn’t there. Instead my coach was, and he just said, “No. Do it again.” And I was off. Dear God, sometimes I hate my coach.

Now here’s the interesting thing: I am a much stronger swimmer today than I was four weeks ago.

Of Carrots… and Sticks

The last two parts of this essay talked about what you need to do to get an employee growing their career:

That’s good, and in reality most of the work that must be done is borne by the employee. So far, as a manager, you haven’t had to sweat, and as I’ve always said, laziness is good.

But all that was carrot. For many people carrots aren’t enough – it’s always easy to “start tomorrow” or “wait until next week”. Sometimes you need a stick to get folks moving.

Coaching

Earlier I cautioned managers to get over themselves and realize there isn’t that much they can do to force someone to grow their career.

Now I’ll modify that slightly: assuming you’ve done the stuff mentioned above, there is one thing you can do: you can be the source of honest feedback on whether progress is being made, and you can reward and punish if progress is made or not made.

To do that, you need to remember you’re not a friend, you’re a coach. And sometimes Coaches need to ‘crack the whip’, or ‘be harsh’ or ‘be demanding’ in order to get the most of their charges(1).

That’s what Gus was doing this morning, and that’s what you need to do too.

The Whip

Now I’m not recommending you keep a whip by your desk (although I’ve known someone who did that). Instead, be serious about managing your employee to complete their small steps, rewarding them when they do, and punishing them when they don’t. Small steps are measurable and are black-and-white: Your employee either scheduled the mentoring lunch or they didn’t. They either signed up for the PMI course or they didn’t. Don’t worry about the larger goal – the employee will track that. Instead, just remember what small thing they said they would do, and hold them to it.

As usual, everyone has a different style with this, but here’s what I like to do. I track the one small step each employee told me they would complete, and when they would complete it by. And then every time I meet them, I ask them for status. EVERY DAMN TIME (Several folks who’ve worked for me will tell you how annoying I am about that(2)).

I make it their #1 goal on their goal list for the quarter. When they miss the step, I tell them I’m disappointed but make them set and tell me another one. And if they consistently miss their small step goals, then I start trying to move them into some other position (or “manage them out”). I reward in reviews those who made their steps; I don’t reward those who missed them – even if the rest of their work was stellar.

In reality, I’ve had a few employees miss their first and second steps, but never more than that. My experience is that your employees get really serious about following through on their career growth goals (or they leave) when you start tracking their small steps closely.

Self-Flagellation

Sometimes you’ll have an employee tell you they think their next small step is to “have my manager talk to Bob in Operations about a transfer to his department.” Yikes! This goes against my principle of laziness: your employee is trying to get you to do something, and if you don’t do it they can claim that you caused them to miss a goal, and if you do it, you could lose them! They’re trying to get you to crack the whip on yourself.

OK, don’t panic!

First, do you think that’s the right next step for them to take? If it isn’t, you’re their manager, and can tell them to pick another step. If this person isn’t a star on your team, you have a duty not to pass him or her on to Bob (and they should NOT be surprised to find this out). You should make your employee aware of where the gaps are and encourage him or her to start fixing them.

But what if you person is a star… well, that’s fine too, because if you’ve been tracking closely, you’re now about to fire your stars…

(which I’ll discuss next week, unless I’m too stuffed from Holiday feasting).

– Art

(1) I do believe coaching is about 50% teaching, 40% motivating and only 10% cracking the whip, but all the earlier stuff I’ve talked about covers the first 90%.

(2) No comment on other things I’m annoying about.