Are you a leader in a fast-growing or fast-paced organization? Chasing a big idea, changing an industry, disrupting how things are done, while trying to make unit economics work?

You might be one of those managers who, between handling funders, partners, clients and trying to have a personal life, meets their team only at the coffee machine or in the lift. 

One day you are hit by the realization that some of your team members have gone off in another direction, others were left behind standing at a junction a few kilometers behind scratching their heads, and another few seem to have completely forgotten why they were hired, seemingly working at their own (snail) pace.

Now it has become a performance case. You’re forced to ask yourself where you went wrong, and what you can do to salvage the situation and get the person back on the right track.

Obviously, your bookshelf and bookmark bar is full of great management literature! 

You can find a gazillion tips and must-do’s on the internet about how to manage, lead and develop individuals and teams. 

It sounds a bit like this: Be keen about when to lead and when to manage! Hire slowly and fire fast (but don’t get sued). Are you leveraging the six psychological conditions of performance and moving towards ongoing performance management? Define your management principles, then tailor your approach to an individual’s needs and personality types. Are you doing the right things to enable agility or are you blocking it? Be sure to brush your teeth twice a day. 

All of the above are important things to consider and concepts to be aware of! We work with our clients and their managers on most of them (well, for the last one we can recommend you a good dentist)

But when you run into a snag with an employee or a whole team, consult your peers and friends and get five different views – then what will you do?

Sometimes you’ve got to go back to the basics! But what are the basics, really?

As part of our human capital engagements with fast-growing and fast-changing organizations, we’ve spoken to many many team members. The below five points are informed by what we’ve heard them ask for and sadly, often not get from their managers. 

Whenever I run into a challenge around the contribution and performance of a team or team member, I take a step back and look at these 5 factors.

What your team really needs from you as their manager is:

1) Clear and specific performance expectations. 

Yes, your people have titles, and maybe even a JD. But in your fast-changing organization, realities and priorities change all the freaking time! 

Having a clear vision, an inspiring end goal and a strategic plan helps. But if people don’t understand their job, they can’t do it, even with the best intentions.

“What am I in charge of exactly?  

And how does it fit in with what the rest are doing?

What will good look like by the end of this week/month/quarter?” 

If these aren’t answered, not much relevant work will get done.

Defining the softer and qualitative pieces is very important: How should our customers feel when interacting with us? What guides us in difficult decisions? How do we reason and act differently than peers in our industry? What behaviours are not acceptable here, no matter what storm hits us? Sure, putting it in document form is crucial (Values, SLAs, Code of Conduct etc). More importantly have constant conversations about these, in your weekly forums, monthly or quarterly reviews. Keep finding new ways to talk about these in the team!

2) Freedom to implement and clarity where the freedom ends

If you’ve hired the right people, they love autonomy, making decisions and creating solutions in uncharted territory. Yet, few people comfortably direct from a clean slate with no rules. Therefore, consciously defining authority and freedom is important for two reasons:

Firstly, working in a start-up or fast-changing company is already very uncertain. So provide as much clarity as you can about what people are allowed to do and decide. This often requires a bit of thinking by the manager. Explicitly give room and permission for trying out new things, but also clearly state where approvals or your involvement need to be sought. (This could mean a request to “Run x by me every y days/weeks”, or “Do what you think is best but talk to me when z kind of situation arises”).  

Secondly, constant interference is demotivating, and overtime limits creativity and initiative. If you feel the need to tell people HOW to do their job, please ask yourself why (or even better 5 WHYs, a good old root cause analysis has never created any harm!) and find ways of addressing the challenges that do not resemble micromanagement.

A few examples of how this self-reflection could go: If the reason you jump in is that the person isn’t very creative, then you might suggest team ideation meetings. If you realize that you worry about the person making bad judgment calls, your solution could involve forums for skill-building or experience sharing where your team grows the right muscles. Or if you conclude that it’s your ego more than anything else, consider what it’ll take for your company to grow and outlast you.

3) Feedback, skills and knowledge

Most bosses think that they give a lot of feedback, and most employees say that they want more feedback. So where is the disconnect? 

It is often in how and when feedback is given and whether people are taking note of what was said. And also in what areas feedback is provided on!

Good feedback includes talking about work approach and underlying thought process just as much as about work results and how neat the document looks like!

Tell people where they did well, made the right decision or where they are acting skillfully. No buts. 

Keep in mind that people rarely know what they don’t know, and therefore it’s important to point out knowledge and skill gaps when you see them. HOW you do it matters a lot, of course. Use language and create situations that make it easy for someone to hear your intention and message! Doing it in passing will most likely not stick.

Where gaps are concerned, define learning goals together. Then take an extra step and make sure people know HOW to develop the desired new skills. (You don’t have to do all the work and planning here, your team members can look for their own learning resources and run them by you for input.)

Show that you’re also learning: Keep receiving, soliciting and implementing feedback yourself!

4) Encouragement and attention

Many bosses forget that their employees are more than that: Each of your team members has dreams for their life and career and experiences ups and downs in their personal life. Working in this company certainly is an emotional rollercoaster to them, as well! 

Encouragement and attention can come in many forms and shapes: Surprise snacks in the office, a 10-minute chat in the kitchen, a lunch in a small intimate circle, Friday forums where people share their successes and failures, awards, rewards, recognition, you name it. We’ve talked about the importance of leave days in another article.

Don’t fake it though, find your own genuine style. The objective here is to show “I see you. I see your effort and struggle. I’m impressed. I hope you will keep going with the rest of us. I want you to succeed! We’ll get there! Or maybe somewhere else.”

In moments of growth and change, it’s important to slow down sometimes. When you take a break from the grind, you can digest what’s going on better, and make changes to the direction and the strategies. Make time for the right people to listen to each other. Are you listening to those on the front line of your business?

5) Knowing who has to go

You’re building a movement and are planning to create impact in a big way, and the team needs to be ready to run a marathon, not just a sprint.

Who’s dragging the rest behind, emotionally or practically? You probably already know what I mean by that, but if not: Who talks more behind backs than putting issues on the table in a transparent and productive manner? Who’s constantly needing everyone’s support and time to get their work done? Who’s just not improving in attitude despite so many conversations?

Obviously, there are legal questions to consider here! Being committed to the above four points, and documenting them will help you stay fair and level-headed in performance situations.

To take these five to action, we’ve created a short Manager’s Checklist: 

Can you answer these questions for each of your direct reports? 

  • Why are they choosing to be in your team and organization? (Yes, it’s a job, but why else? What have they hired you for? And are they getting that?)
  • What does each of your employees think s/he is supposed to do and achieve this week and month? 
  • How well are they using their freedom, and why is that so?
  • What do they know about how you feel about their performance?
  • What are they putting their energy into in terms of learning new skills and knowledge at the moment?
  • How well do you know the dynamics in the team, and who is pulling people up, and who is dragging others behind?

And if you realize that you’re not happy with your answers to these questions – we’re here to help!

What other foundations or basics of management have you encountered that work well in an ambiguous and fast-changing environment?

I would love to hear from you. Please get in touch to share thoughts and ideas!

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