bossThis is another one of those posts where I just feel I can provide incremental value to a routine subject matter.  Once again I was lucky to work for J&J, which had the uncanny process of grading you separately for performance and people development abilities.  Loved that.  They cared about turning you into a kickass manager.  Now it’s time to do the same for you.

Go ahead and search on “how to be a great boss” via google, let’s say, and you’ll come across some good articles such as this, or this, or this.  All great stuff which will give you some head nods, although very few surprises.   I will endorse much of what has been written, but instead choose to spend my time with you today topping up with the following concrete and useful practices and tips:

Instill a mindset of collaboration.

Among all bosses in the world there is quite the range of ability (or desire) to develop their people.  I encourage you from day one to teach your team to take partial ownership for their development and even performance measurement.  If any of us wait until the end of the year we are left to deal with whatever assessment is made of us; therefore, we should all have the objective to regularly align perspectives on our performance and abilities.  This is a subset of the bigger process of managing perceptions about ourselves.  Own it and drive it, to optimize performance and more quickly overtake skill set deficiencies.   All it takes is to schedule a meeting or even have informal discussions to solicit feedback and direction whenever it seems insufficient.

Go beyond setting expectations.

I am not one to adopt the notion that if you set objectives and are transparent about them then they will magically happen due to the mystical powers of being aligned on a common goal.  Pfffft.   That approach works down to perhaps the Director level, but below that it gets complicated.  Newer employees need coaching as they are still creating their own personal toolbox for how to get results.

Because necessity breeds invention, I’m offering to you free of charge a tool that I have created and used in the last five years or so for my most motivated and high potential employees (ok well I use it for other people, too, but they get less out of it).  For them, I have painted a picture of what both “meets” and “exceeds” looks like, and not for just the black and white metric, but for how they are developing and deploying both their hard and soft skills.  Here’s a simplified example on two tabs, created based on a performance measurement system of a previous employer.  For managers and associates, I get down and dirty to show them at a more granular and objective level how they can prove out their skill sets and demonstrate the true power of their abilities.

I also take one more step in addition to setting expectations and giving them clear direction on how to exceed.  I also orient them about how to partner with me.  I tell them how I like to work in terms of meeting with each other.  I ensure they understand the balance between direction they get from me and the resourcefulness I expect from them.  I give them guidance on when and how to ask questions and when best to approach me formally or informally. I explain when and how they will be coached and evaluated (see below).  In general, I break down all the barriers between us so that we can work effectively together and they can arrive at work the next day and feel like they know how to approach their job.

Be disciplined in your feedback and evaluation process.

We are all extremely busy, and as a result, employee development and evaluation tends to only really come to the forefront of our thinking when annual review time happens.  And, even then, we focus on it mostly because there is a formalized company process that kicks in and drives our behavior.   Once a year isn’t enough, so to do it properly you need to take over.  I recommend the following action steps to kickstart the process.

  1. Ensure you have at least bi-weekly team meetings to keep everyone connected and to reinforce team goals and priorities.  Ensure this is a forum for them to ask for help or seek guidance from which all can benefit (if you have more than one direct report).
  2. Book a quarterly performance chat in a neutral space (meeting room or even a coffee shop).  I use the 6 and 12-month marks as more disciplined performance review discussion while the 3 and 9 month meetings are more coffee chats.  I let my team member drive the meeting to discuss what’s working and not working, while they are also free to discuss their development, long term goals or any topic of their choice.  Even though you will and should provide guidance and feedback, these meetings are a great opportunity to just sit and listen.
  3. Take notes.  Start a file for every direct report with places to store offline and online content that is evidence of performance.  You can even send an email to yourself for filing that contains notes on discussions (include praise!) so you can reference these during reviews.  The annual discussion will truly feel like it covers the full scope of the year.
  4. Gather ‘360’ feedback from peers.  You are not present to witness all the performance antics of your team but others are.  They say it takes a village, so think that way.  Do this twice per year.  Be careful about placing value on merely perceptions; insist on support for anything you hear out there.
  5. Don’t sub-contract out performance reviews.  Huge pet peeve of mine. Whenever a boss says to me, “you should take ownership for your review by writing it”, what I truly hear is, “crap, it’s review time and I haven’t been paying attention. I don’t remember what you did all year so you better tell me.”   If I am forced to write my own review my petulant side comes out.  I cite no development areas and write the most glowing review I can justify.  While I believe in collaboration as already stated, ensure your methodology for reviews brings insight and effort on YOUR part.  Your team will appreciate it.
  6. Don’t sabotage your team if you leave the company or change positions.   The last thing I did when I left Warner Bros. was document and deliver a performance review for each of my team.  There I was at 6 pm on my last day, a Friday, delivering the last review and not leaving until we said all we had to say.  Clean break so the new director could pick right up where I left off.  Not only is this a fair thing to do but it also builds your equity as a boss.  Small world out there.  I had a colleague in another department come up to me before I left that day, telling me how it was ‘going around, what I was doing for my team’…and he said thanks.  Karma, baby.  I left feeling energized about my next assignment.
  7. Take my advice for your own career.  As you rise through the ranks, you’ll find that there is less attention focused on you and your evaluations.  Read everything I just said and turn it upside down to apply to yourself.  I’m a career entrepreneur as they say, so I schedule performance discussions, forward emails to my manager when I am praised and submit lists of accomplishments at year end.

Provide more performance insight than feedback.

Don’t fall into the trap of getting hung up on small items and nit picks.  Instead, think of key performance review sessions as an opportunity to hold up a mirror to your direct report in the context of business performance and demonstrated skill.  Teach them something about themselves and how they work that fosters true learning.

For example, say the team member dresses in a way that’s unprofessional in your opinion — and has been commented on in 360 feedback.  There is a school of thought that says leave it alone.  But if you want to address it, talk about it in a relevant context.  If you merely complain even diplomatically about that very issue, it comes off as a hurtful matter of opinion. Instead, link it to very real business issues.  Perhaps this person struggles to influence peers because they aren’t taken seriously.  Start with the bigger issue and provide examples of missed opportunities.  That alone can be an eye-opening moment. Then, begin a constructive conversation about how to combat the program.  Provide a toolkit of suggestions, within which you can include a dialogue about how to package yourself as a leader.

Point is, you need a powerful “so what?” to make the more mundane feedback constructive and relevant.

Be selfless in making others look good (and teach them to do the same).

This is called having each other’s back and it’s probably one of the more powerful tools to build trust and chemistry with your team.  And with it, comes dedication.

I remember my first week at J&J which was actually my first week as a marketer.  I worked on the Imodium brand which was developing a new advertising campaign.  I was invited to a meeting to discuss ad concepts which were being presented by the agency.  We get in there and the creatives show us boards with a woman jumping off a rock into a beautiful lake in this bucolic setting; she is energized by her freedom from diarrhea.  Me? I launch into this polite but pointed WTH rant, asking why we aren’t even discussing the efficacy of perhaps the world’s most effective over-the-counter med.  Naturally, I’m not hip to the fact that strategy discussions and decisions were two months in the rear view mirror (and therefore off limits for debate).  I, in effect, sort of derailed the meeting.

Every.  Single. Meeting. After. This.  My manager came up to me before hand and said “Larry, the objectives of this meeting are blah blah blah…and your role in this meeting would be to wah wah wah”.  This was not a punitive practice but rather much needed guidance on how I could be effective in each meeting, given that I had a pre-disposition to talk.    She would lay out the dynamics of the room before hand and point me to how I could make the best impression, although sometimes that would be by keeping my mouth shut.

Do this for your team.  Set up the meeting for them, especially when there will be senior people in the room. If they are presenting, help them understand what the decision makers will ask or will be looking for.   Make sure they are fully prepped to just kill it while jumping in to support them when they need help.  If the meeting or presentation does not go well, it’s because you didn’t get them ready.  Embrace that responsibility.

Ask for feedback.  No, wait.  INSIST on it!

I tell my direct reports in advance of a review that they can’t leave the room until they tell me two things I do really well that I should keep doing. They also must give me two things to work on to become a better manager to them.  I could not possibly have become the best manager I could be without the feedback from those directly impacted by my style and practices.  If I was a betting man I’d say less than ten percent of managers ask for feedback.  And, I don’t understand it.  Leave your ego at the door and bring the collaborative process of development to full circle as you engage your own team to make you great.