Continuing on from my last post here is the balance of the talk:
Culture is critical to success
Culture is meaningful in 2 ways; it’s the environment that allows high performance people to contribute all they can, and it’s an essential ingredient in attracting them in the first place. Like most things I’ve touched on here, culture is a massive topic all by itself – how do you even define it? The freedom to work to the job and not to the clock, a casual office atmosphere, an appreciation of the value of their innovations, and the ability to try out new tools and processes are just a handful of the things I’d lump into this category, however if you want to distil it right down to it’s elemental for I’ve never heard better than Dan Pink’s:
AMP – Autonomy, Mastery, Purpose
Autonomy is the freedom to choose what to do, based on an overarching understanding of goals and objectives, rather than having work broken down and fed in as proscribed steps. It’s a ‘give me a problem and let me get on with it’ attitude.
Mastery is the desire to get better at something; to develop, improve, and perfect what you do for no other reason than that itself. It’s a strong motivator for high performance people; they constantly want to track progress and do better next time.
Purpose is the need to connect with a greater mission that they find inspiring. Traditionally you could say that companies are formed to extract profits from a market – and that’s always going to be true – but what will inspire high performers is changing the nature of friendship rather than building a social networking site or redefining how education is delivered instead of putting infrastructure in a school; and sure, everyone expects to, and intends to, make some money along the way.
Most high performance people I’ve worked with value time with their leadership – whether you’re their boss or their bosses boss etc, they want to tell you what they’re doing and they want to know what your thoughts, priorities, and plans are; the longer term the better. It’s how they feed their ‘autonomy’ part of AMP and it’s how you make sure it’s going in the right direction.
In most organizations I’ve worked the truly high performance teams are small pockets of greatness amongst a wider – shall we say more diverse – population. Out of all those places I could tell which ones were headed for success and which ones were headed for mediocrity (regardless of the industry or the product) because in the ones headed for success the wider organization picked up behaviours and practices from the higher performing – and more successful – teams and then everyone lifted their game. In those destined for mediocrity people resisted change regardless of the practical demonstration of it’s benefits being right under their noses. As managers of high performance people we can help this process in a number of ways; we have to recognize that most people (good or bad) don’t like being told they’re doing it wrong or that your guys know better, but what you can do is encourage external interest in what your guys are doing or how they’re doing it and, if one them is interested in spending time with (or moving into) another team, make sure you do everything you can to make space for that to happen. Everyone grows that way.
Know your role
It might seem a little bland or obvious but one thing high performance people will know is what they expect from you, as their manager, and if there is one thing that’s respected it is competence and solid leadership. These kind of guys don’t like working for weak or indecisive management, they take comfort from knowing that you know what you’re doing and you’re doing it like you mean it.
Expectations can be different internationally
This one is particularly true in the IT industry – given how portable our skills are, the way our technical vocabulary overcomes language barriers, and how much offshoring is being done. My experience setting up a develop centre in Romania taught me that, while most of this stuff is usually true, it should be used as a theme rather than a fixed set of rules to use in every circumstance. For example shoulder surfing with one of your developers while they step you through their code could be considered unwelcome micromanagement in one setting but essential interest and support in the other. There is no substitute for taking the time to appreciate what ever individual’s unique needs are. As leaders we’re in the business of making our guys as effective as they can be - whatever their interpretation of that is.
HR still wont help you!
I guess it’s starting to sound like I have a real downer on HR, but I really don’t. I do have a downer on bureaucracy (and even more of a downer on large scale process and paperwork when it doesn’t contribute to the performance of a team or individual) and I have a downer on efficiency at the expense of effectiveness. My point here is simply that no one else but you can or will take ultimate responsibility for the performance of your teams. HR is there to help you, but remember that they’ll never stand there with you and take a beating for things not working out in your team and I don’t know a single executive that would be satisfied with the excuse ‘I applied all the management steps HR specified’…
Set the bar high
It should be difficult to get a job in a high performance team because the rest of the people in the team will have a high standard and will not thank you for lowering the average. High performance people like to work with other high performance people – they’ll always be looking at what they can learn from those around them.
Mix it up
As much as high performance people are always looking at how their peers can help them develop they also enjoy helping others – with the potential but without the knowledge – to develop. For this to work you need to get good at spotting good quality high potential people rather than just those who have all the skills and knowledge right now today. These guys are usually good long term investments too because they’ll soak up knowledge like a sponge and there will be plenty of progression for them in your team as what they’re capable of doing for you expands.
Spend time on the best not the worst
There are a whole lot of nice sound bytes like ‘the squeaky door gets the oil’ etc to justify loading your time towards the people in your team which need the most support, and for some reason human beings are always more drawn towards problems than opportunities, however consider that the opposite bias might be better. How about spending the biggest share of your time with those in your team who will benefit most from it? Don’t allow your weakest performers to be a huge sink for your (highly limited) personal bandwidth and, as some pretty smart guys I know always say, ask yourself how much benefit the organization gets out of 10% more performance from your best performer vs. 10% more performance from your worst performer.
Weird point to close on given that this was the ‘retention’ section of the talk, but I think that too many managers focus on retention for retentions sake (which can be especially dangerous when it becomes a KPI). I think the focus has to be on establishing a win-win relationship with smart people which will result in a lot of value for both the organizations mission and the employees personal development and professional growth. Recognizing right from day 1 that this arrangement has a finite lifetime is simply being realistic. I always feel proud and happy when people that work with me move on to something else – in the same organisation or elsewhere - and I take some satisfaction in the knowledge that it’s a step forward for them and that I’ve helped them get there. Besides, I have always found that when people can see how the stuff they’re doing for you links in to the bigger plan they have for their lives they stick around longer because they see how working for you actually contributes to achieving their long term goals rather than preventing them from moving forward.
I originally agreed to do this talk because so many organisations have a very traditional approach to recruitment and management and these approaches are just no longer relevant when you’re dealing with complex technology challenges requiring talented engineers. It’d be a better profession to be in – for both the people on the ground and the companies who benefit from their expertise – if more of us did this stuff differently. You can find the original slides here.