Managing Underperformance, Great Training, Summer, and the Basics
May 27, 2021
This is Kommon People — the newsletter from Kommon which highlights stories about people, organisations, and technology to help you be a better manager. If you like it and want more like it in your inbox, consider subscribing.
In this Issue
Improving underperformance: we know it’s one of the toughest things a new manager has to do. We’ve found a framework to help.
What great management training looks like: Skyscanner’s program may contain inspiration for your own training, and any you’re providing to others.
Make sure it feels like summer: this summer, go the extra mile to give your team a break. It’s the right thing to do, and it might just mean they come back after it...
Doing the basics: we highlight a great summary of what your team wants from you.
In our conversations with first-time managers, one of the most common challenges we hear about is helping someone on you're team who's underperforming.
Just to make it harder, it’s a subject that can be difficult to get good advice on. The topic covers such a wide range of situations - different personalities, different sectors, different working relationships - that we find much of the guidance out there is too general to be of much practical use.
That was until we found this blog post from Roy Rapoport, a Director in Corporate Engineering at Netflix. He lays out ‘The Five Conditions for Improvement’ which need to be in place for you to help someone work on an aspect of their performance.
We don’t put it lightly when we say we wish we’d had this when we were first promoted to being managers. It’s an invaluable checklist for working through these issues with your team members.
The five steps are:
Does your team member agree there’s a problem? If they don’t think there’s an issue, you’re not going to have much success convincing them to solve it. Start here.
Does your team member want to see the problem resolved? They might be aware of the issue, but they might be fine with it. You’ll need to help them see why it’s important to resolve if you want to make any progress.
Does your team member see their role in causing the problem? Ah, so they might recognise there’s a problem, and that it needs resolving, but don’t see how it’s their issue. Again, no point going any further until you’ve got their agreement that it’s something they’re impacting.
Can your team member figure out a plan to solve the problem? Ok, we’re making progress. They’ve agreed the problem exists, needs resolving, and they need to take action. But they might not know how. This is where you might need to step in and offer some advice.
Can your team member execute the plan? Even if they do have a plan, can they actually make the relevant improvements? Again, as their manager this may be where you can offer support.
We’ve seen many cases of underperformance where a manager has simply skipped to points 4 and 5, and given the individual some instructions to improve, without ever pausing to consider whether they believe there’s a problem in the first place, care about it, or think it’s anything to do with them. This is clearly a recipe for disaster and happens…. well, it happens all the time.
So next time you need to speak to someone about making an improvement, just spend a few minutes thinking about whether these conditions exist. And if you’re currently struggling with one of these situations, just check the list to see if you’ve missed a step.
But it’s not that we don’t think management training’s inherently bad. It’s just frequently done badly. Which makes it so wonderful to see a company put thought into creating a fantastic program for its new managers.
Step forward the Engineering team at Skyscanner, the UK headquartered travel technology company. In their recent piece ‘Maker to Manager - How we Support New Leaders’, they detail the way they advance software engineers into potential managers.
Now, we haven’t actually spoken to any new managers at Skyscanner to vouch for the training… but it has tons of features which we advocate for every time someone asks us how they should structure their programs.
You might see something in here to incorporate into your own learning, and for those that have influence in designing management programs at your organisations, you might find even more inspiration.
Some of the main points we like include:
It’s planned in advance: an engineer is asked well in advance of when they might take on limited management responsibilities whether they’d be interested in doing so. If so, it’s built into their development plan so they can build up to taking on one or two direct reports over the coming months.
Peer learning: all new managers are invited to a dedicated Slack channel for those on the path. There’s also regular coffee meetings for managers to share their experiences and challenges. Did we mention we love peer learning?
Mentoring: each engineer is assigned a mentor for 1:1 support as they learn how to manage. There are also quarterly Ask-Me-Anything sessions with engineering leaders and more experienced managers.
Online and in-person training: both combine to offer guidance on key management skills.
Is this what you want? After six months, there’s a check-in with the new manager on how they’re finding the role. If it’s not the right fit for them, they can go back to their previous career path with no impact on their professional development.
So in summary… 👏
Make Sure it Feels like Summer
Summer feels like it’s nearly here.
But in the endless drive we feel for maximum productivity, all the time, rather than discussing everyone’s plans for a break, this can lead to heartwarming conversations about ensuring revenue targets are still hit (they’ve been reduced by 10% for summer after all...), and worries about people taking too much time off at the same time.
This always feels a bit scrooge-like, but this year, it will feel like a kick in the face.
The vast majority of people are ready for a break, and as their managers, we should be trying our hardest to give them one.
We should be doing this on humanitarian grounds, but as we’ve mentioned many times already, many people are also thinking of leaving their companies. How your company handles the summer season might just sway employees’ decision to come back after it. It’s no coincidence that some companies have looked at 4 day weeks, bonuses and additional paid time off (Charlie Warzel has an excellent piece here calling for a Summer Slowdown).
That said, we also understand that many firms are still feeling the commercial pressures of the pandemic, and are not in the position to offer additional leave or perks even if they wanted to. But that doesn’t mean you can’t approach summer looking for opportunities to help your team, rather than as a hassle to be managed.
Go the extra mile to try and make sure people’s vacation requests can be accommodated. Emphasise that you’re trying to get everyone a break. Limit the workload if you can. Don’t tell people to ‘take some time if they need it’, actively make sure they get some holiday. Model the behaviours you want to see. Create the space for your team not to feel they have to be productive all the time, but should be taking some time to focus on themselves.
In short, as Warzel points out, don’t be this guy.
Doing the Basics
Managing people can be complex.
But that doesn’t mean we have to overcomplicate it. One of the promises of Kommon People is that we bring you practical, readable advice on how to be a better manager, and we love resources which do the same.
Johnathan and Melissa Nightingale are the founders of Raw Signal Group, a Toronto-based management training company. Their recent newsletter has a brilliant breakdown of how organisations can get the basics right.
We’d copy it down in full, but a newsletter within a newsletter might be a bit much. Here’s their section on what your team expects from you in terms of their workload:
‘Give us a reasonable workload and the tools to do it. Tell us what's expected, instead of having us guess, and ground those expectations in reality. Your people are not bothered by accountability, or by working hard. Many of them take pride in doing a great job. What bothers people is burnout workloads, shifting goalposts, and an unending need for heroics to make up for bad planning.
And when we do that great job, make sure we're recognized for it. People want very different things when it comes to recognition, so this is a place you'll have to talk with each of us. Some want applause at an all-hands and for others that will make them want to disappear into their chair. But every employee you have wants to be paid and promoted fairly. Fair relative to their peers. Fair relative to their industry and expertise. And fair relative to what it costs to live their lives. If your business can't pay people fairly, it's a bad business.’