Prune and Improve

Building High Performance Teams: As I have mentioned previously, I have a positive outlook on the competence of today’s managers and leaders. I see more material and approaches available for managers than ever before and more effort and study applied by the managers as well. Much of the material though is either a very narrow spectrum or a single technique which does not address the full spectrum of practices and knowledge that must be brought to bear to build and sustain a high performance IT team. So,  I have assembled a set of practices that I have leveraged or I have seen peers or other senior IT leaders use to build high performance IT teams in this series of posts to enable managers to have a broad source of practice at their disposal.

Senior IT leaders, with his or her senior management team, can use these practices to build a high performing team, in the following steps:

Today’s post covers how to prune and improve as required. The previous steps are prior posts and I have further constructed reference pages with links above on the first four steps.  Subsequent posts will cover the last steps as well as a summary.

I think the aspiration of building a high performing team is a lofty, worthwhile, and achievable vision. If you have ever participated in a high performance team at the top of their game, in other words: a championship team, then you know the level of professional reward and sense of accomplishment that accompanies such membership. And for most companies that rely significantly on IT, if their IT team is a high performing team, it can make a very large difference in their products, their customer experience, and their bottom line. Building such a championship team is not only about attracting or retaining top talent, it is also necessarily about identifying those team members who do not have the capabilities, behaviors, or performance to remain part of the team and addressing their future role constructively but firmly.

Let’s first revisit some key truths that underly how to build a high performance team:

– top performing engineers, typically paid similar to their mediocre peers are not 10% better but 2x to 10x better

– having primarily senior engineers and not a good mix of interns, graduates, junior and mid and senior level engineers will result in stagnation and overpaid senior engineers doing low level work

– having a dozen small sites with little interaction is far less synergistic and productive than having a few strategic sites with critical mass

– relying on contractors to do most of the critical or transformational work is a huge penalty to retain or grow top engineers

– line and mid-level managers must be very good people managers, not great engineers, otherwise you are likely have difficulty retaining good talent and you will not develop your talent

– engineers do not want to work in an expensive in-city location like the financial district of London (that is for investment bankers)

– enabling an environment where mistakes can be made, lessons learned, and quality and innovation and initiative are prized means you will get a staff that behaves and performs like that.

With these truths in mind, (and these are the same ones you used to set about building the team), having executed the first four steps, you should have adequate capacity to begin thoughtful pruning and improvement of your organization. While there are circumstances when a poor performing manager or senior engineer causes so many issues that it is a benefit to remove them, in many cases you must have adequate resource capacity to meet demands so that once you begin pruning your team is not overtaxed and penalized as a result.

Pruning should begin at the top and work down from there. Start with your directs and the next level below. Consider the span of control of your organization and the number of levels. High performing organizations are generally flatter with greater spans of control. In considering your team, I recommend leveraging a talent calibration approach of either the typical 9 box or a top-grading variant. The key to calibration is to essentially formulate three sets of results: those on your staff that are top performers that you will need to further develop and challenge; the ‘well-placed experts’ and solid performers that will need support and attention but will execute reliably; and those whose performance and potential is lacking and who must step up to continue in their role. With these three groupings of your management team identified, ensure you lay out crisp plans for all three groups and execute against them. (Remember, it will be very difficult for you to subsequently demand of your line managers that they address their staff issues if you have not shown a capability to execute such accountability with your team.)

One area to particularly focus on is time-boxing the development plans for poor performers. As these are senior managers the time to address performance issues should be shorter not longer. I recommend you start the development plan with a succinct, clear conversation on high expectations and shortcoming of their performance with examples where possible. You should provide a writeup covering this discussion at the end of the discussion. Jointly layout key deliverables, milestones, expected behavior changes and results with the affected leader. Be open to the possibility that the employee may know they are in over their head and may be looking for an alternative. While not advocating moving problem performers around, there may be a role within the company or elsewhere outside the company that is a much better fit. Look to assist with such a transition if beneficial for the company and the employee. If the employee insists this is the role they want and they are willing to step up and adjust, then you should provide support under a tight timeline for them to achieve it. Monitor the plan regularly with HR. If you follow up diligently it will become evident quite quickly that the employee can muster to the new level or not. Generally, in my experience, a surprisingly large percentage of poor performing employees will drop out of their own accord once you have provided clear expectations and no escape routes other than the hard work to get there — assuming of course that there is a modest but respectable exit plan for them. It is also key to treat the employee with respect and fairness throughout the process and focus on the results and outcomes.

Equally though, I have had more than a handful of direct reports that were senior leaders and managers who have expressed surprise when confronted with poor performance — as no one had communicated clearly and firmly their performance issues previously. Once understood and once the higher goals and expectations were known, many of these individuals (and others as well), definitively stepped up and improved significantly. Thus, until you communicate the higher goals and expectations clearly AND communicate where they must improve (constructively, with specifics) the likelihood of improvement is minimal. So, allocate the time to hold the tough but fair conversations and provide this information. Once the conversations are held, over the next 2 to 3 months you should take action based on the results. Either poor performing managers will be exited (or moved to a role much more befitting) or poor performers will become good performers.  One of the interesting results from such actions is that the remaining team, upon seeing poor performers exited, will view the results positively. In fact, I have experienced some very strong reactions from other team members who now felt a dead weight was off of their shoulders as they no longer had to make up for the defects and negative performance of the just exited team member. Further, I have received multiple (back-handed) compliments along the lines of ‘Wow, we are glad management finally figured out what to do and took action!’ . So do not be persuaded that the team will view performance actions solely in a negative light.

Once you have initiated the performance management process and you are well in the process of pruning your team, you can work with your managers and HR department to address areas lower in the organization. Remember it is key to first set expectations and goals that cascade and match your overall goals. Then ensure you hold managers and senior engineers to a higher bar than the mid and junior staff. For senior staff, you are not looking just for technical competence but also they must meet the standard for such behaviors as problem solving/solution orientation, teamwork, initiative and drive, and quality and focus on doing things right. And they should exhibit the right leadership and communication skills.

Driving such pruning and development work through your organization is important but also a delicate task. Generally, with little exception, management in a IT organization can improve how they handle performance management. Because most of the managers are engineers, their ability to interact firmly with another person in a highly constructive manner is typically under-developed. Thus, some managers may not be up to this pruning task or their calibration of talent could be well off the mark. So, leverage your HR resources to guide management and personally check in to ensure proper calibration of talent by your lower level managers. Provide classes and interactive session on how to do coaching and provide feedback to employees. Even better, insist that performance reviews and development plans must be read and signed off by the manager’s manager before being given to improve their quality. This a key element to focus on because a poorly executed resource improvement plan could backfire. Remember that the line manager’s interaction with an employee is the largest factor in undesired attrition and employee engagement. Of course, these is all the more reason to replace poor performing managers with good leaders, but do so effectively and firmly. Use the workforce plans that you developed in the Build step to ensure your pruning and development also helps you move toward your strategic site goals, contractor/staff mix targets, and junior/mid/senior profiles.

Pruning and improvement is the tough but necessary step in building a high performance team. If done well, pruning and improvement will provide additional substantial lift to the team and more importantly, enable ongoing sustainment. It requires discipline and focus to execute the steps we would all prefer to avoid, but are necessary for reaching the final high performance stages.

What has been your experience either as a leader or participant in such efforts? What have you seen go very well? or terribly wrong? I look forward to your perspective.

Best, Jim Ditmore

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