Marshall’s Mandates: Working With Your Staff

Posted: May 13  |  By: John L. Marshall III

Rules to follow from our President, John L. Marshall III

For new managers, particularly those who were colleagues with some or all of their staff before they were managers of those same folks, how to work with your staff can be a big challenge.  Companies today don’t necessarily do as much as in the past to provide meaningful training on how to be an effective leader.  Hopefully, the following rules will help you in becoming a better leader.

The first 5 rules of Marshall’s Mandates were Working With Your Boss.

Rule #6: Always backfill your own limitations.

Everyone has a natural tendency to want to be around people like themselves. A successful organization does not have just one type of person. There are many types of clients and candidates and there are many types of leaders. So do not simply select people with whom you are comfortable.

When I first started interviewing new staff members, I would often come away from the interview with a feeling no more precise than whether I would want to have a beer with them after work. Now, in addition to using the wonderful behavioral interviewing techniques that have become widely taught, I make certain to ask about how they have shown the ability to supplement the skills of, or backfill the limitations of, the persons to whom they report today. How do they recognize the limitations of their current boss?

Does your team always think your ideas are great? Your next hire should be the “loyal opposition.” A member of the “loyal opposition” will tow the line just as hard as everyone else. They do, however, want to discuss what line should be towed and how. They won’t just agree because it’s the popular position.

Do you struggle with the details but seem to have a grasp of the big picture? Your next hire should be someone who revels in the details. Not someone who doesn’t see the big picture too, just someone who likes all the small parts that make up the picture.

Rule #7: Be friendly with your staff, but not their best friend.

Communicate with your people and be a part of their social fabric. However, managers should not put themselves in positions where their ability to offer judgment or impartiality would be impaired.

Give the people you support adequate “space.” By this, I mean that you should always assume that your staff wants to see you less than you want to see them. I mean this both figuratively as well as literally. Figuratively, I mean that you should allow your staff to do their work without constant interruption by your making certain that they are, in fact, doing their job (See Rule #3). Your staff is happy that you care about their performance and they are happy that you want to make sure that they are successful, but you need to allow them space to operate.

From a literal perspective, I can tell you that nothing good can come from team-building or recognition events that call for colleagues at any level to be forced to interact with each other in clothing in which anyone would feel “exposed.” I’m all for recognition events in sunny, beachy locations — just don’t force people to hang out together in swimwear.

Rule #8: Never ask a question that you know will be answered with a lie.

If you are fairly certain that someone who works for you has done something wrong, do not ask them if they have done something wrong. Of course they haven’t! Ask them “what are we going to do about —?” If someone is forced to lie to you, then you will be forced to deal with their lie, as well as whatever generated the question. Bad judgment is one thing. Lying to your boss is another. Do not decide the answer to the problem is to fire the worker because you have made it impossible for them to tell you the truth.

Rule #9: Inspect what you expect.

Proper application of this rule requires two equally important actions: setting actionable expectations and regularly inspecting attainment of those expectations.

Actionable expectations are different from some outcomes. Actionable expectations are the building blocks for the desired outcome. Many new managers assume that setting outcomes is the same as setting actionable expectations. For example, simply telling your staff your expectations as to how many associates they must have on assignment is the same as telling a basketball team to “make more baskets.” That is not coaching. Coaching is identifying both how to make more baskets as well as how many baskets your team needs to score to win the game. Setting actionable expectations in the business world requires a blending of stretch goals as well as those you expect to be attained. These actionable expectations will not, in themselves, result in business success. They will, however, if accomplished with skill and care, lead to business success.

Once you have established actionable expectations appropriate to the individual staff member or team, you must regularly inspect whether both the actionable expectations and the business results are being attained. Whenever possible, I believe it is a better practice to have your staff provide regular reports on the attainment of their actionable expectations. This allows you to tailor the level and scope of reporting to the skill and experience level of your staff.  It also seems less like micro-management and fosters a feeling that the staff member is largely responsible for their own success.

Rule #10: Praise promptly (and publicly), criticize consistently (and confidentially).

If you have applied rule #9, then you have all the information you need in order to satisfy rule #10. The information you obtain from your staff’s self-reporting and your own independent review of historical performance versus current trends will give you the opportunity to praise good behavior and results promptly and provide the data to support consistent criticism. Why the emphasis on consistency? No one can focus on the constructive aspects of criticism if they receive it only sporadically or if it is offered only occasionally when merited more frequently. In other words, you run the risk of being one of those leaders who must get into “beast mode” in order to deliver a critical message if you cannot or will not offer criticism the moment it is warranted.

As I mentioned in my previous blog post, this is the area where I struggle the most. I have found that the ability to offer criticism that is not viewed by the recipient as being an indictment of their entire professional reputation gets exponentially harder the “higher up” the criticism must be directed. In other words, it is much harder to provide the criticism that is needed to a senior manager than to a new first line manager.  More recently, I’ve found that just confronting an issue without being confrontational seems to make the process of offering criticism easier for me, as well as for the recipient.

Being unable or unwilling to address issues before they become “pinnacles of destruction” also subjects you to the risk that other staff members resent that the under-performer or malcontent is “getting away with murder.” In the long run, I believe that most staff members prefer a tough but fair leader over one with the same general qualities but who lacks the ability to offer immediate, consistent criticism.

In my next two blog posts, I’ll be sharing ten rules to consider when managing through change or difficult times.

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