Good Employees Don’t Grow on Trees

When it comes to developing a top-flight finance staff, one size does not fit all.
Paul B. BrownMarch 12, 2007

“If life were fair, employees would be perfect. They would do exactly what we asked them to do—except, of course, for the fantastic ideas they would cook up on their own… .They would be cheerful-brave-reverent-thrifty; they would evolve smoothly from entry-level to VP with no bumps along the way.”

So writes Erika Andersen in Growing Great Employees: Turning Ordinary People into Extraordinary Performers (Portfolio, $24.95). Anderson is quick to acknowledge that life isn’t fair and instead of being perfect, employees have the annoying habit of being human.

Still, as the cliché (unfortunately honored in the breach) goes: They are your most important asset. So how do you get the most out of them?

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With all the books on the topic now coming to market, the one by Andersen, founder of Proteus International, a human resources consulting firm, is a good place to start.

First the bad news about the book. Andersen is so in love with the gardening metaphor—that’s where the title comes from—that your hair will hurt by the time you are done.

That said, she is particularly good at pointing out that your employees will develop far faster if you help them. That means tailoring your approach to how to get the best out of them—do they need you to spell out everything in detail, or can you just give them the big picture and let them figure out the best way to achieve the objective?

In other words, when it comes to developing employees, one size does not fit all.

Intriguingly, she argues, if you are sincere in “believing in people’s potential and wanting them to grow” they will do far better than if you consider “the people stuff” something that keeps you from doing your real job.

And in a statement that would make even the most hardened manager smile, Andersen stresses that employees have a responsibility to try to be all they can be. Specifically, she says, they need to be responsive to feedback; keep their word with their bosses; and always try to develop new skills.

If you are looking for help with specific techniques on developing people, pick up the updated edition of Co-Active Coaching ($39.95, Davis-Black Publishing.) The book, written by four business and life coaches—Laura Whitworth, Karen Kimsey-House, Henry Kimsey-House, and Philip Sandal—is intended for professional coaches. But the lessons can be made to work for finance managers as well.

For example, the authors write, “from day one, coaching focuses on what clients want,” the client being the person paying the bills. If you substitute “you” for “client” the lessons will be equally valid. And you might want to skip over the part where they say that coaching is intended to address the client (read employee’s) whole life.

The authors are particularly good, however, about presenting different ways to listen and probe in your interactions with the people whose performance you are trying to improve. And they provide sample dialogue you can use.

You do have to get past such new-age speak as: “witnessing means being authentically present with the client. When the coach witnesses the client’s learning and growth, the client feels seen and known at a very deep level.” But the underlying messages and techniques are helpful and easily adapted to the workplace, even if the authors have given the book one of the most unappealing titles we have seen in a long-time.

While Andersen and the authors of Co-Active Coaching provide broad answers to the question of how to get the best out of your employees, Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton, who have published three previous books on the subject, take a much more narrow approach in The Carrot Principle (Free Press, $21.)

Their key finding after surveying more than 200,000 employees over a 10-year period: Companies and nonprofits that are effective at employee recognition are substantially more profitable and have people “who are willing to go further, stay later and take on more.”

Now, you should take that conclusion with a grain of salt, given that the authors’ day job is serving as senior executives at O.C. Tanner Company, “which specializes in helping companies motivate employees through comprehensive recognition solutions.”

Still their conclusion makes sense, especially if you can tether the recognition to both the organization’s goals and an employees’ personal objectives.

As they put it, recognition “accelerates progress toward a goal by bringing new energy to its pursuit. While communicating a clear goal and purpose may be enough for employees to begin a task with enthusiasm, people must feel that they are making progress or their enthusiasm will begin to wane.”

What kind of recognition do you offer? While a substantial amount of money is always good, Gostick and Elton say, anything under $1,000 really won’t register as meaningful for most people. And the authors’ overall belief is that on-going recognition is better than one-time events.

Gostick and Elton offer 125 different ways of offering recognition. To their credit, many of their methods—such as sending an E-mail to the CEO or department head (copying the employee) describing how the worker went above and beyond the call of duty—don’t cost a dime.

But what happens if the person you are trying to manage is, by any objective measure, a jerk? What do you do then? Consultant Gini Graham Scott, author of A Survival Guide to Managing Employees from Hell (Amacom, $15), has some ideas.

To be sure, the case studies she uses frequently border on the cartoonish. For example, there is the bullying $200,000-a-year employee who rides a motorcycle to work and keeps pit bulls as pets or the assistant moved to the brink of tears by the slightest criticism. But the advice she offers is straight-forward and makes sense:

• Spend an inordinate amount of time interviewing before you hire someone. The best way to deal with a problem employeed is not hiring them in the first place.

•Meet with the employee at the first sign of trouble. Believing the problem may go away on its own is no way to deal with it. Invariably, it will get worse.

•”You’ll find that being open and honest and straight-forward…is often the best policy. Doing so creates a good foundation of trust.”

•Be painfully clear about what behavior you want to change.

•Keep “a detailed paper trail when an employee looks like trouble.”

All this is good, and Scott makes one other point worth considering: “You may be thinking that you have problem employees, when the real problem is you. This may happen because you are repeating the same mistakes in hiring, or making difficult demands that no employee can truly satisfy.”

In other words, if the same problems occurring repeatedly, you may want to look in the mirror before you do anything else.