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Jul 20 2016
I wish I knew then...

I often look back over my management career and wish I could go back and re-solve some of those performance problems with the Six Boxes. How much time and energy was wasted! One of the most memorable for me, especially because the outcome was the loss of a good employee, always comes to mind.

I was part of the senior management team in a venture-backed telecom start-up. We were small, less than 30 people at that stage, and our functional staffing needs changed faster than we could hire (or even plan for). But we did hire strong players who we thought could flexibly contribute in many roles if needed. Unfortunately, we described that as hiring people “with the right attitude”. In this case, we hired a fellow with an excellent track record of bringing major divisions of global companies into ISO certification to set up our quality system as we needed to rapidly ramp a large scale manufacturing operation. Many of us had worked with him before and been impressed with his capabilities and easy nature. But that ‘rapid ramp’ turned into a slow crawl and we actually needed project managers to get the products developed. He’d be perfect, we all thought. But shortly, the CEO was grumbling, we still didn’t have product development under control, and it was all “an attitude problem”. He wasn’t “getting it” (no one ever told him what they meant by project management), he wasn’t “committed” (he wasn’t around at 9 pm with the engineers), he wouldn’t “get his hands dirty” (he didn’t know he was expected to be in the lab measuring the parts or even how to), and he was “a light weight” (he had a pretty interesting life outside the office). So without clear expectations of what project management entailed for this set of engineers (Box 1), or what constituted success (Box 1), without project management software and tools (Box 2), without being included in the personal satisfaction of being part of a team (Box 3), or ever having been taught the lab skills (Box 4), we had an “attitude” problem (Box 6). And he was the first to be laid off when the money got tight.

He did, of course, quickly get another job where he was successfully employed for many years, even through that company’s ups and downs. In retrospect, I see how unfortunate it was that we didn’t have the Six Boxes to diagnose and correct the challenge. While his personal capacity (Box 5) might not have been a perfect fit, he was a highly capable and valuable resource for a struggling young company that had precious little time and money to waste. Hours were lost as the CEO and others discussed his “attitude problem” while Rome burned (i.e. no working products). With the Six Boxes, we would have looked at our contribution before we jumped to his motives. Does he know what we mean by project management? What was the level of effort that the culture expected? Did he have what he needed to do the job? Was anyone coaching him and providing daily feedback? What would be a positive pay-off for him in this new role? How do we fit him in to a tight engineering team and make him feel accepted? With just a small amount of structured examination of the problem, I’m convinced he’d have been a valuable contributor.

Start-ups often claim there’s no time to bring people up to speed, to work with performance problems.  But the way that most companies are evolving, flatter organizations look a lot like start-ups and this challenge has to be approached differently. A quick, systematic approach to solving performance challenges is critical to not losing time or value from existing investments in people. Everyone needs to “think” in a way that gets to quick results and change without jumping to replacing the performer. Agility includes development of people and teams. Moving quickly and working with the people you have are what makes for successful companies.

I can't go back and change what I didn't know, but I sure hope I can help a lot of other people avoid the trauma that often accompanies unresolved performance problems. I truly believe that we can easily meet business goals and develop great people with really simple methods.

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