Accomplishing great things is very dependent upon the quality of the team engaging in the task. I’m a big football fan. One of the best parts of the season is the time during free agency and the draft. It represents a time of great optimism for the team and its fan base. Every team wants the big prize, a super bowl appearance and victory. GMs, coaches and team owners spend a tremendous amount of time in front of white boards and viewing individual player stats to determine if they have the right formula (mix of players and coaches) to get them to the big dance. The renowned Jim Collins spends a large portion of his work Good to Great on “getting the right people on the bus.” What happens when you are given a great task and the roster is fixed and set? One of the greatest challenges in leading in government is the expectation of achieving noteworthy accomplishments with a roster of folks who often aren’t your first pick.
Don’t get me wrong, there are talented people working in the public sector. Men and women with great experience and skills tackling very difficult problems. The challenge is that due to its sheer size, employee selection process and a lack of agility (which I will address in a separate post), many leaders in government find themselves challenged with high expectations and an uneven workforce (in terms of performance).
Using round numbers, a team of ten individuals may be comprised of the following – two (2) superstars, six (6) wild-cards, and two (2) challenged employees. As expected , the superstar performs no matter what the scenario. These are the folks for whom success is embedded in their DNA. The wild-card is just that, they have the competencies to perform and accomplish tasks, yet they are easily derailed by circumstance and other factors not always related to the job. Some years their performance results in great things, but rest assured the next two years may be a mere shadow of their last success or worse yield nothing at all. The challenged employees (CE) are unproductive. Even when the CE moves towards accomplishment, if high functioning, they bring a litany of baggage which eclipses the accomplishement. Most of the time spent leading the CE is spent in risk mitigation. The leader spends so much time making sure the CE doesn’t create long lasting damage that it takes away from focusing on the objectives of the overall team.
So, you have just been assigned the team described. Here are a few ideas to keep in mind in order to ensure the greatest productivity:
Establish your vision for the team. Sometimes creating a vision/mission statements and setting measurable objectives can seem hoky for small teams. You will be glad you did these simple task when it comes time for an employee review. These benchmarks provide focus in your verbal engagements and provide your team with recognizable targets.
Let your eagles fly. When you have superstars on your team the best thing you can do fo yourself and the rest of the team is to let him or her fly. Superstars will find a way to bring success to the group. You need only empower them with the ability to make decisions and help them develop a healthy respect for keeping you advised of their trajectory and timelines. These folks are your .300 hitters. Your limited time and focus is best spent elsewhere.
Provide consistent focus and guidance to your middle band. Your wild cards represent a majority of the team and with the right tools and circumstance can provide strong contributions. The Eagles can’t carry the team, there are simply not enough of them. Your bench needs to help put points on the board or you will never win a championship (Go Warriors).
Celebrate successes and acknowledge failures. Let the team know when they are hitting the marks and missing the marks. Honesty in leadership can accomplish quite a bit. If there is trust and honesty on the team you can have hard conversations and walk away with your relationships in tact.
Try to get your CEs to contribute, but know when to cut bait. If you have given a good effort to changing the CE and there is no marked improvement you gotta let them go. I would never try to pass on my problems to someone else. Every employee deserves good leadership engagement, but some folks are not able to be led. Let that sink in for a moment. It’s a hard lesson to learn, but it’s real. Especially in the fixed roster scenario.
This scenario would not be the dream of any leader who hopes to accomplish great things. Back to our sports nalogy, you could never hope to go to the big dance without stacking your roster full of superstars in key positions. Sometimes this is just not possible. That doesn’t mean you have to throw your hands in the air and give up. Productivity is the objective and you can get there, if you recognize the attributes of your team and engage accordingly.