Two stories this week from senior managers I know made me think again about the responsibilities of managers with respect to their staff. In the first case, the manager was a senior executive in a financial firm. He said he was struggling with what to do with certain members of his staff who "would never meet their career objectives." The problem was that while he might have fired them in better economic times, secure in the knowledge that they could most likely find work in a less challenging firm, he was equally sure that these folks would not be able to find work easily given current economic conditions. Add to that the fact that his firm has a strong culture that emphasizes the "firm as family" and you have a difficult managerial challenge.
The second story comes from a manager who felt that his staff was stretched, exhausted and needed assistance. However, when he made his request for additional staffing, he was told that his company was in a cost-cutting mode and there could not be any additions to headcount in his department.
What's a manager to do?
When assessing how well your staff members are performing and whether they are able to operate at their highest and best level, consider your role as manager. Two qualities that set an excellent manager apart from the herd are (i) the ability to understand what talents and abilities each member of staff has and (ii) the ability to provide a framework that allows that staff member to utilize those talents and abilities to the utmost degree to the benefit of the firm. Adherents of the strengths-based approach to staffing and management will tell you that encouraging folks to build on their strengths and successes rather than focusing primarily on their shortfalls inevitably results in higher performance for the group overall.
In the case of the manager with the under performing staff member, consider whether they are not meeting expectations because you've set the wrong expectations. In other words, is their under performance because they haven't been given the opportunity to set goals and work in an area in which they have demonstrated talents and abilities? (E.g., I can practice 8 hours each day with all the determination in the world, but because I don't have the necessary innate ability, I will never play baseball as well as Derek Jeter. If recruited to the Yankees, I would never "meet my career goals.") In the case of the second manager with the exhausted staff, consider how much effort your existing staff members must expend to get things done. Are they working in their areas of strength or struggling in areas for which they are ill-equipped. Asking your staff to do things for which they don't have natural talents or abilities requires them to spend additional time and energy to get up to speed and overcome their own hard-wiring. Sure they can do it, but at what cost? Contrast that with the speed and ease with which people are able to do the things for which they are hard-wired. (E.g., with enough training and perseverance, any educated person should be able to read an actuarial formula -- but never as easily as someone who is naturally highly numerate and enjoys that strange language actuaries speak.) With a reasonably diligent staff, they will try hard to get the job done, but it will take longer and be more painful than if they had the necessary talents and abilities. As a result, they will be perpetually over-stretched, unable to complete all the work, and your department as a whole will under perform.
So what's the take away from all of this? In these hard economic times managers have a greater responsibility to ensure that they are deploying their staff in a way that takes the best possible advantage of the unique talents and skills these folks bring to work. This approach maximizes the probability of high performance and high morale. Don't waste time thinking about how you could replace these employees. Except in special circumstances, you won't be allowed to spend the necessary funds to recruit and train someone new -- assuming, of course, you're even allowed to hire.
So, in the words of Crosby, Stills & Nash, "If you can't be with the one you love, love the one you're with."
[Here's a link to hear a recording of the entire song: Love the One You're With, Crosby, Stills & Nash]