Mike was the CFO of a large manufacturing company in Texas. He was an outstanding executive and he accepted this position because it suited his strengths to a tee. The company was looking for a very strategic finance head who could work in partnership with the company’s CEO to take market share in existing markets, enter new markets and diversify the product line.
When Mike started his new job he quickly realized that there was a huge problem. The way the department was set up, he had to spend all of his time looking at the past instead of working with the CEO to plan the future. He also found himself working 70 to 80 hours per week.
Mike knew this was unsustainable for several reasons. He was not using his talents and would eventually become disengaged and frustrated. He was also not doing what he was hired to do, which would quickly become a source of irritation to the CEO and detrimental to the company as a whole.
Mike assessed the situation and discovered that a few of his employees were wasting their talents and skills in their current roles. Furthermore, this was having a negative impact organizationally. So, he reorganized the department and prioritized his time. He decided who his high-potential staff members were and redesigned their job descriptions to allow them to take on more crucial projects. He found those on his team who needed essential training, and then determined who needed a bit of motivation or to be let go.
Mike had identified the “flavours” of his employees.
Like Neapolitan ice cream, employees typically come in three distinct “flavors,” which I classify as critical people, squeaky wheels and the fat middle. Most managers attempt to manage every employee from each of these groups in the same manner. Or, worse, they spend the majority of time with their Squeaky Wheels, rewarding bad performance or behaviour. Either results in a loss of productivity and engagement, and inevitably, an unfulfilled and unhappy staff—not to mention a frustrated and time-poor manager.
When you recognize the flavours of your individual employees, and prioritize the time you spend managing them accordingly, you’ll give them the highest potential for success—for themselves and for the company. Here’s how to figure out who fits which flavour.
This type of employee can be obvious; think: the real superstars who consistently under-promise and over-deliver. But they can also be not-so-obvious, those quiet achievers or steady Eddies who are consistent and reliable. They may also be those staff members who hold important intellectual property or jobs no one else wants to do. They may have great customer relationships or know a lot about the organization itself. In any case, you don’t want to lose them. In fact, you should prioritize your time so that 80% of it is spent dedicated to these people. Why? For three main reasons:
- Allowing them to mentor with and learn from you will help them grow and develop in their own career.
- If you don’t give them the time and attention they deserve (and may crave), they may not understand how important they actually are, which can lead to frustration, hurt feelings and even a sense that they aren’t appreciated. The number of people who walk into recruiters’ offices looking for a new role because they didn’t feel appreciated by their boss is astonishing—and easily avoided.
- Gallup Organization research shows that if managers spend 80% of their time with the top 10 to 20% of their staff, everyone would become even more productive and engaged. As the saying goes, “a rising tide lifts all boats.” If you empower those employees who really want to perform, they will help you manage the others.
By spending more time with your critical people, you will increase productivity, make more effective use of your time and have more engaged staff.
At the other end of the spectrum you have your squeaky wheels. It’s often said that “the squeaky wheel gets the grease,” and perhaps that’s a good thing in a mechanic’s workshop. In a business environment, however, it’s a recipe for poor management, high staff turnover and low productivity.
There are a couple of types of squeaky wheels: high performers who are also high-maintenance, and those whose complaints reveal performance or a behavior issues. Spending an over-abundance of time with these employees will become problematic, and again, sends the wrong message to staff.
So should you just ignore your squeaky wheels? Possibly—but a more proactive approach can be beneficial to the collective team. Here are three scenarios you can try instead:
- Hold a formal conversation with the squeaky wheel to set more clear objectives or key performance indicators. Give them the necessary training required to accomplish these goals, and hold them accountable..
- Determine their internal motivators and use those to inspire them to a higher level of performance or better behavior.
- Move them on. Let them squeak on someone else’s bus.
The fat middle
This “flavour” comprises the remaining 60% to 70% of your workforce. Miraculously, when you devote the majority of time to your critical people and avoid the urge to grease the squeaky wheels, the fat middle takes care of itself. The good ones desire the inclusion and attention they see managers giving to the critical people. They tend to become more engaged and to develop more quickly.
Within six to eight months of managing his team by their individual flavours, Mike was back working a reasonable work week and spending his time working with the CEO on strategy—exactly what he was hired to do. As an added benefit, employee retention went up as staff were deployed properly, working together much more effectively and enjoying their own jobs to a much greater extent. By identifying and classifying the types of his employees, he righted the overall course of the company. And you can do the same with yours.
Kim Seeling Smith is an international human resources expert and author of the forthcoming book Mind-Reading for Managers. Kim helps companies build healthy work environments and increase employee engagement and productivity in our digitally connected, globally oriented world.