Crushing a star employee – confessions of an Executive Director
I received an email from an executive director after one of my engagement workshops last year.
In it the ED explained that she really liked what I had to say about the difference between A, B and C employees. She had never really considered it that way before. In her words, some people were her stars, others were her soldiers (who might be stars someday), and others were her problem children.
Her question to me was about whether a certain person was an A (star) or a B (soldier). This person was part of her core team, someone she relied on heavily and always seemed to give her best efforts. The person was so trusted that she often filled in for the ED when required.
The problem was that the quality of this person’s work seemed to be slipping, but strangely the person still seemed to be fully bought in to both the organization and the leadership of this ED. Attitude did not appear to be a problem.
As this discussion went on over a number of emails, I started to see a very familiar pattern emerging. One I have firsthand experience with. This ED was overloading her star and not setting clear expectations. There were too many conflicting priorities and too many issues being dumped on this person. Being a highly motivated and “bought in” employee, this person was trying her hardest to do more in less time and meet all the expectations.
This problem was not just the fault of the ED; the employee was also part of the problem.
The ED for her part was not providing clear direction to her staff member about what the priorities were. She was overloading the person with too many tasks all of seemingly equal importance. This is a recipe for disaster that I have been guilty of myself.
The employee was taking it all on trying her hardest to do it all, but letting quality slip without discussing the issues with her ED or seeking help from her own team and peers. The true star would speak up and seek clear priorities and clarification of expectations.
One definition of an A-Player I have seen in business writing is that an A-Player is a person who consistently exceeds the performance standards required for their role. I have written many times that the most important thing for a manager to do is to make sure employees understand what is expected of them. This is just as important for your stars as for those still developing.
In her final email to me on this issue, the ED lamented that she agreed she had been unfair. She could hardly hold this person accountable for her performance slipping when she had not been clear, right from the start, about what she was accountable for. Her plan was to apologize and to do a better job setting expectations. She also planned to coach this person that this responsibility was a two-way street; letting performance slip was not an acceptable response to being overloaded. The acceptable response to this is to make your manager aware of the issues and work through things together before problems start happening.
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