As a child, I remember planting an apple tree seedling late one winter. I carefully chose the site, dug the hole deep and carefully lowered the baby tree into the ground. Every day, I would be there to water it and inspect it for signs of growth. It sat there for weeks, not doing anything. But with the warm spring sun, it began to come alive. Little leaves appeared; it was healthy and green.
But being a child, my attention began to wander to other things. I began to neglect watering the little tree. At first, it seemed fine, but since it hadn’t rained in several weeks, the seedling began to dry out. One day, I went out to find it bare and lifeless, its promising new leaves lying brown and curled on the ground. I felt sad and disappointed in myself at my failure; without adequate rain, you can’t stop watering a young tree until its roots have established themselves. It seems to happen suddenly, but in reality, it’s a process which happens underground, out of sight, only manifesting itself when it’s too late.
People, of course, aren’t trees. But there is a lesson to be learned here; when you plant a new person into your organization, they can survive or thrive, but they need support and care.
During the course of my career, I’ve been on both sides of the desk at termination meetings. It’s never a comfortable situation for anyone. In fact, except for layoffs or reductions in staff, termination usually signifies a failure of some kind. And unless there is a clear case of employee wrongdoing, the blame can usually be shared between employee and supervisor.
Before every termination I’ve conducted, I’ve spent lots of time and effort to document everything, prepare what I was going to say, and even role-played to anticipate questions. Such preparation is mandatory in today’s litigious environment, so you have to make sure you have good information to back up your decision, including documentation of your efforts to fix the situation. In most cases, termination should be the last resort, after you have tried everything else you know to correct a bad situation.
But on one point, a lot of supervisors are forgetting to ask one simple question of themselves: “Did I fight for my employee?” Now, of course, employees are adults, capable of fighting their own battles, and certainly they have the obligation to give it their best. However, when you make the decision to hire someone and give them a job, it’s your responsibility you do everything you can to help them succeed. Going through the whole hiring process takes a lot of time and effort, not to mention the expense of training that employee. Unfortunately, many supervisors don’t take the time to make sure they’ve done everything they can to help that person succeed. Keep in mind that it isn’t just that the employee is going to work for you; you are making a commitment to them as well.
In one past job I had, there was a steep learning curve. I tried to learn, and learn fast; some days, I felt like I was trying to jump on a train going 70 miles per hour. It didn’t help that everyone around the place was miserable; morale was nonexistent, with everybody wanting to leave. I remember my supervisor telling me one day that she didn’t have time to “hold my hand”, because she was busy with a lot of other things. When she said that to me, my first reaction was a flash of anger; in my head I was saying, “Don’t patronize me. I don’t need my hand held; I’m a grownup.” I get that everyone’s busy, and she was obviously overworked and overwhelmed.
But, on reflection, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I did need someone to champion my cause while I fought through the learning curve; I needed someone to fight for me. In that job, I never felt motivated, positively challenged, appreciated or valued; when it came time for the inevitable difficult conversation to take place, I was so defeated that I didn’t feel it could be fixed; I endured the firing with somber resignation and with little protest. It was, in fact, a relief.
In that situation, I failed; no bones about it. Despite my best efforts, I didn’t do the job to the satisfaction of my supervisor. Some battles are unwinnable. But she also failed in that she didn’t fight for me. When you’re thrown out into the deep end to sink or swim, and no one is willing to jump in after you, drowning is a real possibility.
When we employ highly-qualified people and expect them to grow with little help, we are courting failure. Sure, occasionally someone will occasionally succeed despite the lack of support, but those situations are the exception. According to Forbes, two million people voluntarily leave their jobs each month, among the top reasons being a lack of recognition, empowerment, and internal politics. And many others are fired, not for having done something really bad, but because they never successfully transitioned.
I’ve tried to learn from experiences like the one I described; it’s true that we can often learn more from failure than from success.
So, what does it mean to fight for your employees? Taking the tree metaphor just a bit further yields some parallels:
Plant well. What is it worth to you and your company if they succeed in their jobs? What will be the cost if they fail? Remember, hiring someone means you are making an investment in them; why would you not take the time to make sure they are successful? That starts by making the right choice, the first time. And when you do make the hire, invest some time. Sit down with them with an honest list of how you define success, and make sure they understand it and commit to it. This plan will guide your employee to success, and will help them know how to do their jobs.
Water frequently. People need tending. Make sure you meet with them regularly, and give them honest, positive feedback (not just to fuss at them). Look for things they are doing right, and praise them for it. Praise costs you nothing. You are responsible for setting the tone. If the employee is fearful of meeting with you because every meeting consists of your telling them what they did wrong, that’s on you.
Prune. Successful gardeners know that you sometimes have to prune back unwanted or unproductive growth. Pruning, done correctly, makes the plant stronger and helps it meet its potential. But put away your pruning shears and get out the plan you agreed on earlier. If you don’t like something they are doing, make sure you address it early. Just like training a vine, people need some direction, and they need to know clearly where they stand. If you nip problems early, they will never become big ones later.
Let them grow. Once you have established your employee, and they are heading in the right direction, get out of their way. Make it your business to remove obstacles from their path, and don’t be intimidated by their success. If you have done your job properly, they will not only succeed; there is a good chance that success will be noticed by others and they will leave for other opportunities. If you really want to keep them at this point, it’s going to cost you. But if they do leave, send them off with your sincere good wishes take pride in their accomplishments. Offer to keep mentoring them, and celebrate. Their success is your success.
Keep planting. As Tom Peters noted, “Leaders don’t create followers, they create more leaders.” If you look at great organizations with a culture of leadership, new people are constantly being brought into the pipeline, to go on to success at other places and in turn, create new leaders there. So be on the lookout for new talent, and make it your business to help them succeed.