Amplify Your Team’s Mastery
Last week we looked at the fourth step to building transformational teams. That being play to their strengths. Today we are going to look at the fifth step: Amplify Your Team’s Mastery. Or in particular how do you manage the masters in your organization. Here’s the challenge: after months, maybe years of investment, our employees shoots up the transformation learning curve. They have become our go-to person, willing and able to do whatever is asked. We’ve become accustomed to an outsized return on this stellar employee. Why would we push them to try something new, when we’re still reaping the rewards of our investment?
But if we are managing for engagement this is the danger zone where boredom, complacency, entitlement, and stagnation do their mischief. As growth peaks and flattens out, if change isn’t on the horizon, our high performer may gradually – or not so gradually – become a low performer. They will stop doing their best work because they’re no longer challenged to do so. This is seldom intentional, but it happens anyway, either because they feel stymied, their ambition thwarted, or because work has become too easy, and routine is boring. They may even be feeling, like you, comfortable where they are. The urgency & pressure of earlier times has eased, but so has the friction that moved them forward.
When your team member has reached the pinnacle of their transformation learning curve, they may express it openly (as a desire to learn something new or to leave your organization for a challenge elsewhere) or it may become clear through changes in their approach to work (they are less driven, coasting on past success). With a leap to a new curve imminent, make the most of the time that remains by identifying and exploiting opportunities for them to contribute.
High-end-of-the-curve employees are skating across a plateau, teetering on a precipice. They are also the most experienced members of your team, and optimally you’ll want 15% of your people here at any given time. So how can you manage this human resource you’ve worked hard to develop in a way that will work for your organization, your team, and you?
Start by making use of their mental bandwidth. Task them with sharing their competency. Whilst they are waiting to jump to their next curve, deploy them on crucial, but often neglected, tasks like setting the pace, passing along the tribal memory, and facilitating collaborations between less-experienced employees.
In many ways, mentoring continues the long tradition of master-apprentice relationships that were once the principal way that knowledge and expertise were transmitted from skilled workers of one generation to the up-and-coming workers in the next. Mentoring of this sort was often the sole source of schooling and job training available for craftspeople and tradespeople in the days before higher education become widespread.
A dynamic mentoring program can help low-end curve-surfers reach competency more quickly and increase the number of workers available to take the place of highenders as they move on to new curves. But the benefits of mentoring go beyond the advantage it provides for novice employees: It offers a fresh angle on the job for someone who may be a bit idle while they await the jump to a new curve, and it disperses the training responsibility through a wider pool of talent.
What if despite your best efforts to keep the work interesting, and despite encouraging your top-of-the-curve masters to become mentors, they still seem a little too complacent, a little too comfortable? What do you do about people who have paid their dues, are at the top of the curve, and they like it?
These employees are not to be confused with those who have been in a role for an extended period but are still at peak performance. No, I am talking about people who not only like things as they are but feel threatened (often without consciously recognizing it) by anything or anyone that could mess with their cozy station. In trying to buffer themselves from change, they become critics of the innovators who threaten them with the change they fear. In such cases, there’s an overtone of That’s not how we do it here.
Top of the curve, bottom of the curve – wherever you are, you gain moral authority when you are willing to change yourself.
Moral suasion and righteous shame are a powerful combination. When we willingly transform ourselves, we’ll hold the upper hand in dealing with the entitlement that can creep up on top-of-the-curve employees.
If someone’s performance has gone downhill, it’s your job as their boss to tell them – even if it seems like it’s not a great time or you’re worried that the conversation might go badly. It’s not only the respectful thing to do; chances are, if your employee really is a master, they probably already know there’s some kind of problem.
An employee who feels the platform burning under their feet is motivated to grow. This requires a challenging new support with full support. Of course, when you give your employees daunting assignments, some of them will not succeed. The way you react to their failure is going to be instructive, not just for the employee in question but also for the other employees you manage who are watching how you handle it. IDEO has an internal mantra of “Fail Faster” and stretches the capacity of it’s masters through a ‘reverse’ mentoring framework.
Last week I professed my fear of science. So I offer one further metaphor. In chemistry, when a reacting atom or molecule stands at the top of the mountain between one chemical state and another (like from water to steam), it is part of what is called a “transition complex.” A transition complex is a combination of all particles involved in a reaction. They are unstable, but for a brief instant, they act as one.
As with a chemical reaction, an employee at the top of the curve is a state of transition. Will they regress, sliding down the curve into complacency? Or progress, bringing others along the curve, before they jump to a new one? You help inform this choice. Your employee is waiting for you to provide a seedbed for the germination and blossoming of their talent. They want opportunities to beef up their skillset, keep them relevant, and add value to their career portfolio. They want big, meaningful problems to solve. They want to contribute. Your high-enders can still be part of your A-team, but if you make the mistake of managing them as if they are still in the sweet spot of the learning curve, they may fall into the precipice.