Concretized Christianity

Practical Application of the Word of God

A Chain is Only as Strong as Its Weakest Link

In my post,  Attitude is Everything, I ended with the following questions. So what happens when both of these mindsets (“have-to’s” and “want-to’s”) exist on a team? How do they interact with each other and with the team leader? How do they respond to performance development and performance reviews? How does this affect the outcome of projects? This post will answer the first two questions. The next and last post in this series will answer the last two questions.

In every project there are two major components that really matter all the way through. One is, obviously, project design, development, management, and completion. But the second, which is actually more important – after all, this team or some variation of it will be working on future project development, management, and completion – is that of people development, oversight, and enhancement. At the end of any project, the people that worked on the team in that project should emerge with more maturity, more skills, and more value. The ultimate goal of a good leader should be to develop good leaders and there are a set of processes that parallel the completion of a project from inception to finished product that make this possible. 

So what about the team? It is the rare case when a leader gets to hand-pick (read: hire) and form his or her entire team from scratch. That would be ideal, but it just doesn’t happen. Instead, leaders form teams from what they have to work with, which is a mixture of legacy employees (read: they already work there and the leader just inherited them) and the occasional new hire here and there. New hires are generally not going to be complicating factors for the team or the project because they have been selected based on very specific criteria that indicates they will add value to the team and the project.

Legacy employees are generally where a leader will have issues not only in terms of teaming-building and project-management, but also in performance development and performance reviews. When new leaders come in, the first project is the trial period for both the leader and the team. Everyone is sizing up everyone and there is generally a series of tests that both the leader and the legacy employees will put each other through to see what they’ve all got. That’s the nature of most human relationships and is to be expected. When leaders fail, they fail because they don’t anticipate this coming at them nor do they do the same by getting to know their team members by individually and collectively engaging, listening, watching, and assigning tasks that show strengths and weaknesses.

The reality is that as a leader you cannot get buy-in nor can you do quality performance development and performance reviews unless you do this first.

Ever had a performance review from someone who speaks to you maybe twice a year and that’s just to grunt “Hi?” And the performance review is negative? It’s happened once to me. I refused to sign it because the person doing it had no clue even what my job was, and the review didn’t even describe any of my job functions (I suspected at the time that he’d put the wrong name on the review because he had no clue who was working for him and really didn’t care, but had the same formulaic method of “grading” that my college biology teacher did – X number of people got “Exceeds,” X number of people got “Meets,” and everyone else got “Fails to Meet”).

He got really angry that I wouldn’t sign it and started on the “you have to sign it” mantra. To which, because I was a bit less tactful than I am now, I replied “the only thing I have to do is pay taxes and die.” And I walked out. Nothing ever happened the rest of the time I was with that company (another month), but I went home that night and started a new job search.

Ironically, the chairman of the Board of Directors of the company, who did know who I was and knew what my job was, came to me when I turned in my resignation letter and said “I’m really sorry you’re leaving. You’re a real asset to this company.” My response was “Really? I guess you didn’t see my performance review.” He said he hadn’t and asked me about it. I explained what had happened and he was genuinely surprised and asked “why didn’t you come to me?” I told him that nothing had been done in the intervening month so I figured that he was on board with the review and this was just the way the executive management at the company operated.

I could tell it really bothered him when I said that, but I hope that he learned the bigger lesson of the experience. And that is you have to be involved, no matter what level you are in the company or business unit, with your team and your projects day-in and day-out and in a tangible, coaching role. You can’t check out and assume everything’s going to go well and you can’t smother everybody and assume everything’s going to go well. There’s a balance and a right way.

One of the first things an involved leader will find out is which of the team members are want-to’s and which are have-to’s. It’s obvious right from the start. It’s up to the leader to initiate the conversations that begin this unveiling process. I always start with one-on-one meetings with each of my direct reports and ask the same big-picture questions. What’s the mission? What are you responsible for in the mission? What do you see as things that are working well in completing the mission? Why? What things aren’t working well in completing the mission? Why? What things are missing that would help better complete the mission? What ideas do you have for making the whole process work better? Are there things that you like to do or would like to do within the mission that you have not had the opportunity to do?

I use this for a two-fold purpose. I always take a job knowing that I won’t be there forever, so part of my purpose is to immediately start looking for potential successors – someone who can take the vision, the changes, the improvements and continue them and improve them when I leave. It is always better to pass the mantle on to someone who has participated in a successful team/mission transition to ensure continuity of what works than to bring someone in from the outside who starts all over again. Time and again, I hear from want-to legacy employees that lack of continuity in leadership style and skills is a key morale buster. 

And the second purpose is to identify my have-to’s and want-to’s, because they handle this initial conversation totally differently. In fact, their approaches from the outset are totally different. Want-to’s are thoughtful and usually surprised that anyone is asking for their input especially on the big-picture level. But they usually have a lot of insight and good ideas about how to improve things that aren’t working and what needs to be added for the things that are missing. They tend to present a balanced and objective picture, but they don’t hesitate to give you the full picture, warts and all, in general terms, never finger-pointing or name-calling. They’re invested. These conversations are give-and-take and quite enlightening. Listening to them is vital to gain a real understanding of what you’ve walked into.

Have-to’s do one of two things. Both are equally annoying, but again, it’s important to really listen, using judicious comments to ensure that they know you’re the one in charge and not them. Have-to’s seldom have any kind of insightful or expansive knowledge of the big picture. They simply don’t care. They are also snitches. Their “analyses” are always full of finger-pointing, blaming, and name-calling.

The first kind of have-to you’ll encounter is the flatterer. They reek of insincerity when they walk in the door. Instead of answering the questions, they’ll regale you with stories of how awful everyone before you was and how they were never recognized for their talent and ability, but they’ve heard “great” things about you, so they know you’ll be able to see how valuable they are and that they deserve more money and responsibility. Seriously. They do this in the very first face-to-face meeting.

The second kind of have-to you’ll encounter is the complainer. Their hostility is the first thing you notice when they walk in the door. They don’t answer the questions either, but they spend the entire meeting time complaining about their lives, their team members, their workload, and the fact that nobody has ever appreciated them and they don’t expect you to either. Seriously. They also do this in the very first face-to-face meeting.

The next step is to see how this group of people work together with you and each other as a team on a project. This is vital because it will reveal where the problems and obstacles are going to be every time this group of people has to work with you and the rest of the team members. It is also instructive, from a leadership standpoint, in identifying and working to eliminate the weakest links in the chain.

In a group setting, with all the team members present, you, as the team leader define a small, easily-accomplished project that requires everyone to work together to complete it. You define the scope (parameters), milestones (project steps), and outcome (what the end result should look like). You assign concrete tasks to each team member (based on their strengths and skills) and then remind them that your function is that of a coach, which means that you will not hold their hands every step of the way, but are available if they hit something they can’t handle (lack of experience, lack of authority, lack of needed resources) to help them find a solution so they can continue, and that you expect them to use their minds and their talents to complete the project. I also, in this same discussion, tell my team members not to come to me with problems or issues unless they also have suggestions for a solution.

Body language tells the story at this juncture. Everyone is usually surprised, because in American companies, this approach is novel and unexpected. You can see in the want-to’s the initial surprise turn to thought and anticipation as they realize they are being given an opportunity to prove what they’re made of.

The have-to’s are a different story. The flatterers give lip-service to what a great idea it is, but they immediately start trying to get you to tell them every detail of how you would do it and they try to engage you from the get-go in hand-holding. When their attempts fail, you can see the panic and defeat on their faces (but they will keep coming back and trying to lure you into hand-holding, using different angles, the rest of the way through the project). The complainers start complaining about everything, and generally there is some mention of fairness at this point. But when they leave the room, they’ve already made the decision that they are going to do what they want to, whether it’s related or not, and they don’t care what you need, the rest of the team needs, or, in fact about the project itself.

And there’s an essential truth that lies within this scenario, and it’s one of the things that everyone tends to overlook or minimize (I’ve seen this in both corporate organizations and, more curiously, in religious organizations). If everyone on the team is not on the same page – in complete agreement – with the team leader, then they are never going to be able to work together on the team. There has to be a buy-in from everyone at the outset. If there isn’t, every team and every project will be riddled with interpersonal problems that will lead to the failure to build a team and the failure to complete projects efficiently, accurately, and on time.

Performance development plans are designed as a tool to help rectify some of these problems along the way. Want-to’s thrive and grow with these. On rare occasions, a have-to will actually become a want-to (usually because initially there is some benefit to him or her, but as the changes take place, the focus changes to the benefit of everyone), and as a team leader, that’s an incredible thing to see and experience. But for the most part, have-to’s and performance development plans are an oil-water mixture that never ends up producing much more than a lot of headaches, conflicts, and, in most cases, elimination from the team (termination).

Annual performance reviews should be just that. Most companies use these to explain to employees what the criteria for their jobs are, what the parameters of successful job performance are, and then evaluate them on these things in the next breath. This does no one any good because the employees don’t know what they’re being evaluated on until this meeting nor do they have a chance to work on it before this meeting (you can’t fix what you don’t know is broken).

So, in the next post, I’ll talk about these two valuable tools, how to use them correctly (not as a hammer, but as an avenue for growth and change), and how effective they are with want-to’s and have-to’s.

For those of us who examine ourselves year-round (performance development reviews) and then see how well we’ve executed the action items on those performance development reviews (annual performance review) before Passover, I hope that this discussion, which has a parallel connection to our spiritual jobs, teams, and project, will give some practical application that we can all benefit from.


One comment on “A Chain is Only as Strong as Its Weakest Link

  1. Pingback: The Choice to Grow « Concretized Christianity

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