Case studies on how to engage and retain your best team members

Updated: Jan 2, 2019

This article gives insight into how to identify individual strengths and coach desired outcomes, critical steps to ensure development is desired and the consequences of bad timing. A performance management toolkit to maintain and engage your best team members.  

I’m always assessing the performance of my team, looking to identify individual strengths and play that forward to determine their future place. In this process I look for the future leaders; those who inspire, demonstrate ambition and push the entire team to up their game,  but a team cannot be only leaders and this is where Managers often fail. Good performance management requires assessment of the entire team based on individual merit, and identification of how best to play to key strengths and marry these to business need.

A habitual process of team mapping, reflection and planning has certainly helped me with engagement and retention, and comes as a result of various challenging experiences. It is great practice to get the most out of your team, anticipate areas of weakness and risk and be prepared for required succession. It takes consistency, an open mind and a measured approach to achieve good performance management. Getting the timing of promotion wrong can be the difference between success and failure.

The Long Game

The process of performance management is all about the long-game. Effective performance management is both strategic and operational; it considers business and individual long-term objectives as well as  the short terms steps necessary to achieve them. As a Manager performance management is the perfect distraction to the tactical day-to-day tasks (or fire-fighting, depending on your role) and gives you confidence that you are progressing as a team rather than just functioning.

For me it is about sitting down once a month and mapping out the team, the structure, the opportunity. There is no hard and fast rule, but a regular slot to map and reflect will certainly start the process.

Once my team are all there, mapped out in the structure, it’s time to reflect on performance, attitude, drive. There are so many factors to consider, I’ve listed a few of these below which I personally believe indicate a ‘future leader’.

  • Solutions-focus; proactively trying to solve, and not just announce problems

  • Delivery of results; a focus on outcomes above activity

  • Initiative; assessing, reviewing and adapting personal performance towards results

  • Positivity; can-do attitude with tenacity and resilience

  • Engagement in training; visibly open to learning and self-development

  • Willingness; adaptive, open and willing to push out of comfort zone

  • Feedback; unprovoked positive feedback from colleagues and/or clients

  • Mentorship; sought upon for guidance

  • Influence; earned respect from peers at different levels

  • Buy-in; accountability for company values and mission

The crucial part of this mapping stage is that you approach it with an open mind. I do this process monthly because things change, people grow. Long is the debate about whether Leadership is nature or nurture; in my experience learning, circumstance (and associated priorities) and experience can change  performance and for this reason we need to be open in our assessment of performance each time we look.

Creating the pathway for promotion

Once I’m clear on the strengths (and weaknesses) of my team, I can then compare to our long-term objectives. I will always need leaders, and so a key part of this process is identifying my future leaders. They are invaluable to the success of the business as they will spearhead, influence and ultimately account for team performance. These characters are usually the easiest to identify, and the mistake of most in this process is to stop there.

Leaders aren’t the only people required to succeed, and in fact a team of only leaders would be a nightmare! It is critical to establish the strengths of each person in your team, and determine how these can best play into your long-game.

The challenge for Managers is in making sure routes are available to those who don’t fit the existing mould. Corporate environments tend to be very structured, and progression usually means people management, but so many people are not potential people managers and by pushing them in this direction we are not utilising their strengths. I lost a very strong team member this way, by pushing him into a management role he didn’t fit into. It can be hard to create a pathway for somebody not taking the usual route, and even harder to get that pathway approved for promotion; it is, however,  our duty as coaches to think both on behalf of our team and our employer.

For our future leaders the path may already be paved by leaders before them, and development planning is then mostly focused on setting timelines, goals and coaching the required new skills. For those with a less obvious path, it is critical to take individual strengths, long-term business objectives and add into that mix typical areas of team weakness.

Case Study:

I have a team member who is excellent at product development, she is instinctively able to think strategically and shows signs of having the innate skills required for new product development. Intuition told me that she would not want to pursue the people manager route and when asked directly she candidly explained that she does not have the required patience to support others achieve their goals, she would rather focus on hers.

On an annual basis we have new product development targets, and typically the team find this particular area challenging meaning we don’t have an abundance of capability here. I therefore created a role which balanced accountability for ownership of some of our largest and high risk products with a new product development responsibility carrying quarterly targets.

The role made use of her unique strengths, made up for a weakness on the wider team and gave consistency to a subset of key products for which we could then develop year on year growth strategies. Naturally considering the steps which would ensure higher level  approval for this new position, I assigned targets for each area to demonstrate direct payoff, and a step-by step training plan to ready the team member for her new responsibilities, giving us as the employer a level of confidence in the deliverables.

In practice, development plans should set timelines for promotion linked to achievement of goals and learning of skills required to perform at the promoted level. Key things to consider when mapping out the path to promotion:

  • Planned training and coaching in new skills -  shows a level of investment from the employer

  • Specific goals and expectations linked to timeframes -  prevents misunderstanding of requirements

  • Suggested routes for self-development -  demonstrates personal desire to improve

  • Honest feedback into weaker areas of performance - puts accountability on the team member to improve in these areas

  • An overall timeframe for promotion - encourages a high level of buy-in and engagement

Note/ Performance management of this kind is not a single act, it is an ongoing process which only works if both parties consistently use and work towards the plan and timeframes.

The critical importance of timing

My monthly team mapping and performance review is working very well right now, but it has got me into trouble before now, and that comes down to timing.

Case Study:

My team was growing to a point where it required a substructure beneath me to better manage both tactical operations and development of individual team members. I went about the process in my usual way, mapping the team and reviewing performance, then I put a focus on future leaders. I identified 3 perfect candidates to promote to management based on their very strong levels of performance.

I decided that two of these team members were already demonstrating the required skills and the other wasn’t quite there, but had all the potential. And so I promoted all of them. It was a great day; the three candidates were totally overwhelmed by this unexpected promotion and by the belief I had placed in them.

Over the next 6 months the substructure failed; 1 manager performed well, was very engaged and continued to improve their skillset; 1 managers’ performance steadily declined, and the performance of their team was poor, I couldn’t inspire the manager to take accountability for that performance; 1 manager resigned and at that stage told me that they had never wanted to manage people.

I later learned the reasons for why my plans had failed; I had rushed to promote based on business need. At no point had the individuals in question shown desire for the promotion. This lack of desire was problematic for the following reasons:

  • Nobody took accountability -  ultimately this had been my decision and therefore I was accountable for the outcome

  • The title hadn’t been earned  - whilst performance had been strong prior to promotion there had been no measured approach to hit the mark  and so the sense of reward was momentary

  • The decision had been made - individuals had not been a part of their own development, they had not been consulted about personal objectives, control had been taken away

  • Individual strengths had not played a part - a standard route had been assigned without drawing attention to key strengths and weaknesses

  • There was no time to prepare - The speed of promotion had removed the time required to build required skills - there was a total lack of understanding of expectations from outset

Checklist for effective performance management

From the case above I learned one of the most valuable management lessons yet; timing of promotion is critical to the success of promotion, there needs to be a balance between capability (which can be proven over a period of measured performance management), business need (identification of future goals as well as team weaknesses) and most importantly, individual desire (determined by the self-improvement effort by the individual as a result of the prospect of promotion).

To get promotion right, you need to have a process for consistent performance management which yields the key requirements; capability, business need, individual desire.

  • Monthly mapping of the team and reflection on performance

  • Highlighting individual strengths and achievements and team weaknesses

  • Keeping an open mind to change within the team

  • Assessing business need in the short and long term

  • Identifying future leaders and setting structured performance plans with timelines for promotion

  • Getting creative with individual skillsets and finding paths which support both individual and business objectives

  • Setting measured goals and timeframes within which to assess self-directed learning, growth and ultimately desire for promotion

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