People Leadership

  • The Three T’s model for struggling employees

    Every people leader will be faced with the challenge of managing a chronically underperforming employee at some point. A lot of time and energy can be absorbed by underperformers. It can be tough to determine WHY someone is struggling. A myriad of reasons exists. Generally, it’s worth spending the time to try and identify the cause. If we understand the root cause, we can create a plan to address it. But sometimes it’s impossible to determine the why and we’re stuck struggling with what to do.

    Several years ago, I learned about a simple framework to help define a path forward for underperforming employees called the Three T’s, which stands for Train-Transfer-Terminate. The concept being, if someone is persistently underperforming in their role, in most cases you can pursue one of three options:

    1. Train them. Perhaps they are underperforming due to a lack of training and knowledge, which is preventing them from doing their job well, despite their best efforts. Investing time and energy in training is always worth the time; it’s a high return activity. Sometimes an employee won’t realize where their knowledge gap is and you’ll have to suss this out yourself. If you can tell someone is engaged and working hard, but continues to underperform, it may be a sign additional training is required.

    2. Transfer them. A very capable and engaged employee can struggle or fail when placed in the wrong role. Sometimes the problem isn’t the person, it’s the role they are in. If you can tell the person has the right attitude and capabilities, transitioning them into an alternative role can allow them to thrive. That could be a different role and accountabilities on the same team or a new role in an entirely different function within the organization.

    3. Termination. If training won’t solve the problem and you believe the person is in the right role, but they persistently underperform, then you must terminate them. Leaving someone who is failing in a role is unfair to them, unfair to their colleagues, and unfair to the company. Obviously, these are difficult decisions. They are not made easier by inaction.

    Because we are talking about people, situational context is critical and nuance exists. The “three T’s” model isn’t perfect. But it’s a relatively simple and easy to remember mental model to help diagnose the problem.

  • Showing up for your team

    At some point in your professional career, your team will go through a challenging period. It’s natural for there to be ups and downs at work, as there are in life. Through some of my own mistakes and trial and error I’ve come to believe there are certain principles that resonate with teams when addressing challenges, regardless of the cause.

    1. Address the issue head on. Never shy away from a problem. If you see it, your team sees it. If you proactively address it, it will be better received than if your team has to raise it with you. Never put on an overly positive air or insinuate the situation is better than it is. Pretending it’s all good, if you don’t feel that way, is sure to be poorly received. People pick up on inauthenticity and it reduces trust in you and raises questions about your judgement.
    2. Be as transparent as possible. The more information you can share about the situation the better. Calibrate what you share based on the maturity of the team, and in some cases, limit information to respect people’s privacy. For example, if I’m speaking about financial performance with a more junior team, I will likely use higher level references and go into less detail than I might with a senior executive team. But generally, the more you can share the better. It contributes to the team’s professional development and breeds trust.
    3. Share how you’re feeling and discuss the plan. It’s ok to be vulnerable, even if you’re feeling stressed or anxious. Vulnerability based trust is powerful. And if you’re feeling that way, the team has probably already picked up on it. But make sure to pair those feelings with a clear sense of direction and ideally an action plan. Hearing your leader say “I’m really, really stressed about the timeline for our new plant opening and I’m worried we might be delayed” is scary if that’s the end of the message. Hearing, “I’m really, really stressed about the timeline for our new plant opening and I’m worried we might be delayed. I’ve put in an order with two alternative suppliers for the key part we need and have reached out to our facilities in Mexico as an alternative backup. I should have more information next week on where we are” is better.

    Every leader will be put in the position of managing through a challenging time with their team. How you do so and communicate will leave a lasting impression. More so than how you navigate the good times.

  • An Ambitious(?) Candidate

    A friend recently described a hiring situation where he was evaluating an extremely ambitious candidate. Let’s call the candidate Mark. Mark exuded high energy, had a positive attitude, and was curious to learn about his potential career trajectory at the company. Mark met with several senior leaders and the reviews were mixed. Who doesn’t love an ambitious candidate? But was Mark TOO ambitious? He seemed obsessed with what it would take to secure a promotion, and he hadn’t even received the job! Is self-improvement and professional growth his motivation or is it only receiving the next title? Will he be an eager, high-performer or will he be focused on the wrong goals for the wrong reasons?

    My perspective is nuanced. I strongly believe ambition is a positive employee trait and often correlates with strong work ethic, a desire to learn, and a commitment to producing quality work. But when that ambition causes an obsession with securing a promotion, raise, or some type of transactional reward, it often results in an employee who is high-maintenance and misaligned with the team’s objectives. Employees who are ambitious for all the right reasons will also want and need transactional rewards like promotions and raises over time too and that’s healthy; it just won’t be the sole motivation.

    So how do you determine if an employee or candidate’s ambition level is beneficial or not? It’s difficult. Generally, what has worked well for me is understanding the motivation. If Mark believes a promotion is a key proxy and milestone in his own growth and development, that’s positive. If Mark is seeking a promotion for external validation, that’s cause for concern or at least further discovery.

    One of my favourite interview questions is “what does personal success look like to you, one year from today? Describe to me some of the ‘truths’ you need, to feel you’ve had a successful first year.” Once they respond, I ask a follow-up “respond to the same question but now the time period is three years”. Responses are usually telling as it relates to motivations. I’m concerned when the candidate says, “success is being a Manager in one year and a Director in three”. I’m more positively inclined when a candidate says, “success is learning and mastering my role, building strong relationships with my peers and colleagues, and delivering quality work to clients”.