How To Manage Employee Professional Growth and Hold Professional Development Conversations
This post is a transcription of a Management 101 Podcast episode titled How To Manage Employee Professional Growth and Hold Professional Development Conversations
Intro to Episode
Setting the right expectations for your employees is a key to their success as well as your company's. So is checking in on how they're performing against those expectations in a productive manner and on an appropriate cadence. And what do you do when you and your employee are not aligned on how they're performing? On today's episode of Management 101, I discuss these topics alongside a former colleague and current Head of People at Nuvocargo, Lauren Burdick.
Episode Transcript (edited for clarity)
Max Wenneker: Hello and welcome back to Management 101. I am your host, Max Wenneker. I have a very special guest with me today, Lauren Burdick. Lauren and I worked together at Uber in Mexico City for a number of years. I consider Lauren to be one of the finest managers I have ever had the opportunity to work with.
I learned a lot from her, and also just heard wonderful things about her from her very large team she managed in Latin America. I asked her to join me today to talk through some of the topics of management that I think we are both incredibly passionate about, and I'm very excited to discuss them.
Before we get into the topic for today, Lauren, if you wouldn't mind just introducing yourself, what do you do now, and what gets you most excited about people management and leadership?
Lauren Burdick: Awesome. Well, first off, Max, thanks for the glowing review. Really appreciate it. Honored to be on your podcast.
I'm Lauren Burdick. I grew up in the US but have been living in Mexico for the last eight years. At a different variety of startups at different stages. Uber, a lot larger when we were there, then a Series C company that's kind of like a Carvana in Latin America, and now at Series A logistics company. Been lots of really interesting roles managing a lot of different types of people.
And you asked me what gets me really excited about these things. I think unlocking the potential of people and being able to pull people with you along the journey and help them realize their goals and also have them push you up and challenge you. I think all of that, figuring out managing people is really interesting to me because it's always a little bit different. I think it's something that you get better at over time and I think it's something that you're never going to be perfect at because there's always so many different configurations depending on the team, the place, the time, you, et cetera.
Max Wenneker: It's like humans and like life in the sense that they're not perfectly all the same. It's not always predictable and there's more to learn in every single scenario. That certainly keeps it interesting. And it is definitely very rewarding to see people grow and know that you had a part of that process.
Lauren Burdick: I agree with that. When someone can call you a couple years later and say, Hey, that time you gave me that really hard feedback that maybe the person didn't even take very well at the moment, that served me. And I really appreciate you doing that as a manager. That's really rewarding.
Max Wenneker: It is definitely the long game, managing people. There are very few short term wins to be associated with it compared to doing project work. Why don't we discuss what the topic is today? There are going to be two topics that are very related. One is just professional growth in general. And then the other, which is a very closely associated topic but more targeted, is development conversations. The conversations that you have with employees related to their professional growth.
And we got a few questions aided once again, a little bit by ChatGPT. So thank you to ChatGPT for coming up with some of the wording for some of these questions, and making me sound a lot better than I actually am, intelligence-wise.
Let's start with the topic of having performance-related, or what's sometimes called professional development conversations. Very basic one to start, although it is one we could probably expand on for a while. Expound on. Is it expand on or expound on?
Lauren Burdick: Maybe it's both. I don't know. It could be both. I would use them interchangeably.
Max Wenneker: I hope someone from a prestigious dictionary company will reach out and let us know. What are some best practices for handling performance slash development conversations?
Lauren Burdick: I'm going to throw out my top rules of thumb, Max, and let me know where you think your audience would want to hear a little bit more.
Some best practices are knowing where you're starting from. When I'm talking about that, I mean the job taxonomy. This person is here in my organization, and understanding that environment around the person because that's relevant to them and their growth. I think it's also really important to understand, okay, well in the job they're in, what are the expectations, the goals? If you have something like competencies, that's really, really helpful. So you need to know those things, the environment, but then you also really need to know the person. What does this person want? Why are they here? Why did they decide to join this company in this role? Have they recently been promoted into the role they joined in this role, et cetera. I think all those context things are really important to have good development conversations. I would say that's step one, having all that background info.
What are some other best practices? Setting up a cadence. It depends on the role and the person and the company, how often is correct. But saying we're going to do this every x time. I think it's important to set up that this is a two-way conversation. I'm going to tell you all the feedback I have if I haven't already said it, or I'm going to bring it up from the last time that we spoke officially until this time, I'm going to give you all the feedback so it doesn't feel like there's a surprise later on, for example, in a performance review. Something like that. And it's important to say, I'm also going to ask you every time we have this conversation for feedback.
And then I think that's really important because people often think, oh, this is top down, and you need to say, no, I'm going to always ask you in this conversation, so have feedback for me, I wanna improve as well. Those are some top of mind best practices to get things set up.
Max Wenneker: 2 things I wanna dig into there. One is around cadence. For me, this one's really important because I think it's very easy to handle this like your physical health. I will only deal with something once it's a problem. Focus a lot more on reactive solutions than preventative maintenance. What for you, in your most recent roles, has been a good cadence, and have you ever had any learning experiences related to cadence where you said to yourself, I really wish I'd started these earlier?
Lauren Burdick: Sure. Today for my role, I'm the Head of People at a startup, and I get to see all the teams and how they react to what I propose. And obviously what I'm proposing is what I think works and what I've seen work.
I think for operational roles, it's really important to talk every month. It's important to have a separate meeting that's a development conversation that's not the standard one-on-one basic check-in because we're trying to be a little bit more profound into what are the expectations versus what you're doing versus what you would like to be doing.
And so I would say once a month at the minimum for roles like that. These are more junior people folks that are working more on daily processes versus long-term projects. That would be every month. If, for example, the head of product at Nuvocargo pushed back on me and said that is really frequent for our product development cycle, that we're just not launching product every month. To be able to say this was the entire cycle, I need it to be every month and a half. Great. If there's a team that that makes more sense for, and there's going to be a richer conversation every month and a half, then that's fine. I think the quality has to be there. It's not quantity over quality.
Because of that, it's also really important that you as a manager, whatever you say you're going to do, you stick to it and you prepare. One of the most awful feelings is your manager said that, I'm going to dedicate X time to you talking about your development and shows up unprepared or cancels the meeting.
Max Wenneker: I have a general rule, which is that one-on-ones, whether they are more tactical, weekly, one-on-ones or professional development conversations, which are technically a version of one-on-one, those are the meetings in your calendar that are absolute first priority. They can be moved around a little bit, of course, people's schedules change. You as a leader are going to have a busy schedule, but never cancel them unless you're literally on vacation, which then I hope you cancel them.
Those are the things that always need to come first, and then everything else needs to fit in around it, such that you're really prioritizing your direct reports. They feel the difference between you being there, being present and being prepared, and you not.
The second thing I wanted to dig into was, I really liked what you said around, I want feedback too in this discussion. Professional development is a two-way street. It is not just, here's what you're good at and here's what you're bad at. But you as a manager play a huge role in that. You can either set them up for success or you could not, you could help them grow or you could not, you could give them work that enables them or you could give them work that's really not a good fit for them. How do you establish the expectation and the trust with your direct report that when you have this conversation, it's not, I'm telling you what you suck at, it's I am on your team and I am helping. It is in my interest that you succeed. How do you make that happen?
Lauren Burdick: It's tricky, and I'll say why. What are the factors that make it tricky? Just the company situation in general. Are you growing like crazy and there's just unlimited opportunities? Okay, well then no matter what the person wants, there might be something that is aligned to what they want, so that's great. Now you just have to help them figure out, out of all the opportunities there are, which one are you really going after and why. That would be a great scenario.
Sometimes you're in a scenario where that's not true, where what the person really wants isn't going to be possible today. So then you really need to understand how far are we willing to wait? Is there value that you can add, or other things you could learn that could help you at your eventual goal? Or are you open to adjusting your goal? Is there something else that would be interesting to you here in the real world that we live in today at the company? How do you establish that trust? Since it's a human to human thing, it's not a one size fits all. Building trust is one of those things that as a leader, you have to do in every single interaction.
I think there are some little hacks. For example, with one of my old teams at Uber, we would do trust building lunches once a quarter and we would have what could sometimes feel like silly questions, but things that taught you about someone. Tell me about your best friend. You can learn a lot about someone knowing, oh, we've been friends since fourth grade and we both really like baseball and we played in the little league, whatever. If you do that in every conversation, great. There's also, how do you bond as a team every x time? There's also what happens when things go wrong. That's often when you build trust.
When someone comes to you and they made a mistake and they tell you, I made this mistake, and how you react to that. Or you find a mistake, how you react to that. Just all the different human to human interactions help you build or destroy trust. You have to have a foundational trust layer in order to really have a good conversation and people to tell you their truth.
I've had it happen to me both ways that people feel way more trust with me than I thought. And that's great. Yay. And I've also had it happen where I read it way wrong and I thought we had a lot of trust, and then the direct report decided something very different than what I understood to be their goals or their direction, I think it's something where you have to be really humble and unfortunately it's not a one size fits all, but the, the top tips would be, be mindful of those interactions, especially when things go wrong. How do you get to know a person a little bit more? How do you make those spaces? And then what do you do when you make a mistake? I think the same thing applies. And how do you ask for feedback? I'd like to share a couple of tips on how to ask for feedback, because I think that's hard, especially in Mexico.
Max Wenneker: This is actually key for building trust.
Lauren Burdick: Super key. I've been in Mexico for a long time, but having grown up in the US and still working with Americans, I think that it's a little bit easier for somebody to tell you when something is wrong. Because usually there's something about, we should be fixing this, and I think that's positive. In Mexico it's not that way. It's very rude to point out what's wrong. How do you build this trust for people to give you feedback? You always tell them, I'm going to ask you. So I'm expecting you to be prepared and have something that's strategy number one.
Strategy number two, tell me one thing I could improve so that you could be more successful. Then it becomes about us and not just about them giving you feedback. That makes people feel more comfortable.
And then the last thing is to throw out something that you think you could improve upon or maybe somebody else said. So you can say, I think I have something I can improve. Or, this other person on the team that's your peer told me this. If you're open enough to say that this person told me something and it's not a bad thing or a secret thing, the person could feel more comfortable.
Max Wenneker: There's naturally, as part of the dynamic, I think it's called power distance in psychology. Just the fact that you are a superior to your subordinate means that there are certain expectations related to how one is supposed to interact, whether you want that to be the case or not. And one of the things you absolutely need in a professional development conversation is a sense of equal footing. That's part of what trust is, I believe that I am safe when saying something to you. Part of developing that is sometimes being very honest and open around what you, yourself are struggling with in a professional sense.
If you don't feel like you're getting very honest feedback from your direct reports, it's very possible they're simply not comfortable with it. If you say, here's something that I have been working on myself over the course of my career, here's something that I've gotten feedback on in the past, they're much more likely, one, to be comfortable responding to that now and giving you feedback. Two, they're also much more likely to have that in mind in future scenarios. And they'll notice, oh, this is something that I think didn't go so well on that topic and because Max or Lauren called it out, I'm now willing to say to them, Hey, I saw an example of this and I wonder if there's a better approach next time. You're just saying, I'm looking to improve and I'm even telling you areas that I think I need to improve in. That really creates trust.
Lauren Burdick: And if you haven't done a podcast on the power distance in the other five factors of cultural difference, you should Max. That's a great topic.
Max Wenneker: I'm very passionate about the aviation and airline industry and there is a book, it's a Malcolm Gladwell book. Name I'm forgetting off the top of my head, but there's a whole chapter around airline safety and how airline safety is strongly correlated with a country's power distance number. Countries with greater power distance have on average worse cockpit communication that leads to more accidents occurring than countries where power distance is lower. Because in the case of a captain and a first officer, a first officer is a lot more comfortable calling out when the captain has made a mistake in a culture where power distance is smaller.
Lauren Burdick: Wow. Interesting. Okay. I didn't know that. Cool.
Max Wenneker: I've read that chapter many times and I could probably tell you what chapter it is, but can't remember the name of the book off the top of my head. I don't think the point of it is, you better be from the country with less power distance. I think the point of it is you need to figure out a way to make your culture in your organization have the smallest power distance possible.
Lauren Burdick: Right to prevent those accidents. Luckily, I think most of us are not dealing with something as life and death as airline accidents. Indeed. But even so, there's a lot to be learned from that industry.
Max Wenneker: One of the things that you called out in our pre-discussion notes is around responsiveness to feedback in development conversations. As you are, I'm sure, aware, something I've experienced many times, providing feedback in the wrong way can be really discouraging to a direct report. They might feel attacked. They might feel as though they're doing a worse job than they thought they were, and that's very discouraging and ultimately leads to them disengaging.
How do you make sure that when you're providing constructive feedback around something that needs to be going better in order either for you to be successful in your current role or for you to grow, how do you deliver that in a way that isn't discouraging and doesn't cause disengagement, but rather encourages and helps nurture the person?
Lauren Burdick: The best offense defense. And you alluded to this when you said you should be doing development conversations before you feel like you absolutely need one. Let's say that you've been doing that, and you've been attempting to build trust your entire working relationship with each of your direct reports, and you've also been giving them feedback on a regular basis at the minimum, this once a month cadence. Hopefully after you say something constructive, if everything is going well, there's a lower probability that someone would take it badly or not the right way, or be discouraged by some feedback, because they feel that Lauren or Max has my trust. She's also told me all these good things I'm doing. When she tells me something, it's that we can get better, there's a track record.
Even if we as the manager said something, that wasn't the best way to say something, which we've all done, there's more likelihood that, they’re going to think about this, react to it, and then we can talk again.
Now let's say that's out the window and the person takes it and is very discouraged and says, I don't even know if this is the right role for me or the team, or even the company. Let's really exaggerate. I think there are a couple things that you can do to prevent that. If you see that this is going to be a situation that's a little bit more high risk, you can ask the person, are you ready? Are you open to some feedback right now? Are you in the right mind space? You can even tell the person, Hey, this is going to be kind of tough feedback for me to give for X, Y, Z reason. Give the context before. And the person can tell you, you know what? Let's talk tomorrow. The person can say, yes, I'm ready. Recognizing that it's going to be a difficult conversation and you saying, I know this is going to be a difficult conversation, almost puts the brakes on a little. Gets both of you on the same page that this is going to be a hard thing to say, so how am I going to listen to this? What are they going to say back to me? I think those are the best practices.
Let's say worst case scenario, it totally went off the rails. You didn't expect this to be a tough conversation. You can tell the person mid conversation, you know what, I didn't anticipate this conversation to go this way. I'd like to take a step back and think a little bit more about my feedback and how this is going to help you grow and help you be successful and we could talk tomorrow. Or if it's more on their end, I see that this is upsetting to you or making you feel a certain way. I'd like to pause here because that is not my intention. My intention of this is not that you feel discouraged. I think we should talk about this tomorrow after you can digest a little bit more. So don't be afraid to hit the pause button. If things do go off the rails.
Max Wenneker: Those all are fantastic suggestions and many of them I've employed myself when in very similar situations to what you just described. One thing I'll add is more along the lines of what you just said around, is this the right moment? Just because you've scheduled a performance review or development check-in for a certain time, that does not necessarily mean that that person is ready to receive constructive feedback at that moment. Don't mistake “they showed up to the meeting” as a suggestion that they are ready to receive the constructive feedback. Establishing even before the meeting, is this an okay time to be discussing professional development? Is this an okay time to be diving into areas of opportunity for growth? before getting into it is probably a good idea.
If you're just walking in and you're essentially, if they're not in the right mind space, blindsiding them with constructive feedback, even with the best of possible intentions, it may come across to them as an attack.
Lauren Burdick: Usually if there is that cadence, the person then tries to have that mindset. But I agree with you that touching base and just making sure, are we in the same space right before starting that, that's always good practice.
Max Wenneker: There are just so many things that influence someone's state of mind that are not related to the current situation or meeting. They might have had a tough day at home. They might have had a tough day in other meetings, they just might be feeling down today. There could be any number of things going into that conversation that put your direct report in a space where they're just not ready to receive this feedback or this information. Just being cognizant of that will help you. It's largely irrelevant what you try to tell someone if they're not ready to hear it. If you're cognizant of whether they're ready to hear it, you're going to be a lot more successful.
I'm going to ask you a question now that's based on your experience as a leader in a bunch of different organizations. You have worked with a lot of other leaders who, I imagine, have had varying levels of capabilities related to holding development conversations and developing talent. What would you say is the number one mistake you see leaders make when it comes to having development conversations that you hear about it and you're like, ugh, I really wish they'd just done this one thing differently?
Lauren Burdick: Ooh, can I have two?
Max Wenneker: You may have two. Yes. We have a technically unlimited time on this recording.
Lauren Burdick: The first thing is what you said at the very beginning of the podcast, but just to repeat it, it's just not doing it at all. What does that cause? Your top performers will be unmotivated, want to leave your team or leave the company because they don't see what's going for them. I'm putting in all this effort, I'm making all this impact, and then what? So I think that's a shooting yourself in the foot-type situation, that's number one.
But the other thing, let's say you are having conversations. What people do incorrectly is they promise things they can't actually give. Promotions, or false sense of “this is exactly the two things that need to happen for this other thing to happen.” We're not all powerful. We do work within an organization that has a lot of different moving pieces, and it's important to coordinate.
So when I mentioned at the beginning that some of my tips are to understand that environment that you're in, that's key. Because if you have, let's imagine a scenario. You have a super top performer. Their impact is measurable. It's very obvious to everyone they're a top performer. You would like to promote them and you feel like you have a promotion case for it. But the company, the overall results are not what we wanted them to be at this moment. And we're even thinking about reducing headcount, let alone promotions. Don't promise that to the person. Let's figure out what we can do. So in the conversation with the person, you understand what they would want, what they're interested in, and then you go back and you talk to the people team, you talk to your peers, you say, I have this super top performer. They would be ready for promotion if we could do that right now. What else could we do? Could we do a stretch assignment? Could they go work on a different team for a while? Could they have a special, very high profile project with a different leader? There's a lot of things we could solve together that maybe aren't just inline promotion, but we shouldn't promise things we can't keep. I think that's the number one problem I've seen because that breaks all the trust that you had with the person.
Max Wenneker: I have seen that happen so many times, including to myself, and it is the greatest demotivator out there. You lose total trust with your direct report. They don't feel like they're cared about at all. And either you as a manager come across as a really bad manager who's not capable of delivering what they promise, or you have to throw your organization under the bus. And neither is a good outcome for you as a leader or for your team member.
One of the ways I really like to think about this, I have this chart in my brain, which is, promotions are these stair steps, promotions happen all at once. You are one level and then you're another. You are one role, and then you're another, Then you're that role for a while. You have this quick up and then flat for a while, and then another quick up, instant when you get promoted again, that is the outcome. But that is not the input. The input is your development over time, which is much more of a curve, you don't suddenly get good at something. You develop in it over time. You increase your capabilities over time. And so this curve, we'll keep growing, keep going up and to the right as you grow as an individual, and then the promotions and the increases in responsibility, those are naturally going to come right behind it. They won't be perfectly aligned. They'll be off by six months sometimes. They'll be off by 12 months sometimes. But over time, if you are helping your direct report develop their skills and develop their capabilities and grow as a professional, all that other stuff will be the output that comes as a result of it, not the thing you are working towards.
Lauren Burdick: I'm going to make a slide with that on it, Max. I think that needs to be part of what I present. We're going to do kind of a performance recycle. I'm going to add this. Thank you for the recommendation.
Max Wenneker: It's a good way of thinking about it, because then you're setting it up as we're focusing on what's in our control, which is how great you are, not what title you have. And then if I'm the manager I promise to be, and we are in the organization we believe we are. then we'll have demonstrated what's necessary for promotion over time. And you'll get that title eventually. You'll get that role eventually. But that's not in our control. Like you said, there are so many exogenous factors that result in promotions not happening when we want them to, that result in comp changes and title changes and responsibility changes not happening when we want them to. The only thing that is 100% within our control, you and me as direct report-manager, is your development, how you grow your skillset. I think it's really important to orient it that way because then the individual is focused on the things that actually they have control over. They're going to be a lot happier than looking for outside validation, which is what a promotion is.
Lauren Burdick: I think most of us when we join a startup are looking to grow our skills and grow our impact. And if we are able to still focus on that, then I think everything can be easier. Obviously society tells us you growing your skills and your impact should result in a title that your friends recognize. But I think if we can bring it back to, what are we really here to do? That's a good way to anchor us. And I agree with you.
Max Wenneker: I think it's a little bit self-fulfilling. If you focus on the titles, then you're going to join organizations that are focused on the titles, who will care about what titles you had. If you're focused on developing the right skillset, you will naturally, the people and the organizations who will gravitate towards you are the ones who care about the actual content of your capabilities and not whatever title you achieved. And that will also be self-fulfilling. And I think probably most of us would prefer to live in the world where we are judged based on what we can actually deliver and not what we have achieved.
We're going to switch topics and get a little less metaphysical here. What happens when you and your direct report are not aligned on the direct report’s capabilities or performance? Why don't we just start with the basic, what are some common situations or common reasons that a direct report thinks they are here? I guess you can't see my screen here. Up top. And you think they are middle of the pack or lower? What causes that to happen?
Lauren Burdick: When there is not clear expectations by role, that's maybe because there weren't, there was never, or maybe it's because things have changed since you hired the person. This also happens in startups where the bar naturally grows in each role as the organization grows. The complexity grows where we're also expecting a little bit more of everyone. I think that's a thing that requires the work of, have things changed? How often have they changed? Have we refreshed these things? Did we communicate it? Is it still clear?
I come from leading operational teams. Right now, I lead the people team and I'm a huge fan of the most simple, concise but structured approach you can take. Let me share what I've seen work. I saw this work at Uber. I replicated the same thing at Nuvocargo. At Kavak we didn't have this, and I think that was to our detriment. We have a system of competencies.
There's a universe of competencies at a company. In our case it's 15, I think at Uber it was maybe around 20. Things like customer centricity, project management, data focus, et cetera. They're professional competencies. Each role is assigned five or six of those. And then within those competencies you have skill levels. Basic, intermediate, advanced, et cetera.
It takes some effort to set up, but then if everyone is speaking in the same language, we know that this level one role in the strategy team requires these five things at this level. And here's examples of what those five things look like at that level now. And here's also what it looks like above that level and below that level. So you can really see, okay, I should definitely master all the things that are below me and I'm trying to aspire to the things that are above me. This type of framework, side note, is also really helpful if you're looking to grow into different teams. Because maybe, for example, I was in Ops, I know what Ops is all about. I wanted to be in People. Well, what do you need to be in People, what is that? Is there anything that's similar that I've practiced before or not? So it's really helpful when you can see, oh, we have these two in common and then I need to work on these three other ones.
So the reason why I'm explaining all this is because I think maybe for your listeners investing the time, you can find something online, you can copy, paste, edit to your liking. It really saves you a lot of issues. And all these difficult conversations of, I thought I was at the top of the screen and I'm actually at the middle. It saves you all of that because you're talking more about something objective. That's not just you as a manager, your perception of where people need to be and where they are. You're saying the organization says you need to be here. These are the exact things I've seen that tell me that you're not there or that you're surpassing expectations or whatever.
I would bring it all back to as, as objective as possible. You think about a 20 box spreadsheet with observables. That's all we're looking for, so I think that's what people, I think that's what I would recommend to avoid those situations.
Max Wenneker: I think what you described is a number of steps and some time to implement, but is deceptively simple in its concept. It's just saying let's all read from the same syllabus. Let's all make sure we're on the same page of this book. It is just a framework by which you say these are the things that are expected of you. You need to be good at these things and this is how good you need to be at them. And then it's much easier. We're talking the same language.
Now I like to give baseball analogies sometimes because I do love baseball. When you're saying this person is a good baseball player, that is a very subjective thing to say. But if you break it down into batting average, how good are they at hitting? Fielding percentage, how good are they at fielding? And I know for you Sabermetricians out there, it's a lot more complex than that. I was just making it simple. But you can break it down into the component parts of what makes a baseball player “good”.
Then you can much more easily define, with that player, for example, where are they excelling? Where are they struggling? You've defined this list of competencies and then you've defined how far along they are in each of those competencies. So yes, I completely agree. Competencies, while they take a little while to develop and require some thought behind them, ensure that everyone's on the same page around what it takes to be successful in a role.
Let's say that we're in an earlier stage startup, 10, 20 people, very early on. Maybe competencies are more bureaucratic than an early stage startup wants to deal with right now, but they still want to make sure that at least their managers and their direct reports are on the same page around what it takes to be good at their job. Are there some more basic processes or frameworks that a manager could put in place just to make sure that they are on the same page as their direct?
Lauren Burdick: Let's say we can't do the competencies thing. It also doesn't make sense because there's only, let's say, six roles in the company. Having the job descriptions up to date that, this is the bar. Maybe putting a little bit more detail behind the job descriptions or the job descriptions plus your short term goals and saying, for your job, this is what I'm expecting your impact to be. That could at least be helpful to say, are these things happening? And let's say those things are tangible, what things impact things? Hit this goal, do this thing, run this project, whatever. Then you could also lay on top of the values of the company. I'm assuming even if you're a very early stage startup, you have values you care about, that's why you started the company in the first place. Are you acting in accordance to those things?
That's the shortcut is job description, short-term goals, values.
Max Wenneker: I recently was working with a client, a company I think fewer than 20 people. They had one operations person. And that one operations person was really struggling with delivering all the things that were being asked of them. And to that person, they did not know that. Only the leadership team saw it. They sat down and had the conversation. It turns out that the expectations for their role had never been set. This individual did not realize that they were supposed to be responding within X number of hours to customer outreach, or when a new client was being onboarded to their platform, that they were supposed to follow X, Y, and Z steps.
As soon as that conversation was had, that person completely turned it around. Because it turns out that the reason they weren't delivering is because they didn't know what they were supposed to be delivering against. This is a mistake I've seen a number of leaders make, particularly in early stage startups where there's just a lot of stuff to do and it's hard as a founder to focus on people management when there's just so much other stuff going on. They assume that their direct reports know more about what they're supposed to be doing than is actually the case. And more often than not, it's not a case of, this is a bad fit for the company, it's a case of, they just weren't told what they need to be doing.
Lauren Burdick: You have to be sensitive to the point in the career where folks are and what is expected of their role. You can't expect the same of Max who comes in as a jack of all trades consultant that's seen it to drive his own roadmap versus someone who just joined your company that's had two years of work experience. You just need a different level of guidance. I mean, the Max 10 years ago also did, right? I think being sensitive to that and the CEO, if they're managing everyone directly, being sensitive to that is important.
Max Wenneker: I have a fun story related to that topic. My first time as a manager it was actually at Uber. It was on the Uber Baltimore team, which was my first role at Uber. I was an entry level operations manager just starting out in the world. And I performed pretty well in the role. So I got, well at the time what was called, I don't remember the name, but it was something like a lead role. It wasn't a level number, it was a level letter. It was a sub-level, it was a 3B instead of a 3, which meant that I didn't formally have management responsibilities, but informally they were testing me out as manager.
I did a very bad job my first three months as a manager. I didn't know it, but one day my manager who I'll be forever grateful to her for sitting me down and discussing this, she sat me down and she said, you are doing too much work and you are not spending enough time with your direct reports. I want you to go home. You're going to take the next two days off from work. You're not going to come to the office. I just want you to document every single thing you do such that anyone else in the team could do it. Then when you come back, we're going to figure out how you delegate that work to those individuals, and then you'll have the time to actually start managing them.
That conversation around what was actually expected of me was such a game changer because I had no idea that I wasn't doing what I was supposed to be doing. I was sitting there thinking I was the greatest manager on earth as all 22 year olds probably think. That could not have been more wrong. I am so appreciative that she sat me down and said, this is not going well. And here's exactly why. And fortunately, she'd built a lot of trust with me beforehand. So this was coming from a good place. I knew that for a fact. And she said, here's what a manager is supposed to do and here's what you're not doing and I'm going to give you the space to figure out how to switch.
Lauren Burdick: It's so good that you had someone that would tell you you're messing it up. I also have a two year old manager's story.
Max Wenneker: Oh yes, do tell.
Lauren Burdick: Different scenario. This was me assuming that the goals that were set before me were the right ones. And assuming that my job was just to hit the goal, that's all I was there to do. This was a little bit of a weird role. I supervised a CAD design, photography and graphic design team, and I'm not those things. I was also the youngest person on the team. So all my direct reports were 5+ years older than me. The photography assistant, first week on the job, they were very behind on one of the shoots. I just came to her and very directly, hopefully amicably. told her, hey, we're very behind on this. She burst into tears.
This is one of our first interactions. And she said, it's because it's this material that's really hard to photograph. And they asked for this other thing all at the same time. Bottom line, my job should have been to figure out, is this why we are not hitting the goal? And then is this actually the right goal? And I learned that unfortunately, we can't just take it as granted that what our team is expected to do is actually the right things and what they're capable of doing. We have to help the company understand this is our capability, this is what a stretch goal is for us.
Max Wenneker: That is absolutely right. I will add another parable or thing to keep in mind as a manager that I think oftentimes leaders do not get right when someone in the company who's reporting to you or indirectly reporting to you is not doing what you expect of them. That is as much, if not more, your fault, as it is theirs.
Now, let's say that you've had a number of conversations with them where you've specifically laid out, here's what's expected of you. You are checking with them regularly and you are giving them the guidance around here's how to get this thing done. They're very early on in their development and they're still not delivering and they're still not clear what's expected of them. Okay, in that case, maybe there's another conversation to be had. But more often than not, when a direct report is not delivering what is expected of them, it is because you, as the manager or the leader, have not taken the appropriate steps to establish those expectations, and you are in your head expecting a lot more from them than you have actually communicated to them.
Let's take this a little bit deeper, which is we've now had the really bad performance development or career development conversation where you have said, here's what's expected of you. And they say, I had no idea that was expected of me. I thought I was doing a great job. I can't believe that you put me in this situation where I thought I was ready for promotion and you're telling me I'm not even doing a good job at my current role, how could this have happened? And they're just really upset. You've lost a lot of trust. Also, you're not sure that this person is going to turn it around that quickly because they're now in a very bad place. You've already lost in some ways by this conversation not going well. That's going to happen in every managerial career at some point. It's not fun, but it is very natural that it'll happen. We're humans. We don't always communicate perfectly. We often have things in our head that are not in other people's heads, but now we're in this situation. What would you recommend doing as a manager or a leader to bring that trust back and to get that employee back on track to achieving their goals?
Lauren Burdick: It's super tricky. I had a situation like this recently. It's important to recognize, here we are. This is a crappy place for you. This is a crappy place for me. And however we got here, we got here. We have two options. Either we can get back on the right path and you can be excited about what we're doing here. I can do my best to align the work with what you're excited about. These are the options, or we should be honest about maybe this isn’t the right place for me anymore. What can we do in the meantime? And there's a variety of different options on that path.
This is something that earlier in my career, I don't think I would've been comfortable with just laying it out there that, hey, this might not be the right place for you anymore, depending on how far the disconnect is. And I think I've seen other managers who do this better, being more open with it, that's okay.
So what's going to happen between right now and when you're looking for a new role? How is that going to look your last few months here? How can you still add value while we know that you're looking for something else? That can be better for the team than someone not having that conversation, not having that context, and someone just slowly getting more and more demotivated and being more and more negative and dragging the team down. That's something I've learned recently, seeing other people do it well. That is an option.
Now the happy path would be okay, we had this rupture, but there is something interesting for me here, there is something aligned to my goals. Even though we are on different pages, there is some genuine interest in getting back on the same page. Okay, I can get excited about that, and then we bring them back into the fold. I would say there's either of those two things and to not be afraid if it's the option of, I no longer feel excited by this by making that a good transition, that could be something good.
Let me give an example. For one of our Ops teams, there was someone who was doing well in a role. He'd been here maybe for a year and a half and said, you know what? I just realized that the logistics world isn't for me. It's not that I don't like the team or the manager, I just really wanna go try something very different. And so I said, okay, give me a heads up when you're more in final round interviews with that other type of company, because we want to have a backfill for you. If you need a recommendation, we'll write it. It's a very different conversation than that spiral of death and demotivation that we've found ourselves in.
Max Wenneker: I feel very strongly about this. I think that unfortunately, for the most part, a separation between employee and company is seen as a failure and treated like a hazardous material where we're not going to go anywhere near that. I'm a big operational efficiency person. I love efficiency in all aspects of my life, not the least of which is the allocation of labor to the right places where it is going to do the most good.
When an employee is not happy for whatever reason, and it is not something that feels controllable, for instance, they're simply in a bad place with what opportunities they have in the organization and there aren't other good opportunities for them. They simply, in your example, don't like the industry very much. Those things are all okay. It is okay to say this isn't the best fit. I think you're great and would love to help you find the right opportunity even if it's outside the company.
I think if you approach a conversation like that as a manager, you're going to rebuild trust pretty quickly because the person's going to see you as an ally and not, oh, I'm going to get fired or something like that. Or this person's out to get me and they're going to try to get rid of me. You're on the same page where you're saying, it seems like this isn't the best fit and that is okay. Let's figure out what the best fit is for you. That's going to be a much more enjoyable process and have much better outcomes than not touching it, not saying the Q word. Quit is the key word I was thinking of. This is the case with every single termination that I've ever been a part of. The employee who was terminated has, every single time, ended up in a role that was a much better fit for them long term than the role they were in.
For the most part, if an employee is unhappy for an extended period of time, they're not delivering for an extended period of time. They are no happier being in that role than you are as their manager. Of course it's better to have them shift approach and improve and ultimately get on the right path, a happy path, as you said. But it is okay if they don't, and I don't think the forcing onto the happy path and it not working is always the best solution.
One thing I'll call out to what you said, Lauren, the timing of that conversation is really important. If you deliver a bunch of tough feedback and that conversation just doesn't go well, immediately after that is not the time to say, are you sure you still wanna be here? Give them a little time. Let, let the emotions cool. Say, hey, I would love to revisit this. Is it okay if I schedule a check-in time in three or four days to chat more about it? And that's the time you can say, hey, I just wanted to check in. How are you feeling about that last conversation? How are you feeling about moving forward? And if they're really unhappy with it in a way that you're thinking to yourself, this is not about whether they can deliver in this role anymore. This is about whether they're going to be happy here. Then you can bring it up as a manager saying, hey, is it worth having the conversation of, is there a better fit for you elsewhere? I want to be supportive of that process. But I would definitely wait until after that conversation has occurred because I could see a world where someone listens to this and says, okay, next time I have a bad performance conversation, I'm just going to tell them they should quit. And that is definitely not what we're telling you to do.
Lauren Burdick: No. Very good clarification, Max. Please don't do that. The person will quit because they will feel awful.
Max Wenneker: They'll definitely quit. They will also skewer you to everyone who they ever talked to about you ever which is not fun either.
Let's go on to our last topic. When someone is ready for more responsibility, ready for that promotion, this topic we talked about earlier, but the company or the organization simply doesn't have that opportunity for them. They're blocked in the promotion by the person above them, which might be you. You're in the role that they would be promoted to, and there's simply no opportunity for them to grow into that role, even if they're perfectly ready to perform that role. What do you do?
Lauren Burdick: I think you try to paint the different options. There's the option that I leave and you get promoted to my space, but honestly I'm not planning on leaving so I don't see that happening soon. There's the option of, hey, other roles that could become available and other teams are those interesting or not. There's the lateral move to a different team. You could broaden your skillset and be a little bit more marketable or have just more skills and be able to lead maybe those two teams in the future.
There's also, is it about title or is it about pay? And be more honest about those things because those things aren't always attached. And sometimes there's things we can do. We can't change pay, but we can only change title. We can change pay, but not cash. We can do equity. Something like that. I think it's good to come to the people team as your advisors and say, hey, I have someone who's doing really great, but I see that this is the situation, what could we do? And especially if it's a top performer, we want to retain this person if possible. We can't break all the rules and create unfairness. But maybe there's something within fairness that we could do.
And then I think the last, last, last option is, right now I don't see something we can do in the next three months. Could we sit tight for three months? What's the real timeline you see? And if the person tells you, no, I can't, then I think it goes into the camp of, I would like to support you in finding that next role. Maybe you look while we see what happens here. I think it can be hard for people to open up and have that conversation, but it's better than someone feeling really frustrated and also you not being able to empower or help your direct reports, especially the ones are who are top performing.
Max Wenneker: I agree, those are absolutely the options. Sometimes direct reports struggle with the, can we sit and wait game, even if that's the best option. So offering that to them, it has to come with the, what are we doing in the meantime? How am I helping support your continued development during that interim period where nothing's going to change about the organization in the next three months, but I want to make sure that you are continuing to grow and getting opportunities for additional responsibility?
At the end of the day, probably every company, every role has the opportunity to take on more stuff. I can't imagine a world where there isn't more that could be done at a company, by an individual. In my mind, there's unlimited potential scope and responsibility for an individual up to the point where you as the leader are not doing any work anymore and you can focus on entirely higher level thinking or something like that. In my mind, there's always opportunity to hand a person more responsibility and be able to better tell their story for either whatever that next role is internally or externally.
I think it's important to continue the discussion around, what do you want to keep learning? What do you want to keep trying out? You have absolutely mastered your role and you're ready for the next level. We are in this period right now, where unfortunately, organizationally, there just isn't an opportunity for actual promotion. Maybe even not for comp change. If you're in a company that has six month or 12 month comp cycles, those off cycle comp changes are really hard to do, maybe impossible. But we have this unique opportunity where you're absolutely crushing it. What else do you want to learn? What can I help you develop in? Even a lot of companies allocate budgets for learning and development. How can I use that to help you level up your skills such that you are an even more impressive candidate to whatever role, whether it be here or outside that you want?
Lauren Burdick: This is a side note Max, but I think this could be good for your audience. So about the wait thing, I know, at least in my career, I would've felt like that is an invalid answer if my manager were to tell me that. But now being a little bit further along, I would think, I wish someone would've explained that to me, why that might be the case. What actually would happen the next three months or whatever, X time that would behoove me, is it really better to be in my role? Maybe like you said, taking on more responsibilities for the next three months versus doing a grass is always greener and looking outside.
I wish that I would've had at least the maturity myself or someone would've sat me down and said, hey look, how long is three months in the grand scheme of things? Because I think if you're a high achieving millennial, or Gen Z person, you're just always looking for more. I wanna do more, I wanna grow more, I wanna grow faster. This is so long X time, even if it's X years. I think maybe that'll ring true or not, but I think once and eventually in all of our careers, we're going to get to that point where we said, yeah, maybe I jumped the gun. Maybe waiting really was the answer in that situation.
Max Wenneker: I heard someone say this once, I really like it. It doesn't make any logical sense, but it definitely feels true. Life is short, but careers are long. And when you can impart that to someone, particularly early on in their career where every day is such a large percentage of all the time that they've worked, and so they're constantly wanting more, if you can get across that it's okay if we have to wait these three months, it's going to have very little long-term impact. And it's also okay if you feel like these next three months you really need to find something else, I'm going to support you no matter what. But I promise you, having been in your chair these three months are going to be a lot less of a big deal in the grand scheme of things than they feel they are now.
Lauren Burdick: A hundred percent. And it's hard to feel that until you're on the other side, that they were right.
Max Wenneker: That is absolutely right. Last question along these lines. How do you retain that person that is doing an amazing job, but there simply isn't room for them?
Lauren Burdick: I think someone who's doing an amazing job and has all those things on the table, most likely they're going to see some value in one of those things they've already invested blood, sweat, time, tears in the project. That's why they're a top performer. Most often one of those things on the buffet will interest them. And then that's a never ending thing, the buffet today is this and then in six months it’s different. But I think overall that normally works. And if it doesn't, we do have to just be open and honest and say, I'm going to go look at that buffet over there, I can support you in that.
Max Wenneker: That's definitely right. This is a pretty commonly held view that people don't leave jobs, they leave managers. My sense is that oftentimes when people are saying, I wanna leave because I'm not getting promoted, there's a lot more behind that than simply you didn't get the promotion. They're either not feeling super enabled or cared about by you as their manager. If you've really developed a strong relationship with your direct report, they are much more likely to want to stay even if there isn't an immediate opportunity for promotion when they're ready for it, than if you haven't done that relationship development work.
I also think sometimes promotion can be the presentation of a larger concern around, I don't feel valued here or cared about here. And I think there are other ways oftentimes to demonstrate that even when the promotion isn't ready.
Lauren Burdick: Agree. And now that I'm seeing the behind the curtain of the people team, I would say also just not understanding how compensation works. Feeling like you're underpaid for some reason, because something you heard in the hallway. Even just understanding I'm fairly paid or I'm even above fairly paid. Or if you're not, well then addressing that issue, but I think even if that's the issue, then being able to say that that's the issue. Hey, I feel like I'm doing a great job in my role, but I'm concerned that there's not equity on the team, or I'm concerned that we're not being paid at market. And actually being able to talk about that specific thing, you as a manager can also better help them with that specific thing. You can go to the people team and say, hey, is there something weird here? If there is, let's fix it. And if there's not, how can I better explain it so that this person knows that they're being paid within our organization super fairly, that it's competitive in the market, et cetera?
Max Wenneker: When companies withhold information related to compensation from their employees, it's not like employees just assume the best of intentions and don't think twice about it. They fill in the gaps with hearsay or information they get from elsewhere. Both of which are worse outcomes for your organization than simply being willing to share information around how compensation works. Everyone will be better off rather than it being something that it seems like the company is pulling one over on its employees.
Lauren Burdick: A hundred percent. And this is only becoming more so. Pay transparency is more and more and more a thing. If you have your ducks in a row, then it's fine. People should be able to note with varying degrees of transparency. I'm not advocating publishing all your salary bands tomorrow, but I do think you can be a lot more clear. And I do think when people talk amongst each other, if it's consistent, it's consistent.
Max Wenneker: And the better it's explained, the more it will be understood. Well, we have hit one hour, so we're out of time. Lauren, this was awesome. Thank you so much. I feel like I even learned a number of things even though we worked together for a number of years. And I feel like I follow your leadership book. I have even learned a number of things in this episode around how to handle a performance development conversation. So thank you and I think our listeners will feel the same way.
Lauren Burdick: Thanks for having me, Max. And I am going to go make that slide what you said about, I'm excited to see it versus the curve. I'm going to do this because I think that is a excellent way to explain it.
Max Wenneker: Thank you. That might be the best outcome from this episode, that Nuvocargo now how is this slide available to it.
Lauren Burdick: I think more people will find it useful, but thanks again for having me.
Max Wenneker: Thank you for joining.