Heeding the Warning Lights

Heeding the Warning Lights


When I was 16, I got my first car.  My grandfather, being incredibly sharp, purchased this solid steel Volvo behemoth with an additional identical car which had been totaled in the rear end.  A wise man, assuming I’d hit someone before I got hit myself.

While I was a typical 16-year-old driver, what ended up killing that beautiful blue Volvo was not a collision, but the lack of oil. See, no one had told me that I needed to check or change the oil so one day on a drive to Stillwater; I threw a rod and destroyed the engine.

We do that with employees too.  We ignore the warning lights; forget to check their engagement levels.  We assume we can “make it” to the annual review, just like I’d assumed when I got to my grandpa’s house he’d fix that knocking sound in my engine.  And people are not machines, but some regular checks can do a world of good.

Annual reviews are great in theory, terrible in practice.  Wait a year to check your oil or your tires and see how that goes.  Not well, most likely.  People need regular maintenance too.

I remember the first employee I lost, and it was exactly like the rod I threw in my engine, all those years ago.  I knew there was something wrong, I heard the knocking.  But I was overwhelmed, building a new company while juggling a brand-new baby.  Rather than stop and ask them how they were managing all the changes in their life, or even asking what was on their mind, I assumed this person would not take it personally that I thought I had no time for them.

Yes, I was flabbergasted when this incredibly talented person quit.  How could this happen?  I was so close to getting to my destination, only to feel stranded on the side of the road.  But the warning lights were there all along.  I should have checked.

What did I wish I knew then that I know now?  Since then, I’ve not only learned from my mistakes but also walked behind the scenes in companies all over the country to see what they do best and … what they don’t.  Here are the five things I learned and put in place that made all the difference.

  1. No U-Turns – Most people think if no one is telling them they are going a bad job, they must be doing a good job. So when a person gets a poor yearly review and was not coached or given opportunities for correction, it’s like yanking the steering wheel.  People remember how you made them feel and no one likes to feel like they’ve been set up to fail.
  2. No “Ready, Shoot, Aim” – What I really mean is no hiring or promoting before we’ve really thought through the position and the outcomes we need. It’s easy to get slammed, then we get put in the most dangerous of places – one where we are desperate.  Desperate people make decisions out of necessity, not strategy.  When is the best time to start thinking about your next hire?  90-120 days before you think you’ll need them.  Don’t wait.  When you know specifically what you need each person to accomplish, you gave give your employees the greatest gift – clarity
  3. No Assumptions – Do not assume your employees know what you expect unless you tell them. And tell them.  And tell them a different way.    It’s easy for managers to think because it’s on their minds; it’s also on their employees’ minds.  Most teams have more than enough on their plates so leaders need to prioritize what is most strategic to the business.
  4. No Parking – On a new employee’s first day, they are sometimes the most excited they will ever be about the company and the position. Everything is bright, shiny and full of possibilities.  Then managers “park” the new person at a desk and dump new hire paperwork, training videos and other boring stuff on them and say “Come get me when you’re done”.  We do this too when we assign new projects, saying “Let me know if you need anything.”    New person/projects deserve a set check-in schedule, so small adjustments can be made over time.
  5. No Surprises – Changes are inevitable, but the easiest one is the one you saw coming. Restructuring the department?  Talk about it with that group on a regular basis about the changes.  See bumps in the road ahead?  Let the team know now.  The more information and time people have, to solve a problem or adapt to a change, usually the better the results.

When I was able to plan ahead in hiring, validate pre-hires through references, connect new people to their team faster and give consistent and regular feedback, I found the vast majority of the “drama” that comes with management disappears.