You know people don’t come out of a box that way, right?

Mentor is a real person, not a buzzword. Coach is a slam-dunk metaphor for manager. Managing people means you are responsible for helping them along. You know people don’t come out of a box as exceptional performers, don’t you?

Yes, I know that individual (and team) performance is influenced by the knowledge, skills and abilities of the person in the job. (My own KSAs come from 16 years in human resources and compensation management.) I am also certain that knowledge can be increased, skills can be learned, and abilities can be developed and enhanced. I think you know where I’m going: the manager of the people must develop the people after they come out of the box. You can’t just pull them out of the box, drop them in the chair, and walk away.

First, the good news:

If you work in higher education (or for a non-profit), you are in luck. Your environment is filled with realities that drive you crazy but actually serve as employee development opportunities. Think about it this way:

    • There are never enough staff to do the work and there’s no budget for new positions. This means you can assign people to new projects and new initiatives because you are asked to accomplish them with the team you’ve got.
    • Power is decentralized and units are siloed. This means you can get away with letting people work on a new thingamabob that is both challenging and skill-developing for them without asking for permission.
    • Merit pay is unlikely. This means you have to motivate your team with the non-pecuniary. (How’s that HR term working for ya?) Offering fun projects and even committee work can be super professional development opportunities for people on your team.

And, the bad news:

For some of you, developing people means discomfort. Yes, you will need to speak directly and specifically about the improvements you need from the individuals you supervise. If this feels uncomfortable to you, get over it or change jobs. Giving clear feedback about changes that will enhance performance is what you are paid to do as a manager.

For all of you, this means carving out the time to give feedback when it is the most useful. If someone on your team made a presentation but wasn’t fully prepared, say so. Soon. Might be the day of the presentation if the topic comes up naturally; but the feedback should definitely come within a day or two. If you manage people, you are busy, I get that. Make the time for coaching, regardless. If you aren’t going to put time toward managing the team, change jobs.

I’ll close with the best part:

When managers focus on people development, they can hire the right people, not just the people who have the right experience. I have intentionally hired many people who did NOT have the textbook experience or background referenced in the job description. Because, really, what you want is to hire smart, curious, talented, energized and committed people. You can teach them to use whatever software your campus uses. You can help them understand the higher ed context. You can give them the time to learn the specific tasks of the job.

Don’t expect to pull people out of a box, fully assembled. Here I must reference:

Closing my eyes for a mental moment, remembering all the mentors who influenced (and still influence) me.

One thought on “You know people don’t come out of a box that way, right?

  1. Re: people don’t come out of a box that way…

    I recall, in my previous career, the Headmaster at local prep school told the Math department chair: “I hired you a mathematician. You need to make him a teacher.”

    He over-stated it a bit… Although the new hire was not trained as a teacher, he had something beyond coursework — an obvious passion and enthusiasm for mathematics to which the Headmaster wanted our students exposed.

    The Headmaster took a chance — and backed it up with the mentoring necessary for his new employee to succeed.

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