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Four Steps to Improving Management Skills

At its core, business involves only two things, figuring out what to do and getting those things done. We have long held that getting others to execute what you want done is a lot harder. Managing people is tough. Fortunately, it’s a learned skill. Use these four simple steps to improve your people management.

1. Set Appropriate Goals

In Alice in Wonderland, Alice asks the Cheshire cat, “Which path should I take to get out of here?” The cat responds, “Which way are you going?” Alice says, “I don’t know.” The cat answers, “Well, then, any path will take you there.” Setting goals establishes direction and prioritization for employees and helps them focus their efforts.

Goals should start at the top of the organization and cascade down to the appropriate employees, so that if each individual employee achieves their objectives, the company will meet or exceed its targets. People should also have personal objectives that go beyond the company goals and may be developmental in nature.

Ensure that the goals are meaningful to the employee. There should be rewards for goal achievement and consequences for failure. This will ensure that goal achievement rises to the top of the employees “To Do” list.

Not all goals take months, weeks or even days to complete. We call very short-term goals work instructions. When giving instructions, do not assume that the employee knows what you want. Be explicit about what you need and when. Then, check for understanding. Don’t ask employees to repeat what you just said. Instead, ask open-ended questions. Ask how they plan to accomplish the task, whom they might involve, or what format they will use. The employee’s answers will confirm his or her understanding.

2. Develop a Plan to Achieve the Goals

After setting goals, the employee will need to commit to a set of actions. A goal without an action plan is just a dream. Start by listing all the obstacles. Next, list the possible solutions for each obstacle. Actions will come out of the possible solutions. Finally, ask, “If I execute all of these actions successfully, will I achieve my goal?” If the employee can’t answer “Yes” with confidence, he or she will need to identify additional obstacles, possible solutions and actions.

Assign a single person to each action step. We have found that when more than one person is responsible, no one is accountable. A group or team can work on an action step, but one person must be responsible. We call this point accountability. Create urgency by agreeing on a date and time by when the employee will complete each action step.

3. Empower the Employee

Management must enable employees to achieve their goals. Doing this involves the following:

  • Training – It is unreasonable to expect employees to succeed if they aren’t properly trained or have had sufficient time to practice. In an ideal world, you identify training needs as a part of the goal setting process.

  • Motivating – Many managers rely on compensation, commission, profit sharing, bonuses and employee stock ownership to motivate employees. While money is a serious motivator for many, studies show that only the prospect of receiving money in the fairly near future is a strong enough motivator to change behavior. Once the employee receives the money; its power to motivate ends very quickly. Some studies say within a week.

Our work indicates that people want to be recognized, contributing members of a winning team. This means that people want to know that the enterprise is succeeding. They want to know that what they are doing is contributing to that success and they want these efforts to be recognized. We believe that managers should take every opportunity to celebrate successes. They should routinely tell their employees how their work contributes to the company’s success and recognize employees for their good work. Say, “Thank you!” Link the employee’s behavior or work product to a goal. Giving gift certificates, praise at a company meeting, or extra time off can also motivate employees.

Positive motivators are great. However, employees need to know that there are consequences associated with poor behaviors and failure to perform. Motivation requires balance. If your work environment is skewed heavily to either side, it will result in poor performance that will adversely affect the business.

  • Removing Roadblocks – It’s management’s responsibility to remove roadblocks that prevent employees from succeeding. However, this does not include an employee’s personal roadblocks. Family concerns, financial problems, poor habits and lifestyle choices may cause performance issues, but only the employee can fix these. Management can be empathetic, but should avoid becoming the employee's counselor. Instead, remain in the role of employer and keep discussions focused on the employee's performance and its organizational impact. If available, involve an Employee Assistance Program. You may want to consult expert advice if performance issues lead you to consider demotion, suspension, termination or other forms of discipline.

However, management controls organizational roadblocks including policies, procedures, management practices and the lack of critical resources. They can also influence external issues such as vendor or customer problems. Review both internal and external forces periodically to ensure they are not obstacles to your employees’ success.

4. Assess Performance and Make Adjustments

You have worked with your employee to set goals and develop an action plan. You have empowered your employees. Now, assess their performance and make any necessary changes. We’re not talking about performance evaluations that may only happen once a year. Effective management requires assessing performance much more frequently. For new employees or those learning a new task, you may need to assess performance daily or even hourly. Employees who have demonstrated competence may only require weekly, bi-weekly or even monthly performance discussions.

Increase your awareness by practicing Management by Walking Around. This involves informally checking on your employees by visiting them in their workspace and gathering qualitative information about their work-related issues. In addition, collect measurable performance information that will help you to assess progress toward written goals. When reviewing progress with your employee, there are a series of questions that you’ll want to discuss:

  • Are the goals still appropriate?

  • If executed, will the actions lead to goal achievement?

  • Does the employee fully understand the goals, actions steps, responsibilities and deadlines?

  • Have you trained the employee?

  • Is the person properly motivated?

  • Have you removed roadblocks?

If the answer to each of the six questions above is an unequivocal “Yes,” but the employee is not making acceptable progress toward the goal, the employee is either not capable or not willing.

The employee may be incapable of doing the work. Some jobs are not suited to an individual’s physical requirements or intellectual capabilities. Maybe the cultural environment or job duties turn out to be a poor fit for the person’s demeanor.

Sometimes the person is fully capable, and for whatever reason internal to them, is unwilling to perform. If you’ve agreed on the goals and the action plan, removed all roadblocks that are internal to the organization, ensured that the employee is fully trained, motivated and capable, there is only one other reason for underperformance―the employee is unwilling to do the work.

Managing people is difficult. It’s not an exact science and there is no magic wand that will ensure you always get it right. However, management is a learned skill and following these four steps will help you to improve your success.

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