Great Oaks, Little Acorns


This scrappy little car won’t win the Indy 500.  On the right racetrack, in the right race, it’s a high performer.

True or false:  if you can just identify and hire high-performing people, you’re golden.

False.   Performance is a way of behaving, and it emerges from a rich stew of variables.

Some variables are entirely in our own control.  Like our motivation, discipline, emotional intelligence, willingness to learn.   Others are random — like the good fortune to be born healthy, with access to education and opportunity.

Then there’s what leaders and managers add to the mix:  setting the conditions for performance.

When I was little, my mom used to tell me, “Great oaks from little acorns grow.”

Mom probably meant, do the work.  There’s more in this saying.

  • A maple won’t grow from an acorn.  Someone’s great track record doesn’t guarantee they’ll perform in your your culture.  Do hire to identify people who fit, and consider “fit” vs. conformity.  Too much “fit” risks what we used to call groupthink.
  • An acorn won’t grow in asphalt.  People thrive when you seed, and feed, your culture.  Know what you want, and make it clear to people in every way you communicate.  Start with your own behavior.
  • Water your acorns.  Give people opportunities to grow and develop.   Provide feedback:  make it actionable, and be sure you’re understood.   And lead by example — invite feedback, and act on it.

I’m also considering the saying, “When you see something, say something.”  When doing this doesn’t make the right difference, the next thing to say might be, “Goodbye and good luck.”

When I’ve seen this happen, it’s almost never because the person wasn’t a “high performer.”

(And yes, there’s still a couple of days to join a great group of explorers in Awaken to Your Workplace, my 2013 summer project…we’d love to have you!)

Photo:  High Performance Challenge by Amirul Hilmi Ariffin via Flickr, under Creative Commons license.

Can You Care Too Much?


A recent HBR blog post asks, “Can You Overdo People Skills?”

Authors Robert Kaiser and Robert Kaplan point to Doris Kearns Goodwin’s assessment of Abraham Lincoln:

Lincoln’s greatest flaw came out of his strength, which was generally liking people and not wanting to hurt them.

Kaiser and Kaplan explain that strong people skills may be problematic.   “Caring leaders” with “strong people skills”, they say, may not be direct with people about their performance.   And they may wait too long to act.

Hmm.   This isn’t how I see people skills.

Strong people skills begin with the will to have difficult conversations, at the right time.  Refined people skills enable you to navigate these conversations while balancing kindness and candor.

In doctors, we call this skill “bedside manner.”

Would you rather have a doctor who told you the truth, and helped you to recover?  Or one who cared too much to hurt your feelings?

It’s not an either/or situation.   And yet, developing this manner takes some practice.   (Ask anyone I managed twenty years ago.)

If someone on your team isn’t performing, letting them flounder isn’t just unwise.  It’s unkind.  To your employee, their teammates, your organization.   And to you.

In some circles, they’d call this Dumb Compassion.

You can care too much about being liked.   You can’t care too much about being respected.

You can care too much about whether it will hurt someone to hear feedback.  You can’t care too much about telling the truth.

And you absolutely can’t care too much about helping your people to do a good job.  Even when doing so means telling having conversations that make you feel uncomfortable.

Photo:  Abraham Lincoln memorial by Gage Skidmore, used under Creative Commons license.