Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Is Your Firm Serious About Its Values?

Countless studies and best-selling business books repeat the same refrain—values matter. The most successful companies typically have a strong set of values that guide all corporate activity. Thus most firms in our business, recognizing this trend, have adopted a formal statement of values or guiding principles. But there is wide disparity in the degree to which these values really impact the firm.

As consultant David Maister noted in his book True Professionalism, there's a big difference between aspiring to follow a set of values and being absolutely committed to them. In fact, he argued, you cannot truly claim to have values if you don't live by them:
Something cannot be called a value or principle if you are allowed to transgress it. Your firm can be said to have values to the extent that there are clear, nonnegotiable, minimum standards of behavior that the firm will tolerate. In particular, whether or not your values are operational (i.e., actually influencing what goes on in your firm) is crucially determined by whether or not there are consequences for noncompliance.
In my experience, most firms, while claiming to embrace the high standards expressed in their values, repeatedly tolerate behavior that violates those values. For example, every value statement I've seen has something about serving clients and treating employees well. Yet there are typically a few individuals in every firm I've worked with whose actions are not consistent with those values.

Are there any consequences for these individuals not supporting the company's values? Not usually, especially if they are key performers. If they have valuable technical credentials or bring revenue to the firm, they are commonly relieved of the responsibility to conform with the firm's standards of conduct. Of course, their prominent position in the firm makes their disregard for corporate values all the more damaging.

Maister wrote of one firm that made the difficult choice of letting a star performer go because he refused to comply with their policies on collaboration and sharing—which were consistent with their values:
The point of the story is that there aren't many firms with the courage to do what this firm did, which was to incur a short-term income loss in order to bet on the long-run benefits of sustaining their values. In most firms, an economically productive professional would rarely (if ever) be confronted about softer "values" issues. As a result, very few firms actually have real, operable values. They say they do, but few of the professionals really believe that they're serious.
Interestingly, many firm leaders seem to fear that taking such a tough stance on values would be disruptive to the company's culture, which is shaped in part by the value of respecting and tolerating differences. But research and experience prove quite the opposite. Employees want to see their employer demonstrate intolerance when it comes to disregard for its values and standards. That's what reinforces the notion that the company really does stand for something.

So what about your firm? Are you serious about your espoused values? Are they lived out in every facet of your firm's operations or merely attached to the wall? Are you willing to enforce them or are they just something nice to aspire to? Do your values guide your company's decisions, motivate your actions, set the standard for behavior? 

Putting Your Values to the Test

Let me suggest that you do a "values assessment." Take an honest look at the role of your firm's stated values in the everyday life of your firm. You might consider the following questions: 
  • Are our employees familiar with our values?
  • Do our values really mean anything to the staff?
  • Do we demand compliance with our values?
  • In what areas are we not acting consistently with our values?
  • Do all our policies and directives support our values?
  • How should we measure performance in keeping with our values?
  • What changes are needed to bring everything in alignment with our values?
This kind of assessment is best conducted with broad employee participation. That way you're more likely to uncover inconsistencies with your values, plus gain widespread support for renewing your firm's commitment to them. I suspect you'll find just how much your values can imbue new vigor and focus to your firm when they're taken seriously—a glimpse of why the best companies place so much emphasis here.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Are You Holding Your Young Stars Back?

I don't have any data to support this, but my observation is that technical professionals in senior management roles in other industries are younger overall than in the A/E business. My work routinely connects me with top managers in engineering, environmental, and architectural firms. They are predominantly Baby Boomers like myself.

Yet I often meet technically-trained "senior" managers in other industries who are in their 30s. Am I imagining things or is it possible that we are slower to allow top young performers to advance up through the ranks?

Studies indicate that younger workers are often frustrated by the lack of advancement opportunities, a problem that has only gotten worse with the economic downturn. My own experience surveying and working with Gen Xers and Millennials in A/E firms confirms these findings. These young professionals commonly feel they are being denied deserved opportunities to take on greater responsibilities and increased autonomy.

Of course, I frequently hear Boomer managers complain about the younger generations' "unrealistic" expectations. These managers put in their time and "paid their dues" to achieve their current status. Why do the younger generations think it should be different for them?

Well, maybe because the times are different. For one thing, there's a looming shortage of experienced engineers and scientists as Boomers retire.That alone may be good reason to fast-track the development of younger technical professionals.

There's also research that suggests that Gen Xers are particularly suited for taking on the leadership challenges of our post-Great Recession world. They're collectively more entrepreneurial, adaptive, collaborative, open-minded, pragmatic, and purpose-driven. One cross-generational study of 1,200 professionals found that they substantially favored Gen X managers over Boomer ones (70% to 25%)! Maybe experience isn't all it's cracked up to be.

I do think our industry tends to give too much weight to seniority. I often encounter younger mid-managers who deliver much better business results than their older senior-manager bosses. Yet those older managers define the direction of the firm. 

Could your firm benefit from giving greater leadership responsibilities to your younger standouts? Are you taking steps to accelerate their development? Here are some suggestions for doing just that:

Clarify career paths. Young professionals want to know specifically what it takes to advance. Yet many firms don't make it easy to determine the steps for career growth. Position descriptions typically describe basic qualifications, but the means of obtaining those qualifications is often less clear. The best firms have established a professional development curriculum that specifies what training and experience is needed at each stage of one's career.

Rethink experience requirements for advancement. Experience matters, but employee development doesn't always follow the straight line progression that job requirements sometimes imply. Think it takes 4-5 years to qualify as a project manager? Some younger professionals are ready earlier. Experience thresholds are better used as guidelines than as requirements. Give flexibility to your extraordinary performers.

Combine coaching with training. While many firms attempt to introduce mentoring opportunities for younger workers, most ignore coaching. There's an important distinction, the primary one being that coaching is real-time, as work is being performed (the table below highlights other differences):


Studies show that performance improvement following training skyrockets when it is combined with coaching. That only makes sense: People learn more by doing than listening. Plus coaching provides the immediate feedback and reinforcement needed to dramatically improve performance. Why then is it rare? It takes a significant investment of a leader's time. But it's an investment that can yield a worthwhile return.

Learn to let go and delegate. Many managers struggle to delegate work adequately, and the next generation of managers suffers for it. Delegation is challenging because it takes time to do it right, it means giving up some control, and the next person likely won't do the job the way you would (or as well). But delegating appropriately is critical for developing your young stars. Give them as much as they can handle, but not without proper oversight. 

Regularly seek their input. Senior firm leaders often make the mistake of not soliciting advice and feedback from their younger professionals. This neglects a valuable perspective, whether the issue is project-related or a matter of corporate strategy. Gen Xers and Millennials see things differently, which is precisely why you want to talk with them. Their ideas may not yet be seasoned by experience, but they are often fresh and insightful—and perhaps just the right answer for the situation. When you get them involved in important matters, both you and they ultimately benefit.

Take them along. One of the simplest steps in helping your younger professionals develop is also one of the best: Invite them to join you in your work. I recognize there are limits to this practice given the importance of keeping people (and especially junior staff) billable. But consider this personalized training. Visiting a prospective client? Take a rising star along. Negotiating a big contract? Invite a young colleague. Holding an executive session to discuss your strategic plan? Well, you get the idea.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Give Help, Get Results

Giving help and advice is the best way to build new business, in my experience. This is true in how you network, make initial contact with prospective clients, and conduct sales calls. But there's substantial research that indicates that helping others can be a great way to succeed overall in both business and life.

Adam Grant, Wharton professor and organizational psychology expert, explores the business impact of giving in his popular book Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success. He describes three kinds of "reciprocity styles" that define how people tend to interact with others—takers, matchers, and givers.

Takers are those who put their own needs ahead of others. They are scarcity thinkers who see limited opportunities, meaning there must be winners and losers. Winning means bettering others, both inside and outside the firm. They fuel the growing (and mostly inaccurate) perception that business leaders succeed at the expense of others.

Matchers are the most common style in the workplace. These individuals seek a balance of giving and getting. They operate on the principle of fairness, believing relationships should be governed by an equal exchange of favors. Fairness, of course, is an innate human value—even young children recognize it. So it's no surprise that most people gravitate to this style of interaction.

Givers occupy the smallest group in business. They are motivated to help others regardless of whether that act will be reciprocated. While takers may offer help strategically when they see personal benefit that outweighs the cost, givers feel rewarded simply by giving. But they ultimately calculate the value of their giving not in how it makes them feel, but in how much others are benefited by their generosity.

The Best and Worst Performers

All three types of people can succeed in business. Grant examined performance in three professional contexts: engineering, medicine, and sales. He found that takers and matchers generally fell somewhere in the middle. The poorest performers were predominantly givers. They apparently helped others at the sacrifice of their own success. So which reciprocity style was prominent among the top performers? Surprisingly, it was givers again.

What determines whether givers sink to the bottom or rise to the top? Grant offered this explanation:
I find that failed givers were too altruistic: they sacrifice themselves to the point of burning out and allowing others to use them. Successful givers put other people first most of the time, but they focus on helping in ways that are not at odds with their own interests. For example, it turns out that successful givers specialize in five-minute favors, looking for ways of offering high benefit to others at low personal cost. They also ask people they mentor to "pay it forward," expanding their giving to a broader audience, and are more cautious when dealing with takers.
How Givers Succeed

Successful givers carefully allocate their time and energy in ways that enable them to fulfill their basic responsibilities, while going the extra mile to help others. Which reciprocity style best fits your interactions with others? If you are a giver, or seek to become one, below are some tips to consider:

Give help freely. Most professionals who invest time in helping others look for the potential payback. I'm often prone to do the same. For example, the opportunity to help an executive decision maker is more likely to attract my attention than helping a lower-level employee. But Grant found that successful givers were less discriminate in who they helped—simply helping another was reward enough. But their kindness often produced unanticipated benefits, both for the giver and for others. Giving can multiply opportunity and success.

But maintain your professional responsibilities. This is where failed givers often stumbled. Their giving interfered with doing their job well. Grant cited one study that found that engineers with the lowest productivity and most errors tended to be those who did more favors for their colleagues than they received. Engineers who balanced giving and taking were generally average performers. But the top performers managed to give freely without compromising their job responsibilities.

Be judicious in how you spend your time. As mentioned above, this is the critical trait of successful givers. They find ways to give time to others without shortchanging their other responsibilities. Following are some ways to accomplish this, coming both from Grant's book and my own experience:
  • Set "office hours." Givers are inclined to embrace an open-door policy, welcoming all comers who seek their help. But this can dramatically reduce your productivity because of the many interruptions. A better option is to block your time for specific activities. For example, you might set aside at least a few mornings each week to focus on project work, limiting interruptions to those that are time sensitive. Then open your doors in the afternoon to offer help to those who might seek it.
  • Make referrals. Grant found that successful givers often referred people to others who could better help them. These were frequently other givers who welcomed the chance to share their insights. Referring is not just a diversionary tactic, but a genuine effort to match the person seeking help with the best resource. If that person is outside the firm, an introduction may be in order. Of course, givers will typically seek to reciprocate those to whom they made referrals, whether or not that is expected.
  • Focus on professional development. Successful givers don't just share their time and advice, they make investments in others. This involves in helping others grow their own skills and insights. So rather than simply answering a question, you might respond with questions designed to help the person come to the answer on their own. This is akin to the old proverb: "Give a man a fish and he eats for a day. Teach him how to fish and he eats for a lifetime." Failed givers often help in ways that promote dependency, where others continue to seek their help without learning how to help themselves.
  • Compile helpful resources to share with others. As I wrote previously ("Why You Should Be Hoarding Content"), there are many advantages in building a library of helpful information and advice. Since I routinely collect and produce content for my business, I am able to share this with others who request help with a minimum investment of my time. And since this expands on what we may have talked about, and can be readily shared with still others, content is a great way for me to broaden the reach of my help. You can do the same.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Creating Skimmable Proposal Content

Making your proposals skimmable and easy to navigate is the competitive advantage that no one is talking about. Yet the A/E professionals I talk to broadly agree on two things: (1) that clients don't read but skim their proposals and (2) that their proposals aren't very skimmable. So what needs to be done seems clear.

But what's not so clear is how. I've touched on skimmable design concepts in previous posts: "Are Your Proposals User-Friendly?" and "Proposals: Two Chances to Shine." In this post, I want to focus on the writing process, especially for those technical professionals whose writing tends to be anything but skimmable. How can you do better? 

Set aggressive page limits. A key constraint to creating skimmable proposals is the prevalent verbosity in our profession. I could offer guidelines on writing shorter sentences (15-20 words is recommended) or shorter paragraphs (3-6 sentences or about 150 words). But the best way to combat wordiness is to limit the number of pages. Increasingly, clients are taking this step in their RFP instructions. But you should impose limits regardless, perhaps even more aggressive than the client.

I've worked on many proposals for large projects and big fees and rarely found the need to use more than 30 pages, excluding forms and appendices. I generally advise my clients to start with a limit of 25 pages. If that seems over the top, try it. Even if you find you need to exceed that limit, your proposal will likely be more concise and readable. Your detailed scope of work and resumes can be reserved for the appendices. Instead, write a project approach that focuses on the bigger issues and use mini-resumes in the body of the proposal.

Do the "two-minute drill" to define your key messages. Imagine you only had two minutes to verbally summarize the essence of your proposal. What would you absolutely have to say in that time to make your best case for being selected? That's a good starting point for identifying your proposal's overall theme and key messages.

Your proposal theme is the basic story that you want to tell. It should be the client's story—how you envision making their project a success—not your firm's story. Yes, the RFP asks you to describe your qualifications and experience. But these are a means to an end (a successful project), not the focus of your proposal. From that story should emerge 3-5 key messages that will be prominently featured in your proposal.

List supporting points for each of your key messages. Your proposal outline starts by listing your key messages. These should be clear, compelling, and verifiable. So what additional information do you need to share to bolster your key messages? List all points that come to mind; you'll pare your list in the next step.

Organize supporting points based on importance. Assign each point listed to one of the following categories: (1) what you must say, (2) what you should say, and (3) what you could say. Put the points in the first category at the top of the list, then the second and the third. This approach embraces the journalistic standard of the "inverted pyramid" where the most important information is placed first, followed by less important information in descending order. The inverted pyramid facilitates skimming.

Whatever points fall into the third category—what you could say—should generally be eliminated. They add information that's not necessary to communicate your key messages. The exceptions are items that are of significant interest or that help clarify your message. For example, you might want to refer to how your proposed design concept was used at another site or provide results of a study that bolster your preferred option.

Develop a detailed content outline. When technical professionals prepare an outline for a proposal or report, they usually create what might be called a structural outline. That is, it shows how sections of the document will be ordered—like a table of contents. This is often easily derived from the RFP. But a structural outline falls well short of defining the specific content of your proposal.

A better approach is to create a content outline, which combines the organizational structure with the key content that will be included. If you followed the preceding steps, you're most of the way there. What remains is to fit the proposal theme, key messages, and supporting points into the overall structure of the proposal, which in many cases is prescribed by the client RFP. There will be other content you'll need to add, but the most important content (see above) will receive the priority it deserves in your outline.

Write the proposal narrative building out your outline. With a detailed content outline, you will find it much easier to write a more clear and compelling proposal narrative. The key thing here is not to diverge much from your outline. This is like a building where the structural components are still visible after final construction. Your outline should help you properly feature your most important messages (your structural elements). Don't let them get buried in the text!


Your key messages become prominent sections of your proposal. Your supporting points can be highlighted in much the same way as I've highlighted the key steps in this post—using what I call bold, inline headings. If you're reading this sentence, you probably read the whole post. But many undoubtedly will skim it, which is made easier by the bold headings. Graphic elements, such as the figure above, are also critical to skimmability. I suggest a guideline of including at least one graphic element per page of your proposal.

By the way, the process described above is recommended for all your documents. When we overhauled how we did proposals at my former firm—making them more skimmable and easy to use—we started to get a few complaints from clients that our reports didn't measure up. So we applied the same concepts to our work products. You can't go wrong making things easier for the client, can you?

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The Best Proposal Differentiator That Almost Everyone Ignores

"How many of you think that clients read your entire proposal?"

No hands went up among the approximately 80 engineers, architects, and marketers in the room.

"What do they do then?" I asked. Everyone seemed to agree: They skim, they skip, they read the parts that matter most to them. "Why, then," I questioned, "do you make it so hard for them to do that?"

I then projected on the screen several sample pages from A/E proposals. They were pretty typical for our profession—long blocks of text mixed with a few bullets and occasional graphics. Often with small fonts and precious little white space. Hardly skim friendly. 

These samples came from some of the most recognizable firms in the A/E industry (all found on the internet). In other words, even the big boys don't get it.

Newspapers do. They have long recognized that their readers scan the news, reading only those articles that interest them. So they design their publications accordingly. Many magazines do the same. Why don't we?

Over the years I've asked many clients how they review proposals. They've generally confirmed our suspicions. They don't read everything we write. They often don't read from front to back. They search for specific information. 

One Navy contracts officer said that he spent less than one minute per proposal in his initial screening. Imagine that—all that work and your firm was potentially out of the running in 60 seconds. How many of those proposals were designed with that in mind? Ours were after that conversation!

This is the differentiator that no one talks about. There's a lot that goes into crafting a winning proposal. You need to provide the information the client requested. You need a compelling narrative. You want it to look attractive and professional. But have you considered how well it communicates the core messages? It benefits you little if you have the right content but it's missed by the client.

Don't think that doesn't happen. I've reviewed hundreds of proposals (albeit not as client) and I find most of them a taxing read. They're usually not well written, too wordy and often too technical. Many are hard on the eyes, with few text breaks, white space, or graphic elements. And perhaps what bothers me most: They're too much alike.

Now imagine sitting there with a stack of them. How closely are you going to read each one, especially when you're working on proposal number 15...23...32?

Did you know that it takes the average American adult about an hour to read 35 pages of text? Most A/E proposals are longer than that, some several times that length. How much time do you expect the client to spend with your proposal?

So if the client doesn't read your whole proposal, how do you know if the most important points will be read? If you make those points skimmable, the risk of them being overlooked is greatly diminished. Plus clients appreciate being able to determine the gist of your proposal quickly, without having to read it all.

Years ago our firm beat seemingly insurmountable odds to win a major contract worth $30 million. Our 30-page proposal (one page for each million, I instructed the team) arrived in half-inch binders. The client told us they were immediately intrigued when they saw the size of our submittal, assuming that we either had taken a fresh approach or somehow had misunderstood the RFP requirements.

But inside they found 30 well-illustrated, skimmable, thought-provoking pages that soon moved us from underdogs to leaders of the pack. "You packed more insight into 30 pages," one reviewer told us, "than the others did in two to four times that many." They were among several clients over the years who told us they enjoyed reading our proposal.

Imagine that—clients enjoying your proposal because it's so user friendly! So how do you prepare a proposal like that? That's the topic for next week's post.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

How Leaders Undermine Their Own Initiatives

I've participated in numerous strategic initiatives and other change efforts over the years. They've involved issues such as leadership transition, business development, project delivery, client service, quality management, employee recruiting and retention, and safety—to name a few. To be perfectly honest, most of them failed to achieve the desired goals.

That's no real surprise. Research shows that about 70% of corporate change initiatives fall short. There are many reasons why this is so. But in my experience, one reason stands out: Leaders failed to lead. Often these were individuals who weren't fully on board to begin with. But a surprising number of these initiatives stumbled mostly due to the failings of their own creators—CEOs, principals, and other top executives, in many cases.

So how can leaders undermine their own initiatives? Here are some common mistakes that I've observed and how to avoid them:

Failing to make the business case for the change. The typical A/E firm is populated by smart people who are independent thinkers and resist making changes just because management said so. Externally driven changes are easiest to sell; management prerogative much less so. It's also important to try to personalize the benefits. "This is good for you," is far more persuasive than "this is good for the company."

Being too prescriptive in what steps need to be taken. I often see managers who are many years removed from doing technical work dictating how technical work should be done differently. It's generally bad form for leaders to hand down specific work process changes without seeking input from those who must implement them. Who's the expert here? You'll not only get more buy-in when people have a say in how to improve what they do, but you'll probably get better ideas as well.

Not building consensus among the right people. Change management guru John Kotter writes that forming a "guiding coalition" is critical to success. This means that you need to assemble a team with enough authority, influence, and expertise to lead the change process. They must also have enough wherewithal to overcome the inevitable laggards and skeptics in the ranks, some who occupy positions of influence themselves. Senior executives often overestimate their singular ability to get employees engaged in a change effort. They need a strong team, speaking and acting in concert with each other.

Being too uninvolved. The potential downside of having a strong team is the temptation to step back from actively leading the effort. Leadership by ideas and words is not nearly so powerful as leadership by example. If you want people to think that the change is important, you need to be personally involved in it. You may not be directly needed to lead many of the activities associated with the initiative (in fact, it's often better for others to take the lead), but your mere presence sends the message "this matters." 

Overlooking the power of culture. Imagine an arm wrestling contest between your firm's strategy and its culture. Which wins? Culture, hands down. Many a strategic initiative has been defeated by entrenched corporate culture. The two must be aligned, or one has to change. If it's culture, you have a monumental challenge on your hands. It's doable (and necessary at times), but it takes a careful plan and strong leadership across the organization.

Not talking about it enough. If I wanted to know what really matters in your firm, I could ask. But I'd get a more honest answer by simply listening over a several days to what your people talk about. The power of conversation is widely underestimated in change initiatives. If you want to change actions, change the conversation. And talk about the new way a lot. Stories are particularly powerful reinforcers.

Acting contrary to the message. One of the quickest ways to bring down your efforts to change course is to contradict what you say by what you do. I mentioned a common example of this earlier: Not being personally involved in something you said was important. Or perhaps you personally fail to make the changes you have asked of others. Or not providing positive reinforcement to those who get on board, or holding accountable those who don't. When you set a new direction, remember that others will be watching to see if you're walking that way.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Dealing with Problem Employees

That underperforming or intractable employee may be a bigger problem than you think. Studies show that such employees have a deleterious effect on the workplace. When managers fail to deal effectively with problem employees the problem spreads, leading to diminished productivity (as much as 30-40%), higher turnover, and lower morale in the office.

Unfortunately, managers are too often reluctant to tackle the problem. Sometimes the employee is a solid performer but difficult to get along with. Sometimes the blame for conflict with coworkers is hard to assign. More often, managers are simply putting off the unpleasant task of confronting the offending colleague.

But addressing a problem employee doesn't need to be unpleasant or confrontational. In fact, you'll have better success in resolving these issues if you can avoid negativity. Here are some tips for dealing with troublesome employees:

Get involved early. When you procrastinate, the problem often gets worse. It's like dealing with an infection; early intervention prevents it from worsening and spreading. But left untreated, even a small infection can grow and cause serious damage. Early involvement is particularly important when interactions between the employee and others are strained. Don't underestimate the potential for unresolved issues between people to escalate into a problem that's far more difficult to correct later.

Get feedback from others. The objective is to make a fair assessment of the employee's shortcomings. Don't rely on a handful of complaints, or a perception that isn't validated by the facts. If the perception is that the employee makes too many mistakes, document what mistakes have been made. If you think the employee is difficult to get along with, see if others concur. But a warning: Don't ask leading questions or spread gossip. You don't want to bias the feedback you receive or make matters worse.

Carefully inform the employee of the problem. How you frame the problem when  addressing the employee sets the tone for the path forward. If you come across as confrontational or critical, it will be harder to get the employee to respond in constructive fashion. Try to stick to the facts without adding commentary. If your conclusions are subjective, state them in a manner like: "My perception is..." or "I've gotten feedback that..." Focus on behavior and outcomes without impugning the person's character or motives.

While you're striving for objectivity, people's perceptions cannot be ignored. In the realm of human interactions, perception is reality. The offending employee may want to dispute the claim that he comes across as dismissive to coworkers, but the only resolution is to change those perceptions. On the other hand, it's not uncommon to find that others share the blame for problems with the employee in question. The remedy will often involve other people.

Distinguish between can't and won't. An employee who lacks ability is a far different problem than one who has a poor attitude. In many cases, the latter is a more difficult challenge. Determine which is the case by exploring with the employee the reasons behind her actions. Typically, this will involve asking "why" questions. Keep in mind that the employee may be reluctant to tell you the real reason why. So if you suspect she's holding back, probe further with nonthreatening questions like: "Can you describe the steps you take to check your work?" or "Is there a reason that you find it hard to work with him?"

Explore unintended reinforcers. Behavior is a function of its consequences. So if you want to understand why undesirable behavior persists, you want to look for consequences that have unintentionally reinforced that behavior. For example, the employee may ignore some quality control steps because the firm places greater emphasis on meeting schedule. Being short with coworkers may reduce interruptions. Unless you address these reinforcers, the problem employee will probably struggle to make the desired behavioral changes. Remember, what gets rewarded gets repeated.

Develop a performance improvement plan. There are three basic components of this plan: (1) desired outcomes, (2) action steps, and (3) implementation support. Having characterized the problem and its sources with the employee, you then want to specify what changes you need to see. The more specific and measurable, the better. Next define the actions needed to achieve those outcomes. It's best to let the employee take the lead in doing this, because he will be more likely to take steps that he has chosen. Finally, don't overlook determining how you will support and reinforce those actions. As noted above, you'll want to address old reinforcers and establish new ones. You also will need to prescribe tasks like training, mentoring, feedback, and measurement.

Help the employee succeed. If you have intervened appropriately and helped set a course of action to address the employee's shortcomings, your job is not done yet. You want to help the employee make the needed changes. Perhaps that's assigning another manager to oversee the process. But even if the responsibility falls mainly on someone else, you should have a role if you were involved in the steps above. That may be as simple as checking in occasionally with the employee (and whoever is tracking her improvement) to determine what progress is being made. Or you might take a more hands-on role, for example, providing training or mentoring. You will do well to embrace the principles of positive reinforcement

If performance doesn't improve, be willing to terminate. For many managers, firing an employee is the last resort. Yet in many cases, they would be better off to resort to this action earlier. Those negative effects on other employees mentioned earlier? They can intensify if your efforts to remediate a poor performer fail and no further action is taken. Termination of a problem employee not only benefits your remaining staff, but in many cases is beneficial for the one let go. Sometimes the employee is a poor fit and can find a better situation elsewhere. Sometimes she learns some valuable lessons from getting fired.

The key point is as a leader you need to take action when an employee is detrimental to your goals and culture. If intervention and corrective actions don't work, then don't sacrifice the welfare of the company or office for the sake of one person. No one individual is more valuable than the whole.