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Snakes and Ladders

How will you manage your staff against the plans you made for 2013?

The only thing you know for certain about the budget, said an old mentor of mine, is that it's wrong.

One way or another, you're going to have issues with the plans you made in November for the year ahead. Not surprising, given that you aimed to somehow foresee the next year's market conditions, predict the performance of your customers and anticipate everything from super storms to the attrition of key personnel.  Then you reconciled this guess work with your shareholders' aspirations - which are seldom modest or undemanding - to produce ‘the plan'.

Beyond the obvious problem - the fact that you have no idea if the reality will render the theory absurd - which you can't waste your time worrying about, you have a major concern that you can and must address: How will the ever present plan, and perceptions of success and failure, affect your staff's actual performance?

Whatever you business, and engineering staffing is a perfectly good example, you have some ladders to take advantage of and a number of snakes to avoid in managing productivity.

Ladder 1 New Year Urgency It's simple. Your well rested staff return to work fired up, full of resolutions and raring to go. Success follows. Happy days.

Snake 1 New Year Attrition Not everybody translates their ‘New year - new start' positivity into hard work for you. January is the biggest month for hiring and job seeking. Right now one of your key staff is planning to make a fresh start of a different kind this year. You are never more vulnerable to turnover among strong performers than you are in January. Have some conversations and make sure you know how your top people are feeling.

 

Ladder 2 Motivation increases from strong start So Q1 has gone great. By and large your staff over performed. The atmosphere is buzzing and there's a great deal of confidence about the year ahead. You can harness this to drive greater productivity. Increase the optimism through the promise of additional rewards. Share some of the results of the over performance, you might see it again in Q2.

Snake 2 Complacency sets in as your staff hit the cruise control button Some will use success to strive for more success, others will use success as a justification for slowing down. Again your answer is in adjusting rewards. You can't use the stick for someone who's overperformed, but you can switch the carrot out for something slightly larger and more juicy. Increase the performance rewards at the highest thresholds and motivate people to excel further.

Ladder 3 Fostering long term development When you're on target, you have the opportunity to invest time and energy in developing your staff. If you know they are going to hit targets, you can spare a little time for training, team building and all the other things that are, conversely, the first casualties when you begin to slip behind. When things are going well this year, give serious consideration to investing a little energy in longer term productivity. If you don't take advantage of successful times to do this, you never will do it.

Snake 3 Entitlement increases from ‘high value / high maintenance' mentality Many a trajectory has begun with early success, followed by plateau and then freefall - induced by the early success itself. A proportion of the people who work with you will take pride in their success over the line and become entitled. I'm contributing all this, I should be getting more. I'm better than they are, I should be treated better. These people need me more than I need them. The worst thing about this reaction to success is that it can inflict collateral damage on other staff. Egotism is a virus and it spreads quickly. If you look to reward high performers early with extra benefits to reach for and investment in their skills, they will feel rewarded in both the short term and long term. Entitlement is never just the result of performance, it is the result of performance combined with a lack of perceived appreciation.

Ladder 4 A definition of minimum acceptable performance is understood and you can manage to it The plan allows you to manage underperformance, because of clearly understood targets that are either met or not met. If they are not met, you have a very clear mandate to chase good performance, or to let people go accordingly. The threat of failure can be a great motivator and if you've got an agreed threshold, there is never any ambiguity. Make sure the staff understand the importance of accomplishing targets and then dig in to the work of helping them get there, even if it means reforecasting to meet external challenges.

Snake 4 Doom, gloom and dismal prospects will never inspire improved performance. If your staff are chasing after a plan so unrealistic as to be entirely unachievable they will not be motivated by it and it might as well not be there. The double threat is that they will hold you responsible for signing off on the budget in the first place. Maybe you were trying to please shareholders; maybe you were just wholly unrealistic. It doesn't matter - there's a massive burden to carry everyday and you gave it to them. Sure, they accepted it, but what other choice did they have? If all your staff have to look forward to is one round of meetings after another where they are asked why they are so far behind the forecast, they will not stick around to endure it; they'll just go somewhere where they can get an even break. And you know that regardless of the plan, they may just be performing better than you honestly expected.

There are many more ladders and many more snakes and I'd be fascinated to hear your own versions. The bottom line is that you're going to play this game whatever happens; your budget will either contribute to success or to failure. Which way it goes is up to you.

More Stories By Richard Spragg

Richard Spragg is currently the Senior VP of Marketing for Talascend. Talascend is a provider of human resources in the engineering, construction, technology and manufacturing industries. Today, Talascend brings its clients the opportunity to fully staff projects from a single source, creating an opening for substantial cost savings and increased efficiency. Richard has 14 years of experience in marketing, engineering and construction, HR & staffing in both the UK and USA. Richard's specialties include marketing, recruitment operations, public realtions and business development. He writes on various subjects including global engineering jobs, staffing and marketing in the technical sector.

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