Gardeners constantly do three things: pick the best quality seeds, prune regularly to keep the plants shapely and healthy, and spend hours preventing pests and then treating the plants for any damage sustained. Those same three things should dominate any leader's approach to people management and staffing, whether on the small scale of a team or through a worldwide performance management system.
Seeding the Staff
In organisational leadership, the equivalent of seed for your garden is the behaviours and values of your people. That vision must be clear and ultimately linked to strongly held values and specific behaviours. If you have a fuzzy vision or weakly held values, your organisation can grow - but it will not have the health and productivity you intend.
Vision starts at the very beginning of the hiring process. Ask yourself the question: can this person become a leader in the organisation? It doesn't matter whether you're hiring functional specialists or line employees. At McKinsey & Company, where I was involved in recruiting and hiring for several years, we always asked the question - even about the youngest associates - Can we envision him as a partner? More often than not, it was that question that either distinguished a candidate or sunk him.
If you can find and bring in the best, then use consistent principles in developing them. At my current employer, the federal General Accounting Office, the leadership team has three core values: accountability, integrity and reliability. They are so deeply held within the organisation that, one way or another, they influence key hiring decisions.
Be sure to concentrate on specific behaviours that you want to encourage. Specificity and consistency inspire hope, investment in self-development and healthy expectations. In contrast, there is nothing more damaging than an attempt to create leaders that is vague and inconsistently applied. It breeds cynicism, miscommunication and destructive competition. I have worked in organisations where this consistency exists and others where it is absent. The difference is like night and day.
Prune for Shape
You need not only a vision of your ideal employee but also of your ideal organisation. Specify the right skill and knowledge mixes that will add up to a well-shaped company. Then make sure other leaders in the organisation understand the shape as well, because more than one person will be pruning at once. Above all, know how the target shape relates to your overall strategy. I've seen countless staff development systems that seem completely disconnected from business purpose.
A leader's worst enemy is a performance management system that cannot differentiate employee performance. Whether you're starting a new organisation or leading an old one, pruning the staff is a chore that must be adhered to religiously to avoid trouble. In a small organisation, where every person takes on huge importance, it can feel like lopping off a vital branch. Whereas in a large organisation, with its interlocking networks, the difficulty is avoiding inconsistency or whole areas of neglect that can damage organisational health. The key with pruning is to be regular, consistent and precise. Once you've decided how you want your company to grow, do not shrink from cutting off branches that are going in the wrong direction. That means you have lost the ability to shape your organisation's destiny.
To know what to trim and what to grow, you need information. Information on performance is valuable only if there is true dispersion and separation in ratings and evaluations of people's performance. Avoid grade inflation; force distributions, and use that information for your decisions. Don't trust your own systems to verify this point - have outside organisations come in and test your system. Otherwise, you'll never really know.
When you find a performance problem with one of your people, either heal it, cut it off or let it fall away, but don't ignore it. Keep trimming and shaping at every performance cycle. Move closer and closer to your ideal shape. Many leaders get caught in the trap of discussing individuals or units in the performance cycle instead of consistently asking the question, How much closer are we to our target shape?