Underperforming team or underperforming leadership?

Feb 22, 2023
Feb 22, 2023 Marek Podskarbi

It’s commonly said that “a crisis is a great opportunity,” e.g. to check how irreplaceable your product is to customers, or whether your company is ready for a pivot. But we founders are still humans, sometimes vulnerable to pressure from the environment, clients, and investors. How to be sure that you have an effective team, prepared for difficult times?

Having a lean and mission-ready team is extremely important, especially during an economic downturn. Whether we can go through this crisis largely depends on the people we have on board, their skillsets, the way we manage them, and if we’ve created a culture for them to use the best of their skills.

Even if we, as founders, feel intense pressure during a time of crisis, an effective team makes it easier to push through. Apart from the fact that your employees will have the skills and tools to predict, get ready for and overcome a crisis, you’ll also feel much safer knowing that you have the right people to go through even extreme challenges.

But having an effective team is not only about hiring the best talents. The best talent needs to be managed in the best ways. This is the only way to make it possible for them to use their skills to help your organization reach its goals.

Why is it important?

In one of the startups I used to work with, team effectiveness was one of the greatest problems. It appeared that the overall impression of the results of work were significantly lower in one team than the others. A conflict arose between the team and higher management. From the manager’s perspective, the team was simply underperforming, tasks were not delivered on time or poorly delivered. There was also a trust issue, as from the management team’s perspective, employees simply didn’t want to perform well. Management concluded that they either didn’t have the skills needed, or they pretended to work during work hours.

What I realized was that employees indeed struggled to perform correctly. They were facing a lot of chaos, a lot of ad-hoc tasks and priorities, and this was making it difficult for them to deliver good quality or meet deadlines. Because everyone’s work in a startup is very tightly connected, it was affecting the other teams as well. The need to constantly correct work or reschedule deadlines was delaying the whole organization’s work. The issue, however, was not that they lacked operational skills, it was the organization of their work and management capabilities. 

Employees were left without guidance. They didn’t know what the goal of the organization was or how their work contributed to this bigger picture. Tasks were not distributed correctly within the team – everyone was responsible for everything, and sometimes it appeared that they were dealing with tasks that seemed to be out of their set of competencies. Last but not least, managers didn’t set clear objectives and measurements of people’s work. The underperformance was based on a subjective impression, but in reality, the manager hadn’t been delegating and distributing tasks according to what a specific employee could actually deliver and what was possible to deliver in a specific timeframe. They weren’t given a clear definition of done, success criteria, or deadlines. 

At HR Hints, we know that the right people management process is super crucial in a crisis, determining whether you fail or succeed. Like any other process, it can be described, measured, and implemented with specific steps to measure progress. If you spot any issues similar to the case above – the team is not delivering, there are no clear KPIs and you start to consider restructuring or hiring new people that will support your business goals –  change in this area is necessary.

So how to start this change?  

Working with companies, we start improving efficiency with an audit. As a rule, we conduct the audit during a workshop with the founder and key decision-making people in the organization. However, it is possible to conduct this audit yourself. To help you with this, we have prepared a template for your use.

Here you can download a free checklist to conduct this audit yourself:

Here is how to go through this Company Performance Audit (or Team Pulse), which should be done by every founder to be sure their company performs well:

1. Identify the main drivers of the organization (e.g product, sales, or service) and the milestones we want to achieve.

The first and most important thing, that should be the basis for any actions taken within the company, is a high-level company strategy and defined goals. Where is the organization now and where would you like to be? Without a clear answer, there is a very low chance that any of the team will perform correctly. What’s more, you won’t be prepared for a crisis.When you have a high-level strategy and mission, it should translate into milestones you want to achieve in product, sales, and services. How do each of these factors contribute to your success? What should be done with each of them?

2. Guide the core team in answering these questions:

  • What stage do we want to be after each quarter of 2023?
  • What are the obstacles to reaching this stage?
  • What functions do we need to achieve this, and do we have it in the team?

After identifying the main milestones, the next step is discussing more details in each area. That will help you not only clarify and make sure that organization is on the right track with a clear roadmap, but also to effectively allocate current talents within teams and identify if there are any roles missing.

At this stage, we don’t focus so much on specific employees as on the roles themselves. It’s important to be transparent and spot problems that we might face while achieving our goals, such as lack of desired set of skills, a large workload, or not enough people. While identifying the functions needed to deliver our goals, the next question should be if we already have them within the organization or not. That will help us create a clear hiring plan.

3. If the answer is ‘no’, we define what type of role we need to have in our organization and when the latest this person/group of people/team should start working on a topic to deliver what we need.

Once we spot specific functions in the organization that we lack, we can proceed with preparing a list of the roles and responsibilities that can cover those areas. It’s important to define the specific skillsets we need to achieve identified goals and consider how big those goals are. Do we need just one person, or the whole team? Our roadmap should also define when identified people should start working on the tasks, so we can deliver on time.Here we focus on skills, tasks, roles & responsibilities. This will be necessary for our next steps, so deciding who will cover these topics and who we will need to hire.

4. The fourth step should finish with having the list of activities we should do to check if and how we can move people from our organization to reach goals from the point above.

Once we’ve identified roles & responsibilities, and which of them are missing, we can start matching specific people to them. This step allows us to effectively allocate current talents, as well as prepare a hiring plan, to make sure that we have all areas covered in the most efficient way.The questions to ask here are: Who can fit the specific role? Who can take ownership of this area? Do we have such a person in an organization already? Or is there anyone within the organization with the potential to be promoted? Is there anyone who can change the specialization? Or do we need to hire someone externally?The outcome of this exercise should be:

  • List of current employees with clearly defined roles & responsibilities
  • List of current employees to be developed and specific areas for their growth
  • A list of roles we need to hire for

5. The fifth step is to decide how we plan and actually realize the goal of taking onboard talent we don’t have in our company so far.

If, thanks to the exercise from step four, we come to the conclusion we are missing some scope/area we need to reach the goals per each quarter, we already know how we should operate. Based on this we create and regularly update the Teams Growth tool, where we put all the information about each quarter closing.In this step, we focus on the hiring plan. Once we identify the roles to be recruited, we should prepare a clear job description with a specific set of skills (related to role, intra- and interpersonal) and start the recruitment process. The last step is setting your deadlines (you should have already identified when the person should start) and creating a Team Growth tool to measure recruitment progress. If you don’t have a dedicated HR position, it’s better to reach out to an external agency or boutique to make sure you’ll hire the best people.

6. When we are ready with the scope and plan, we need to implement a great regular management manner: having in one place rules, communication and executing it.

The last and most important thing is to implement the workshop outcomes within the organization. This should include:

  • Clear communication of the roadmap & milestones  to the company after each quarter
  • Clear communication on roles & responsibilities to the teams
  • Training for managers, as they will be the ones responsible for executing milestones and managing teams on daily tasks, as well as developing identified employees
  • A plan for onboarding new team members
  • Creating and maintaining one report, where you will be able to check the progress and implement any changes if needed

Here you can download a free checklist to conduct the above audit yourself:

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