Strategy Session: Star Search—five steps to skilling up your employees

AV SS Star Search

The June 2013 Alberta Venture Strategy Session is all about using your talent to the utmost: that is, not letting your promising employees languish in dead-end jobs.

The story-behind-the-story starts in a coffee shop, in which I’m shamelessly eavesdropping on a conversation between a leadership coach and someone she is mentoring… and when he excuses himself to get a java refill, I lean over and introduce myself, and that’s how I meet Maria Berntzen, leadership performance and efficiency coach at Awesome Journey, who then helps me craft a tale on how to save all your people from getting stuck in dead-end jobs.

No, wait, maybe it starts in a bar, because that’s where I first talk with Jeff Cullen, co-founder and expedition leader of BaseCamp4, a leadership and management development program for owners and senior managers. We talk about stellar leaders who flounder in their breakthrough roles because they don’t get sufficient training and support once thrust into an exciting role… and how lack of preparation and understanding can turn a great role into a dead-end one…

Part of the story-behind-the-story unfolds on Twitter, because that’s where I first connect with Renshi Consulting‘s Phil Uglow

The three of them give me material for a lovely tale on how to liberate employees from dead-end jobs–better yet, how to ensure they don’t get stuck in dead-end roles in the first place.

Here are the five steps for those in the audience with an extra-short attention span:

1. Don’t assume–assess.

2. Divorce performance evaluations from compensation.

3. Give HR a seat at the boardroom table.

4. Empower and delegate.

5. Embrace the dead-end role. Really.

Hmmm. That doesn’t tell you quite what to do, does it? Maybe you’d better read the full article after all…

Full text available at Alberta Venture

Unedited text and extras below:

Strategy Session: Rescuing high-potential employees from dead-end jobs

Alberta Venture, June 2, 2014

by Marzena Czarnecka

Meet Chris. Chris is utterly awesome. If he worked for you, he would be the perfect employee. He does all the things, you know? Not just punctual—always a bit early so he has time to prep. Not just competent and efficient—but really on top of things, always looking for that little tweak or improvement that will make what he does better. Self-motivated, self-accountable. And his people skills: to repeat myself, utterly awesome. Everyone likes him, respects him. Even Gruesome Greg, who hates everyone (and is hated by all of them in turn—how is it that he’s your foreman again? But that’s another story…), admits Chris is ok.

You want Chris’ contact details so you can poach him, right? Perfect. He’s ready for the taking, actually, because here’s the problem: Chris is stuck in a dead-end role at his organization.

There are a few reasons for this. First, there’s the nature of the role he’s filling. Most  organizations have obvious ladders and upward-and-onward pathways: team lead, section manager, senior operational manager, VP—insert your label of choice here. Then, there are the less obvious ones that require some creative lateral moves and hops… and then, there are the thoroughly unglamorous-but-necessary roles, like the one Chris is filling, that  are effective silos. Dead-ends. They might even be mission-critical dead-ends—without someone in that room 12-hours a day to push that button, your whole enterprise would fall apart—but they’re just not on the track.

Second… Chris is really, really, really good at this role. Utterly awesome, as I’ve already mentioned twice. It’s a thoroughly unglamorous task that he fulfills—and he rocks it. The temptation to keep Chris where he is… huge. His manager would do just about anything to keep Chris in his box.

Unfortunately, to keep Chris, the manager has to set him free from that dead-end job. Because otherwise Chris will leave—either literally, when you recognize his promise and poach him into an upward-and-onward role or metaphorically, when he gives up on being utterly awesome—why bother, when he’s not getting anywhere with it?—and just starts dialing it in (like Gruesome Greg. Speaking of—we really need to do something about that guy).

What’s that? Oh. You don’t want me to tell Chris’ manager to set him free. You’ve already made the call, done the interview, you’re bringing Chris over. But you’re thinking about his future potential—and you’re thinking about Hugh, Jane, and Pat… they’ve been with you for a couple of years now, and they’re also utterly awesome, but… they’re definitely in unglamorous-repetitive-not-gonna-be-a-future-VP roles. You haven’t been thinking about their future at all—just how competent they are in the present. You’re thinking… hmmm. Maybe one of them could have been skilled up to fill the role you’ve just brought Chris over for. How do you that?

Here’s the recipe, in five steps.

1. Don’t assume: assess. Not once, and not once a year. Constantly. “On a regular basis, do an evaluation of the role the person is in and look at their skill set and their capacity to ensure that they are the right fit,” says Jeff Cullen, co-founder and expedition leader of Base Camp 4, a leadership and management development program for owners and senior managers. Not only will this practice ensure that you identify Chris’ potential early on and be aware of how it could be developed and where he could be moved when an opportunity comes up—but it will also mean that if you’ve made a terrible mistake promoting Gruesome Greg (and seriously, what the hell where you thinking?), you have the opportunity to rectify it quickly. “Whether with a new hire, a promotion, or an internal transfer, if time is invested from the beginning in understanding the person’s desire and capacity to do the job, you will benefit in the long run,” Cullen stresses.

Maria Berntzen, leadership performance and efficiency coach at Awesome Journey, agrees—and then urges you to keep on assessing. “It is vitally important that organizations do performance assessments,” she says. “It still amazes me how often that doesn’t happen. That’s the number one tool in making sure you know what your people are doing well, the things they’d like to improve on, where they’re succeeded, where they would like to get additional help.”

Berntzen suggests you identify a couple of people that you check in with—once a week, once a month—to see where they’re at. And, if those people are in leadership roles—get them to do the same thing with their people. Make that a practice throughout your organization: develop a culture where “Hey, how are you doing? What’s going well? Where do you need more support? Are you content? Are you frustrated?” is part of the everyday workplace experience.

2. Divorce performance evaluations from compensation. For Cullen, this is perhaps the most critical piece of the process: separating the assessment/evaluation/”hey, how are you doing?” conversation from compensation. “Evaluations are usually tied to the compensation discussion, and that’s a terrible thing to do,” he says bluntly. “There is no good way to discuss compensation and anything else at the same time. If you discuss compensation at the end of the assessment, the person is tense, unfocused, and waiting to hear the ‘how much’—they don’t really take in anything you say until they hear the number. And if you have the compensation discussion first—they don’t hear anything you say after, because they’re either too busy celebrating and spending their raise—or they’re angry because they don’t think it’s enough.”

If you’re implementing step one, then this one’s a breeze: those assessment discussions are happening every few weeks or months. It really is that simple,  Berntzen says. “If you sit down with your people and ask them great questions, and genuinely listen to what they say, they will tell you what they want and what they need,” she says. “And you will know what they are capable of, and have a better sense of what they need to become more qualified to take on larger roles in your company.”

3. Give HR a seat at the boardroom table. I realize I lost you halfway through Step 2. Come back. I know you’re busy, and your plate is full. I know that while you understand the importance of talking with Chris, Hugh and Jane, what you’re thinking right now is, “Seriously? When do I have time to sit down and do more performance assessments?” Don’t. Delegate. If your company is of a size that warrants a human resources department—that’s the new HR, baby. It’s not about counting vacation days. It’s about maximizing the potential of your human capital. “A company in which HR really has a strategic role, a seat at the table is a company in which high potentials do not get stuck in dead-end roles,” says Cullen. “If HR is valued and practiced in a really strategic way, that talent gets identified, developed and moved up.”

If you’re too small to have a dedicated HR team, you will have to do the communication-assessment part of the puzzle yourself. But don’t fret. It’s not all on you.

4. Empower and delegate. Phil Uglow, President and CEO at Renshi Consulting, wants you to know that as a leader, it is not your job to come up with every solution. It’s your job to delegate decisions to the people most affected by them whenever possible. Now, Uglow’s not absolving you from all responsibility for Chris being stuck in a dead-end job. “A leader needs to know where those positions are, for example, and a leader needs to be aware that this is an issue something needs to be done about or they will lose people,” he says. “But it’s not the leader’s job to come up with the answer—it’s the leader’s job to ask the question.” Then, he says, get the affected team to discuss the situation. We all know position X kind of sucks. What can we do to make that situation better? What can we do to make sure that person feels part of the team? What can we do to ensure the person in that position has opportunities to flex their skills elsewhere?

So you get all this, but it pleases you not, because, let’s face it—someone’s got to do those crap jobs that lead nowhere, right? Not everyone gets to be a VP or team lead. Your organization needs grunts and peons! Absolutely. Here’s the last lesson:

5. Embrace the dead-end role. No, seriously. Someone’s got to work the night shift, clean the puke off the floor, and push the red button every seven minutes. To paraphrase both Berntzen and Uglow, frame those roles as true entry-level roles in the organization—and roles where you know you will have high attrition because those jobs suck big-time. But—not all of your attrition there should be out. If you are assessing your people’s potential, you will have processes in place to identify people like Chris and to, once he’s proven his stripes, move him out of that role into something better. Then fill it again—with someone who may revolve-door himself out… or hey, be identified as a potential successor to the role Chris is filling now. Because Chris, he’s on his way to replacing you. So long as you give him the adequate support along the way.

Marzena Czarnecka is a Calgary-based business and legal affairs writer. She can be reached at, @paddleink on Twitter, and visited at