I disappointed myself by overestimating an employee’s capabilities

I disappointed myself by overestimating an employee’s capabilities

If there’s one thing that we do well at our startup, it’s hiring smart and ambitious individuals. Those traits are non-negotiable, and we do everything in our power to assess for both during the hiring process.

One realization I recently had about working with such amazing people is that I have a tendency to make inaccurate assumptions about their capabilities, often expecting much more than a person can reasonably accomplish.

In one instance, I asked a team member to give a presentation on a problem that we were trying to solve, and pitch his solution to the team.

I expected the team member to know how to give a powerful and dynamic presentation, assuming that they teach such skills at school. However, the presentation ended up being a reading of the dozens of bullet points found on slides. It was like reading an essay off the projector. The audience was tuned out and bored.

Armed with a better idea on the team member’s presentation skills, I then personally coached him and worked together on another presentation. I pointed him to some presentation best-practices, and also had him practice with me.

He eventually became one of the best presenters on the team, consistently able to capture people’s attention and be effectively heard.

I’ve thus learned the hard way to always start with a diagnosis of an individual’s capability with regard to a specific skill, before setting expectations. Chances are that even the best player on the team can learn a thing or two, and use some practice, when faced with unfamiliar work.

The whole experience also reminded me of three other coaching tactics that I often fail to execute. Often because of a lack of time and mindfulness. So I’m going to list them below, for my own sake:

When people are doing things for the first or second time, let’s show them how it’s done, not just talk about how it’s done. When I learn new physical skills, someone always shows me how to do it before I try on my own. When I first started to rock climb for example, a friend of mine showed me how to belay, tie knots, and climb before letting me try on my own. Nowadays, whenever I want to learn anything, I watch a youtube video of someone doing it first. Yet I tend to forget this coaching approach when it comes to intangible skills. Take project management, public speaking, or time management… I’ve repeatedly assumed, incorrectly, that people could succeed on their own with some verbal tips, but without witnessing how others do it, without doing it together. It usually led to failed attempts until we worked together. So when trying things for the first time, tangible or intangible, let’s make sure to show people how it’s done.

Repeatedly reference best-practices and rules of thumb when practicing a new skill. A couple rules of thumb that I like to reference when coaching people on giving presentations is 1. Let slides complement and emphasize our verbal message, but never become the message; and 2. Answer “So what?” to each slide to ensure that the content is relevant to our overall message. So when I find that the information from a slide repeats our verbal message, or that a slide doesn’t have a clear purpose, I reference either of the pointers above before giving any specific feedback. This helps to imprint the basic rules in the mind of the learner. The goal is for our mentee to have these basic rules imprinted in their brain. Just like we don’t need to think about breathing.

Reference the framework by which we’re doing something while we’re doing it. When someone is learning a skill that has many different milestones and stages over time, I like to remind people of the framework that we’re using before discussing specifics. I want to ensure that the mentee understands the purpose of each step, and that we don’t skip any. For example, when I coach a person to manage innovation projects, I first ask the team member to identify which step of the process we’re currently working on, along with its purpose. Only then do I start discussing specific challenges, status updates, etc. Another popular framework that I reference often is the decision making process.

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