Good employees are made, not found

By Mike Cook
For the Bellingham Business Journal

If I ask a room full of mid-size (15 or more employees) business owners “What is the most common mistake you make when dealing with employees?” they will invariably say, “Holding on to underperforming employees too long!”

If I ask that same room full of mid-size business owners, “How many of you are having difficulty finding good people?” every one of them will quickly raise their hand.

So, you might say then that the mystery of employers holding on to underperforming employees is solved. If it is true that it is hard to find good people, then of course employers are reluctant to let even underperforming employees go. You know the old adage: “better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.” Actually, that is not the solution to the mystery, it is an excuse not to do the hard work of developing good employees.

In my view the reality is more like this: yes, it is harder to find good people than it used to be. Why is that? The worker of today needs a far more complex set of skills than those of the past. The challenge for the unemployed is not simply to get technically re-educated to be able to fill the jobs available, they need to be socially re-educated as well. The work of today is far more social than it ever was historically.

In a previous economy —the one I grew up in — the challenge was almost the reverse of today. There were plenty of good people and while there were lots of jobs they did not necessarily make best use of what good people had to offer. At that time in many cases what made you a “good person” was if you could show up for work on time and most days. The work could have been done by just about anybody as long as they were there. This is not the case today. The worker of today is not so easily replaced and in smaller businesses is far more important than in the past.

If I were a small business owner today and knowing what I know now about my need for good people, I would take a two-pronged approach. First, I would strongly consider heading for the local community colleges as a source of good people. At the same time, I would think about the work I need done and see how much of it could be broken up into part-time positions. I need people who have demonstrated that they are willing to learn, they can be found in the community colleges and often they need to work while they are in school. The “part time” piece should be obvious; people in college often cannot work full time.

Now here’s the catch. Even though these people have demonstrated a desire to learn new skills, they still need to be schooled in how to be good employees in the modern sense. Good employees have good habits, this calls for in-depth habit focused education.

New employees should be oriented in basics like work rules, benefits etc., but they must also be further educated. Any new employee orientation should be at least three months in length and should include instruction in the following practices:

  • Learn to ask questions. Employees are being hired to be smart, being smart means asking when you don’t know. Being smart means asking beyond information that is needed now, go for depth not just immediate application.

  • Asking for feedback frequently from experienced co-workers. They need your performance and if you are open to what they have to say it will shorten the journey to full performance.

  • Don’t work late just because you can. Make efficiency a goal and don’t rely on youth and stamina to make up for sound habits.

  • Take good care of yourself. Eating right, exercising, sleeping right, these are all practices that take discipline.

  • Be clear about what is expected of you. Very few things are as disappointing as having to do something twice.

  • Don’t be creative unless you really need to be. Learn from experienced co-workers, they can save you hours of time.

  • Don’t take on more than you can handle. Reputation is important, being someone who can be counted on is important. Don’t risk ruining your reputation by saying yes to everything and then letting some people down.

  • Let your manager know when there are problems, don’t sweep things under the rug, they never stay there,

  • Make sure you understand the bigger picture, where does your work fit in, why is it important, who is it important to.

For more on this see ‘Ten Common Mistakes New Employees Make” on Business Insider.

Mike Cook lives in Anacortes. His columns appear on every other Tuesday. He teaches in the MBA program at Western Washington University and also runs a CEO peer advisory group in the Bellingham area.

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