Mentoring A Low Performer Can Help Her Achieve Her Goal.

Mentoring a Low Performer


There are some universal themes and issues that keep coming up over and over in the work I do. Mentoring a low performer is one of these. It creates anxiety and fear in the heart of every leader and manager who feels they need to do it. But it doesn’t have to be that way as Mike’s experience shows.

This was a mentoring experience I had a number of years ago and last week (and many times in between)  I had almost the exact experience again so I recovered this post and revised it, knowing that it could be valuable for so many leaders and managers facing this situation.

In my workshops, I always offer the participants the opportunity to contact me after the workshop by email if they have any questions or want to discuss anything from the workshop. I do this because the nature of the work I do around the development and enhancement of soft skills, those interpersonal skills that can make or break us, is often quite personal and participants don’t want to raise issues in the public forum. They also may have a particular issue with an employee that they don’t want to raise publicly, especially in a regional area where someone may very easily identify the person. This email I had from Mike was one of those situations. Both Mike (not his real name) and his employee have allowed me to tell this story and use it as a learning experience for others.

Rather than follow up by email, I actually phoned Mike to talk about this and made some suggestions for how he could handle it and about 12 months later when our paths crossed he gave me some feedback on what happened. I thought it was a good case study to present here because I know others have experienced this same issue – keeping people on staff, even when they are not performing because you cannot have the constructive conversation with them about their performance, or you fear the legal and industrial repercussions of dismissing them. There is an alternative as we found in Mike’s case.

Mike’s Email

I employed a 24 year old new graduate for a position in my organisation. She presented well at interview and I was very impressed with her attitude. I wanted someone with more experience but here (in the regional centre where he is based) it is very difficult to get people with the experience I want. So as everybody says: “Hire for attitude and train for skills”, and I hired her.

Her 6 month probation period is almost due and I can’t see how I can keep her on. I fear I have to dismiss her. I’m quite anxious about it and the impact it will have on her. I feel responsible because I hired her knowing that she didn’t have the skills I wanted. I thought that with her enthusiasm and my support she would develop them. Now I realise that the job is way above her and it’s not just about developing skills, but having experience.

The other thing that concerns me is that she has tried so hard, is willing to learn, gives 150%, stays back to finish work and is very likeable. But I can no longer put her in front of clients and her inexperience has seen her make mistakes, not irredeemable ones, but ones where I’ve had to intervene to rescue my organisation’s reputation. The other thing is that on those occasions she has taken the feedback on her performance well and has committed to improve and gone on to try harder.

I’ve actually known since about 6 weeks in that I’d made a bad hire, and since then have been very stressed about how to handle it so I have done nothing. I know I have to manage this but am procrastinating.

Thinking It Through With Mike.

What was stressing Mike so much about this situation was that he was seeing it within a performance framework. In one way it was. She wasn’t able to perform the job for which she was employed. At another level, however, she was performing well. She was committed, accepted feedback, gave 150%, was enthusiastic and related well to others. This was his dilemma. If Mike approached her, however, with a sole focus on her inability to perform the job, everything he feared would happen. She would be devastated. She wouldn’t understand when he’d been so enthusiastic about appointing her, given she had tried so hard, stayed back, given 150%, responded constructively to critical feedback and so on. As her first work experience after university, it would probably have significant negative repercussions for her psychologically and professionally if he dismissed her. It may even see her leave the profession.

Reframe From A Performance Management Issue To A Career Development Issue

I suggested he look at it as a career development issue, a professional developmental issue. She was in the wrong job for her level of career development. In most professional university courses, no work is done on creating career development plans.

Once career development, especially in the professions, was very clear cut. There was a career ladder and it was obvious that to grow your career what you needed to do to move from one rung to the next. That is not the case today. We are working in a volatile, unpredictable and changing economy. Many rungs of the traditional career ladder are broken and you just can’t step from one rung to the next. In fact the career ladder is not the most appropriate way to get where you want to go today. You sometimes have to go sideways before going up.

If Mike could approach this problem with her in this way, he could make a significant contribution to her professional development. This would be real training on the job, the best and most effective training of all. We worked out a plan on the phone for how he could do this and Mike’s stress lifted immediately. He could see how he could do it and how he could make it work. This is what he did.

What Mike Did – He Had A Career Development Conversation With His Young Employee

First thing he did was to sit down and have a carefully prepared discussion with her about her career and where she wanted to go, where she wanted to be in 3 years time. Mike is a good communicator and is able to ask good questions and obviously was able to get good answers from her. Being a whiteboard fan he put it up on the one in his office which made it very visible.

He then talked with her about what skills she felt she would need to get there – both technical and non-technical skills. He asked her how she would gain those skills. Again many of her answers revealed the same inexperience she demonstrated in her work. He contributed his thoughts of the skills he believed she would need, given his experience of her work.

The third thing he did was talk with her about her strengths and weaknesses at both a professional level and a personal level. He led her to reflect on which of those were going to enhance her chance of achieving her goal and which were going to obstruct it. I’d given him a sheet to fill in with her on that. This is where he affirmed her discretionary effort, her enthusiasm, her ability to accept feedback, her presentation of herself, her interpersonal skills, for example, balancing them against her perception of her weaknesses. He made little critique of her weaknesses here except to re-iterate the problems that he had already addressed with her. He did not at this stage want to cut the constructive conversation they were having about her career goals.

He then went on to affirm that he wanted to help her achieve her goal, but that he couldn’t see her being able to do it in his organisation. This is where he did explain in much more detail that she didn’t have the experience he needed in the job, how he came to appoint her hoping she would acquire the skills. He made it very clear that he didn’t want her to see this as a failure because she had so much going for her as he had explained just before. If anyone had failed, he said, it was him in appointing her in the first place. He then told her that he would do everything he could to help her find the job that would give her the best chance of being where she wanted to be in 3 years time.

Can Your Organisation Provide The Opportunities
For Your Employees To Be Where They Want To Be
In 3 Years Time ?

Without going into too much detail about what he recommended, he suggested she work in a bigger firm which had a graduate program where she would get experience working for months at a time in one professional service area before moving on to another. By doing so, she would over a period of a couple of years acquire considerable practical experience in her field and be well on the way to her goal. The job she was currently employed to do required her to have much of that experience already. He explained that it would mean she would probably not work with clients directly over that time but, in the right organisation, she would be surrounded by experienced people who would support and help her towards her goal. To do this, she would have to move from the regional area where she was to a much bigger city. If she was prepared to do this, he said, he would be prepared to help her find a new position.

She was naturally somewhat stunned, but she was much more responsive when Mike affirmed to her that he would highly recommend her as an employee for her attitude and motivation, saying that any of those organisations with graduate programs would be very glad to have someone with her soft skills that are now so highly sought after.

He suggested she go away and think about it and that they talk again the following afternoon.

What Happened Next – The Outcome?

How Mentoring A Low Performer Can Help Her Achieve Her Goal

Mike phoned me again at this stage and I was able to suggest two firms in two different cities where I had a contact and who took graduates. I made the introduction of Mike to my contacts and he phoned both. When his employee came back to him the next day, he was able to tell her that both places were willing to interview her if she called and made an appointment. The outcome of this was excellent. With Mike’s referral, she was offered a position at both places and chose one.

Eight months in Mike received an email from her immediate director thanking him. Their organisation had been about to close their graduate program because of the negative attitudes and expectations of the graduates they were getting. Mike’s employee was everything they wanted and was making a significant contribution. They particularly remarked on her willingness to learn and her responsiveness to feedback.

Big Organisations Can Offer Young Employees A Wide Range Of Experience

Sometimes in a bigger organisation you can keep people on by moving them horizontally, or into another department, to develop the skills needed or the experience they haven’t got, especially if they are someone as enthusiastic and keen as Mike’s employee was. But in Mike’s case his organisation was too small to provide that and he needed everyone on his staff able to perform at full pace the work they were employed to do.

What a privilege it is for a mentor like me to work with people like Mike, a leader who really wants to grow his people and will stretch himself both practically and psychologically to do that. He had the skills and ability to do everything he did once he could see what he needed to do.

When Leaders Shift Their Mindsets Solutions Can Often Become Clear.

The most significant thing that I was able to do with Mike, that enabled him to do what he did and get a win/win outcome, was shift his mindset on this issue. He moved from seeing the situation in negative terms as a performance issue, to seeing it in positive terms as a career development issue.

I didn’t have to convince Mike of this because he has a growth mindset and saw it immediately once I mentioned it. In fact it was an “aha!” moment for him. Someone else with a fixed mindset, would need a lot of convincing and probably would not have been able to manage this situation in the way Mike did. Mindset has become a very important leadership and management skill, impacting greatly how we view things, in this changing, uncertain and unpredictable world in which we now live and work.

Mentoring, whether with an internal or external mentor, is a very effective leadership or career development resource.

Contact me if you would to engage in mentoring with me.
© Maree Harris, Ph.D.

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