Sunday, April 15, 2007

Develop, Support or Punt?

As a leader, having identified an individual's lack of skill in a particular area, how do you decide whether to try to develop the skill, simply provide support from someone else in the weak area, or move the person out of the role or team? After all, it's the leader's job to remove roadblocks and provide support, right? When does support stop being a good thing and start being a problem?

I don't think this situation has a general answer. The only sound bite I have is that if the lack of skill could demotivate the team, then unless it can be remedied quickly, the person lacking needs to be removed. For example, if a person simply can't tolerate their design being reviewed, maybe they shouldn't be doing design; that in turn might have significant consequences for the individual, but the leader must consider the health of the team first. This is hard to do if the person has some other skill that is very helpful to the team; but it's not enough if it could take the team down.

Another class of skills are those that are required to perform the minimum requirement for the job. In such cases, supporting the person rather than developing the skill will be demotivating for the team. So for example, if the person cannot write clear documentation on their interfaces, but that is a requirement for the job, then allowing the person to be weak in this area by assigning it to someone else is not supporting them - it's enabling them to evade responsibility. The person may be a superstar in some limited ways, but if they can't do all the required steps in the job, they need to be fixed or removed.

After that it gets a little fuzzy. What if your superstar designer and implementer just can't negotiate? She gets nervous and clams up when she should be discussing who should do what... and she really hates negotiating. Should you overlook the shortcoming, try to fix it, or let her go? (Assume that this is not an essential part of her job, so letting her go isn't the right solution). She might quit if you push her too hard, but you know she could be so much more if she had this skill. I advocate you tell her that; your opinion on how much more capable she could be might be enough to overcome the fear. If she's really not interested in fixing it, it isn't likely that she will be successful in developing the skill. So first create the motivation for her to try; it is amazing what people can do when they want to. Failing that, assign her some support.

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