Lions and Cubs - Part 1

I'm a knowledge wanderer. You know the kind, someone who starts down one path of research and ends up somewhere far different. Someone who starts by reading up on Cloud computing and somehow ends up on an article on the science behind making whipped cream.

That's how I ended up reading about male lions this week. I'll be honest, I don't even remember what it was I started with. But I ended up reading about lions, lion prides and how only 1 in 8 male lions make it to adulthood. And it hit me that while the tactics of good pride management might be effective for the King of the Jungle, a we're not leading a lion pride. What works well for Leo would be detrimental for a technical team.

Lions reach maturity at around 2 years of age, which for male lions means getting the heave ho out of the family pride. The young males have already learned everything the pride is going to teach about taking care of themselves. They don't need protection and, in fact, now present a threat to the leader. So the Big Guy sends the young guns out on their own, to make it or not with the knowledge and skills they have learned up to that point.

We have on our teams, mixed in with the adolescents and the cubs, mature lions and those on the cusp of maturity. In fact your teams are probably largely made up of these more experienced resources. Unlikely lions, you don't push them out of the group when they reach a certain level of experience. At least, not literally. But are you metaphorically ousting them? Are you giving as much attention, time and commitment to their growth as you are to the less experienced members of your team?

Unfortunately, most managers aren’t inherently given the time to mentor and lead. We’re expected to fit that in, somewhere, with the myriad of other tasks we must accomplish. As a result, I know a lot of managers have a well tread script that they use for what can be loosely called “individual team member development”. You meet with team members once a year to talk about goals and previous performance. You meet one on one weekly, maybe every other week, to talk about their current projects, answer questions for them, make sure they are getting done what needs to be done. Time permitting, you might talk briefly about career development. Some leaders, if they are lucky and very determined, make the time for a mid-year or quarterly check point for those goals.

Discussing goals and career progress with younger and less experienced team members happens more frequently than with the more experienced ones. These conversations are quicker, easier. There is a broader set of common knowledge they lack, from office and communication etiquette to working as part of a team. Plus, you’ve already walked in their footsteps.

It gets more difficult with professionally mature resources. The guidance they need to continue their growth is more complicated, their questions are more specific. While you followed the path of management, they may be headed a different direction, to architecture or highly experienced individual contributor. Maybe, despite their length of time as a professional, they still don’t know what they want to be when they grow up. It takes more time to guide and mentor them, to understand their path and help them along it.

And so we symbolically and unconsciously push them out of the pride. We still meet with them weekly but the conversation is about how to get the work done, how to balance priorities and deliverables. We still meet with them yearly to talk about where they want to go and what SMART* goals they can put down that should help them get there. We help them create a very basic road map of their next steps forward. But then we set them adrift to walk that path on their own, to wander the savannah alone because they have just enough experience to muddle through it without a lot of hand holding. The more competent and independent, the less attention we give them.

This is one of the ways we set our teams up for slow progress and, worse, for failure. These are the resources that can help you keep your team moving forward while expanding their own knowledge set. These are the people that do the heavy lifting and can help your junior resources when you’re not available. These are the ones that can run with a project when you’re too buried to think straight. By not helping them move forward, we hold ourselves back. By not giving them the tools to successfully grow, we overburden ourselves and frustrate our teams. Frustrated teams are not high performing teams. Frustrated team members aren’t productive.

Frustrated resources quit. And experienced resources are difficult, costly and time consuming to replace.

Take a close look at not just the amount of time you spend on individual team member growth, but the quality of that growth and the content of those talks. Those are the conversations that will lead them past today and tomorrow. And, specifically, take a hard look at how you are leading your experienced resources. The fact that they can move the day to day tasks forward without you should free you up to spend more time with them on their goals, not less. Are you giving them the support they need? Is there more you can do for them?

In part 2 of this post we’ll look at the behavior of a new leaders, both in lions and in business.

*SMART - this acronym is used frequently in organizations when formulating annual goals and stands for “Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-Bound” 


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