Lacking Urgency

Recently a client was frustrated with his team. The company was a mid-stage startup, and the level of pressure to produce results and brings projects in on time was extraordinary. He was the head of strategy. The job was demanding. He oversaw teams spanning from Europe to Columbia, across time zones, nationalities, and very different technological interfaces. There were different personalities and cultural characteristics. Nigel (not his real name) had to learn and manage them all.

Leaders Dream

We all want great employees. Being great includes being able to work autonomously. They understand the goal and invent ways to get there.  Instead of having to manage them and demand either specific items or decisions, they simply produce them. They are thinkers and executers –and they can recognize and work with urgency!

The Reality

Sadly, while our team-members may be brilliant –often, they don’t plan, act and deliver with the urgency we need. We want alacrity. They deliver indolence. Their pace seems unhurried and don’t get the work done at all. Or they procrastinate and wait until a mad rush at the last minute. In still another variation, they send in a project or presentation–but it isn’t quite ready for primetime. By the standards of real professionalism, it is little more than a draft.

In every case they didn’t really think it through. There was no plan. So something had to give. The project didn’t get done at all, the employee tried to get it together at the last second, or Nigel himself had to pull an all-nighter to finish it properly.

Carrying the Full Load

From a leader’s standpoint, the goal of simply getting the work done becomes a crucible. If the team member charged with doing it fails, someone (usually the manager or team lead) picks up the slack and gets it done. But having to complete your employees work –usually in a hurry at the last moment –makes having a team unnecessary.

As you can imagine, Nigel was frustrated and burnt out.

He prodded them to plan their time, use milestones to plan their work and to complete things ahead of final deadlines.  It made no difference.

Root Cause?

So how can a manager help her team to internalize good work hygiene and habits that produce great work on time? It starts with understanding why your team-members behave this way.  There are two primary reasons.

Bad Habits

First, lots of people simply do not have good work habits. They can’t organize their time in such a way that important projects are prioritized, planned and executed. They get sidelined by shallow work.

That’s is why everyone needs a structure to be focused and productive.

Adrenaline Junkie

The second issue is very different. Pulling things out at the last minute, just in time, produces an incredible surge of energy. Some people thrive under that pressure. They are the same ones who pulled all-nighters in university to write a paper due tomorrow.

The last-minute sprint gives them a rush of energy and enthusiasm. It’s a bit like the high of amphetamines. Given that, they procrastinate until the moment that leads to that surge.

Managing Meh

Back to my client. He had tried all kinds of imploring. He had stressed urgency in one-on-ones and reminded his direct reports that he needed their deliverable immediately.

Instead of looming over them, his style was to tell them what they needed to accomplish and why. Nigel expected they would create their own ingenious ways to get there. Most leaders prefer to manage like that, providing minimal direction while expecting to have a chance to review and provide feedback.

But, when that approach fails there are limited options. Nigel considered using a performance improvement plan. But that seems a bit premature and draconian.  Instead, he devised a firm structural approach. First he He tried to do it with software. They disregarded alerts and reminders.

The only remaining choice was to impose a version of micromanagement, but only as a short-term, training plan.

Boot Camp

So, we designed a complete support structure. Nigel gave each team member their project objectives with an assignment to submit their project designs at a scheduled meeting. That was the first milestone. They would meet with him, and they would agree on the design and specific milestones (well in advance of the final due date). Each individual would report at a predetermined day and time to confirm their progress and quality.

If they missed a deadline he would immediately contact them, even if it was a Friday evening. They dropped the ball and needed to pick it up. That meant working over the weekend.

Finally, he started to have everyone send in a Friday report detailing what they had completed or moved along, what their results were, what wins they had, and where they were blocked or needed help. Again, if they didn’t report he called them immediately (or texted as they were often in a different time zone). The report included a requirement for their top three objectives for the next week.

This sounds like a lot of micromanagements. It is. But one important role for leaders is to develop people. For a while you must spend the time managing your struggling team-members. Consistent reinforcement matters. To have a truly high-performing team, be relentless.

Not A Formula, But…

Try these steps:

  • Ask for a project plan by a specific (early) day.
  • Review the plan and help to revise it.
  • Schedule regular check-ins to document (and prod) progress.
  • Set deadline for submission at least a day before actual due date.
  • Create a practice for all team-members to provide an email on Monday about their focus and pan for the week.
  • Request a wrap-up email at the end of every week (from everyone).
  • Use these plans and outcomes as a way to coach and appreciate your team!

For every scheduled event, if your team-member doesn’t email, text or call

(Whatever the plan) follow up immediately. Never step over anything!!

Where The Buck Stops

This will be hard. It is disconcerting to hold people’s feet to the fire. It can feel awkward and controlling. But like everything, setting the context is critical. Before establishing this system, have a conversation that sets the table.

Discuss the goals. Enroll your team members into the project of elevating their skills. The point isn’t just to produce results. It’s also to cultivate greater capacity in your team; to help them become more effective. For any employee who is ambitious, becoming a better and more desirable team member is compelling. That’s critical.

You and your team have to be partners in their development. So, bring them along. Then when you are holding them accountable, you aren’t imposing your own rules. Instead, you are holding them to their own word — to their own determination to be develop themselves intro rock stars!