Sunday, November 18, 2012

When people don’t stay long on your team

In a conversation that hasn’t happened, I chatted with someone about the team he manages.

“People don’t stay on the team for long,” he says. The team is staffed entirely by volunteers who want to support the team’s purposes, which for purposes of this short essay I’ll describe as “helping people grow.”

Why might people not want to be on this team long? Is it because they don’t really understand what the team’s mission and vision are? That’s possible.

Another possibility is that the work is too difficult—either absolutely (Just Too Much Work) or relative to the results they can see (i.e., “What is the larger organization getting for all this effort I’m putting in?”).

Or there may be something about team dynamics: is the team hard to get along with, is there too much criticism and not enough encouragement for new members’ work? Is the leader hard to get along with?

Now that I think of it, I know of at least two teams with long-term (multi-year) recruiting challenges. Let’s call one of them the “G Team”; it’s hard to get people interested in joining this team. It’s kind of nerdy, to tell you the truth. I was on the team for a while, but then other responsibilities took me away from it. Today it’s still hard to get people to sign up for it. Once people do, though, they seem to stick with it, at least for a few years.

Another team, I’ll call it the “T team”, has people sign up, but they seem to stay on for a fairly short time. I’ve talked with two ex-members of the “T team”; one of them had the odd experience of showing up for a meeting and being put to work stuffing envelopes. This person left the team shortly after that meeting.

Another ex-member had a, ah, an altercation with the team leader. This ex-member apologized for their part in the unpleasantness, but the team leader never ’fessed up to theirs. As far as the leader was concerned, the issue was 100% the ex-member’s fault.

This sort of thing isn’t unique to the non-profit or volunteer world. There are some managers who have a hard time holding on to subordinates. You may have met them; some of them are like the engineer who was never wrong; some have multiple faults (hopefully your manager isn’t like Michael Wing’s composite anti-manager “Burt”), some just work in awful organizations.

But if you’re leading a team of volunteers, or managing a group of employees, and you’ve got high turnover (you get to define the term), you might want to look in the mirror. Some questions to ask (and not ask):

  • How have I solicited input from the team about my leadership style, my strengths and weaknesses, things I could change? And how have I responded to that feedback?
  • How do I show each team member that their efforts are important? How willing am I to delegate decisions (rather than tasks)? And if they decide something in a way other than I would have, how often have I overridden their decision?
  • How often do I give direct, specific encouragements to my team members? The “specific” part is really important. “You’re great” is nice, but it could be insincere. And it could sound insincere. Better to find something they’re doing right and making a sincere and appropriate affirmation about that: “Thank you for putting in the extra effort to find those details supporting our plan; that really improves our chances...” or something like this, is much more powerful.
  • When a team member does something I don’t like, how often do I to tell them, vs complaining to someone else? And if I tell them, do I do that in a punishing or a non-punishing way?
  • How readily do I admit my own mistakes, misjudgments, failures, to my team?
  • Don’t ask: Why are you leaving? (And don’t ask HR what was said in the exit interview, either, if there was one.) Really. An employee leaving the firm knows there’s no percentage in saying anything negative about their ex-manager. And in the non-profit world, what’s the point of saying anything negative to you? If they thought you would/could change, wouldn’t they have said it earlier?
  • When was the last time I showed concern for each team member’s personal or emotional life?

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