Last week I saw an article on Inc.com, “Why Your Most Valuable Employee Is Often the 'Invisible' Employee. Why some employees stand out simply by not standing out.” https://www.inc.com/jeff-haden/why-your-most-valuable-employee-is-often-invisible-employee.html.
I was intrigued. In my years of coaching and supervising, we do often focus on the employees who stand out. Sometimes they stand out by being the best. Other times they stand out by being problem employees. I wondered, “Are we forgetting about these valuable, invisible employees?”
The employee the article focused on was Bob and his supervisor Randy, but to make things a bit more gender neutral, I’m going to change Bob to Sam. Sam “flew under the radar….[they] never asked Randy a question. [They] never asked for Randy's advice. [They] never complained or vented or tooted [their] own horn. Sam just passed on information [they] knew Randy needed. How a customer issue was resolved. How a delicate ship date issue would be solved. How [they] would overcome an interdepartmental impasse.” When Randy’s supervisor commented on how little Sam seemed to contribute, they were surprised when Randy said he wished he “had 20 Sams.”
The article went on to quote Mark Cuban, “Anybody who reduces my stress becomes invaluable to me. The people who tend to think that they are invaluable are typically the ones who create the most stress by creating firestorms and creating drama and making things more difficult for me. If you're a drama creator, you're not going to do well. If you are stress reducer, you're going to do well.”
I absolutely agree with Cuban that supervisors could do with more team members who reduce stress instead of causing it – aka creating drama and taking up a large percentage of your time, but I think this article misses the boat in two important ways.
The first problem I have with this article, is it doesn’t explain you how you go about finding a Sam – or how to create one. Randy has a Sam and appreciates them. Randy’s supervisor was surprised about this, so I guess we like this supervisor should learn a valuable life lesson and not take our Sam’s for granted. Of course, if we had one of these magical Sams, wouldn’t we already know it? Wouldn’t we already appreciate them? We certainly wouldn’t need Inc.com or Randy to tell us to appreciate those team members who are low stress, high proformers, and problem solvers.
Even more importantly, the article doesn’t reveal WHY is Sam able to do all of these things “under the radar?” Instead, they make Sam seem like an almost mythical creature that you either have or don’t. In reality, the Sams can do what they do because they’re well-trained, they understand what’s expected of them, and they are empowered to act.
Let’s break that down. At some point, Sam had to be trained. Maybe Randy did it. Maybe Sam predates Randy and someone else did it. Maybe they even had to train themselves – as so many of us have had to do. But in order for Sam to resolve customer services issues, solve shipping problems, or overcome interdepartmental issues, they’d have to had been trained. Sam also knows what Randy wants them to do, which means they know what’s expected of them in all these situations. Finally, Sam is empowered to act. Sam doesn’t need to run options by Randy whenever something needs to be done. Sam knows what to do and does it. Just as importantly – Randy doesn’t ask Sam to run everything by him, other team members, or a committee. Sam has the power to make the decisions they think are best to keep things moving forward without worrying that Randy will be mad or they might get in trouble because of the decisions they’ve made. Sam knows that Randy trusts them and has their back.
Over the years, I’ve encountered way too many supervisors who need their people to run everything by them. This might be explicitly stated or just by the culture they’ve created with their team. I’ve also seen way too many employees feel like they need to run things by their supervisors for a variety of reasons – they haven’t been properly trained, they don’t know what’s expected, to avoid getting in trouble, or simply because they don’t feel empowered to act. Often these things go hand in hand, but not always. Regardless of why it happens, both sides of this spectrum slow things down and add stress to the players involved. The supervisors who need to discuss everything are stressed and overwhelmed because they are constantly involved in the decisions their team members should be making. A supervisor may like the sense of control it seems to give them, but it isn’t effective for either party. The employees who don’t feel confident in making decisions without supervisor approval feel stressed and overwhelmed because they aren’t getting things done efficiently or because they’re constantly worried they might do the wrong thing and lose their job.
The second problem I have with this article, is it implies if you have a Sam you just let them do what they do and you never have to worry about them. The Sams will just come, tell you important information, then disappear back into the wilderness until they return to announce they’ve solved more of your problems. That’s ridiculous. If you want to have an effective team, you have to connect with individual team members on a regular basis. You need to make sure they know what’s going on in your organization, understand what’s expected of them, have the skills or knowledge to do all facets of their job, and empower them to act. You can call those meetings whatever you like – coaching, one on one’s, etc., but it needs to be more than, “Do you have anything for me? And this is what I need you to work on next.”
During those points of connection, you need to make sure that your Sams understands what’s expected of them in all aspects of their job – both when they start and as things grow and evolve. Job descriptions are simply a general overview, especially given that all inclusive “other duties as assigned” statement we lean so heavily on. They do not set clear expectations of how that work is supposed to be done or what specific outcomes you might need them to achieve. You also need to check in to make sure your Sams have the training they need to be effective. We like to think the people we hired know everything they need to be successful, but that’s rarely the case. We’re so busy, we usually just tell folks some basics and put them to work when they start instead of making sure they have what they need to do their job effectively. If there’s a gap, you need to help them get that knowledge and develop those skills. Finally, they need to feel empowered. They need to know you trust them to get things done and they have the authority to act within the scope of their responsibilities. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t hold people accountable if there’s a problem, but it does mean that since you’ve been clear about your expectations and know they have the ability to solve problems, you trust them to make decisions and put things into motion. When any of these elements are missing, it means they’re going to be involving you quite a bit in their decision making and problem solving. That takes time and energy most of us don’t have.
What does this mean for you as a supervisor? If you’re like most supervisors in higher education, you want less drama, more solutions, and less stress. There are way too many things on your plate, so the idea of someone taking things off of your plate – or at least not adding things to it – probably seems too good to be true. But the reality is you can do just that – even without hiring a new employee. Most of our team members want and need clearer expectations, professional development to help them be more effective in their jobs, and the authority to do their jobs without hand holding or micromanaging – even if they don’t seem very confident right now. But with proper coaching, they can get there. Coaching may seem like a foreign concept because most of us don’t get it and we certainly haven’t been taught to do it. But coaching is just about asking the right questions to find out what your team needs to be successful and then help them get there. Three things they all team members need are clear expectations, the right skills and knowledge, and once those are set – the power to act.
As with all things, that probably seems easier said than done, right? But once you get an effective system down, those three things are easy to do within your regular one on one meetings. But if you want a team of Sams and this seems out of reach for you right now, we’d love for you to join us for our spring Supervisor Strengths Institute that starts January 11, 2022. We talk about many things to make your life easier as a supervisor, including how to effectively coach your team, set clear expectations, and focus on staff development. You get 8-weeks of great online content – including how you can develop your team so they start showing up as Sams. You get 9 group support and accountability calls and three individual coaching calls, so you get the support you need to put what you’re learning into action. We just started early registration. If you sign up by Monday, November 29th – that’s Cyber Monday – you can also get a bonus free hour of team training. That alone is worth over $600. The Institute is a great value and we’ve spent over three years developing this curriculum to help you transform from an overwhelmed and stressed supervisor into a confident, empowered, and less stressed leader – that includes turning your team members into a gaggle of Sams.
Here’s a link to more information and to register: https://www.strengthsuniversity.org/supervisorstrengthsinstitute.
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