As the nation gets ready to head back to school, even those of us who have long graduated should be thinking about grades. Over the years when I’ve hired new employees, the question I would always ask myself and my staff is, Is this person an "A" student?
"A" students are people who think for themselves, go above and beyond and basically are, as teachers would put it, “a joy to have in class” (or in the office). I’ve always tried to hire (and work with) the A students instead of the “Cs,” which has helped me build some great teams.
But what if you have some current employees who aren’t A students, and you’re not ready to fire them and hire new people? No worries—there are some steps you can take to raise your employees’ GPA and turn average workers into top performers. In honor of back-to-school season, try these seven tips from teachers to help your employees make the grade.
1. Stricter is better. Did you ever have that ultra-nice teacher who was so cool, he or she was like “one of the kids”? You probably spent a lot of time talking about your feelings, chatting about what was on TV last night and listening to Led Zeppelin (I’m dating myself here, but you get the idea). You likely remember that class well, but do you remember what you learned? Probably not.
You also likely had the nightmare teacher no one wanted, the one who gave pop quizzes, humiliated people who didn’t know the answers and expected you to read The Canterbury Tales in two weeks. Do you remember what you learned in that teacher’s class? I bet you do. (I can still recite the prologue to The Canterbury Tales in Middle English). Chances are, you also ended up liking that teacher when it was all over.
The lesson? Being nice is great, but being strict is better—though lay off the humiliation part. If you start off too nice, you may lose control of your “class.” If you start off on a strict note, you’ll quickly be able to identify the potential problem employees, and you can always ease up later. But once employees view you as a pushover, there’s no going back.
2. Set expectations. Good teachers communicate what students are expected to achieve. In school, this is called a “rubric,” and it lays out the details of what constitutes A, B, C, D and F level work. Be very specific with your staff about your expectations, and they’re more likely to deliver what you want.
3. Create consequences. In tandem with expectations come consequences for not meeting them. Students (and parents) are told at the beginning of each school year exactly what the consequences will be for misbehavior. Consequences escalate depending on the number and severity of each offense, ranging from a verbal warning to a visit to the principal’s office to suspension from school.
Just like schools, employers have to follow a lot of rules when delivering consequences. It helps to develop an employee handbook that includes your policies regarding things like tardiness, absences, harassment or theft. Consult an attorney familiar with your industry and your state to make sure everything you want to include is all appropriate and legal. Then make sure your employees know what the consequences of bad behavior will be. Most importantly, follow through. If you don't, you'll start losing control of your "class."
4. Set employees up for success. Students start each school year getting a list of supplies they’ll need, topics they’ll cover and projects they’ll be doing. You can’t be that precise since your business has to respond to the marketplace, but like a good teacher, you need to make sure your employees have what they need to succeed. This includes providing the right equipment, making sure it’s well maintained and updated as necessary, and giving them the training, exposure and support they need to do their jobs well. If you let employees flounder without guidance, you’re setting them up to fail—and hurting your business.
5. Encourage teamwork. Responding to the reality of the business marketplace, schools today are focusing more on team projects and teaching students how to work together well. Build up your C level employees by having your A level staff work with them to provide training, mentoring and feedback. This not only improves your sub-par employees’ skills, but it also makes the A level ones feel needed and gives them experience to become better team players and managers later on.
6. Get to know your employees' strengths and weaknesses. Good teachers don’t treat every student the same. They know when to give someone slack and when to crack down. Knowing what’s going on in your employees’ lives—and understanding their strengths and weaknesses both as employees and people—will help you manage them more effectively.
7. Assign homework. In school, homework helps students practice concepts and cement the knowledge they've gained in class. In business, it can do the same. You can’t legally assign employees homework they have to do beyond their work hours, but you can give such “homework” as having employees practice new skills on the job, sending them to industry conferences and events, or holding weekly brown-bag lunches where you discuss trends, news or concepts related to your business. For instance, one entrepreneur I know regularly suggests employees read the same business book, which they discuss in a monthly book group at lunch. Not everyone has to do it—but those who do certainly get a gold star in the business owner’s book.
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