A close colleague recently sent me a quote that made me stop and think:

“People join companies to make history, not to become history.”

I wholeheartedly believe in the sentiment. As a business leader, I want to see my company and the people within it grow. But if, like me, you believe people want to make a difference in work, what is the responsibility of an employer when you realise they are not going to excel with you?

This isn’t about firing people. It’s about those ‘grey’ cases, how best to support people in their careers and how to educate and empower managers to see people as more than just assets.

Spotting the inbetweeners

You probably recognise this within your company. There are individuals who are stars, destined to be future leaders. There are disrupters, with an obviously negative impact. And then, there are a number of people who sit somewhere in the middle. Many of these can be trained and upskilled and make a valuable contribution to the organisation – and their own feeling of worth. But for some, while they might not be costing the business, they are also not thriving in the way others are.

There are always telltale signs: employees who are disengaged, not proactive, clock-watching or showing no enthusiasm. I don’t mean beware every employee who is not jumping up and down. Not everyone is extrovert. This is why managers need to understand their teams on a human as well as business level. And they have to be empowered and confident to have honest and open conversations with them.

Why managers live with the status quo

There are several reasons why managers choose not to do anything about so-so performers in their teams. It could be for selfish reasons, like the prestige of having a big team. Or, if they have an annual target based on topline numbers and not profitability, keeping a large team makes it easier to hit their target.

I believe it’s completely wrong to only look at people as assets. Great managers should also get to know their teams as individuals – the qual and the quant if you will. At Arrows Group this has been entrenched in the company, as performance reviews are based 60% on KPIs and 40% on Arrows DNA.

The manager mentor

Another reason managers might avoid taking action is a lack of confidence. Management is a big responsibility, particularly when people take it on or the first time and are in charge of young employees and graduates. They may consider that it’s always in people’s best interests to have a job – even if that job is not right for the individual.

There are several times in my career where, after open discussions, I have parted ways with people I have managed and they have gone on to do things much better suited to them – from a career in finance to returning to education. I use these examples to reassure my managers. The idea is not to empower them to fire at will. But I do want to educate them if they are keeping people for the wrong reasons.

I develop my managers to be mentors who hold open, ongoing conversations with their team. One-off confrontations don’t help as someone might just be having a bad week or month, or there could be important external factors. That’s why I believe managers should be in the same space as their teams, not locked in an office looking at spreadsheets.

People want to make history and employers should do everything they can do provide that opportunity. But, a strong leader also has to realise they might not be making history with them.