With exceptionally pleasant weather providing encouragement, my sister and I enjoyed a Sunday afternoon by meeting for lunch and hitting the mall for retail therapy. While waiting for our food, we strategized our shopping approach like huntresses seeking prey — makeup, shoes and a super sale on spring jackets — essential sustenance.
As we finished our meal, we agreed it was, in scientific terms, yummy. The restaurant consistently serves hunger-satisfying hamburgers, wraps and tortilla soup — the kind of above-average food you come back for again. But it had to be for the place to survive, right? As casual dining choices proliferate, food, service and value simply have to exceed average for a restaurant to stay in the game.
Guess what? The same is true for employees and managers now, too. Seems absurd, but ponder this: When are workers like hamburger joints? Answer: When workers stand out with unique, above-average qualities — like great hamburger joints — they survive. In the Jan. 24 New York Times article “Average Is Over,” Thomas L. Friedman spoke to this new reality.
With above-average opportunities to use cheap foreign labor — in addition to globalization, low-priced robotics and software — it is little wonder that doing an average job no longer gets you what it did before. Accelerating advances in automation and technology have been eliminating jobs for decades.
Friedman also noted that the best jobs will require employees to have more education to become above-average. Research agrees. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, these are the unemployment rates for Americans over 25 years old: those with less than a high school diploma, 13.8 percent; high school degree and no college, 8.7 percent ; some college or associate degree, 7.7 percent; bachelor’s degree or higher, 4.1 percent.
As a manager, why should you care about being above-average? Countless reasons apply, but let’s hit the top three that come to mind. Above-average managers are more likely to 1) keep their jobs, 2) keep the best employees and 3) stay in business. Sum it up in a word: survive. Let’s look at the obvious importance of each of these factors and why so many managers nonetheless continue to lead in an inept and below-average manner.
Keeping your job
Above-average managers are not common, as many unhappy employees will attest. Why? Usually there is no requirement to be above-average at managing others to win a management job. I have seen many people promoted or hired into management slots because they knew someone, were a relative of the business owner or achieved recognition as an individual contributor.
These criteria do not qualify people to be successful people managers. Did the new manager receive management training or rack up related experience prior to taking over a group or department? Did the new leader pass a test of some type to become a manager? Was a mentor assigned to coach and ensure that the new manager was managing right? Generally the answer is “no” to all of the above.
If you’re a manager or an above-average employee who seeks continuous improvement, you need to proactively set up your own system for becoming more skilled and consistently above-average before and after you win the job. Companies need to stress and enable this, but few do.
Ask for a mentor, shadow a manager you admire and enroll in management training classes and seminars. Where some management oversight exists, unqualified managers are often removed from their positions within six months to a year. The damage they generate in the interim can be huge in terms of flushed costs, slumped revenue and lost employees, which brings us to our second reason to be above-average.
Oh, the pain of working for managers who don’t know what they’re doing, are micromanagers or motivate by fear. In short, it’s a lousy game of dice, and the pieces being thrown around are employees who work for the unqualified manager. Reality bites. When other employment is available, the best employees jump ship as fast as possible.
What do above-average managers do to keep above-average employees who produce superlative results? In January, Erika Anderson, a contributor to Forbes magazine, explored this topic with her article “Why Top Talent Leaves: Top 10 Reasons Boiled Down to 1.” Wow. One reason tells the story: “Top talent leave an organization when they’re badly managed and the organization is confusing and uninspiring.” Simple yet challenging.
Anderson contends that managers and leaders who keep the best people A) create an organization where people managers are hired for their ability to manage well, are supported to become better managers, are held accountable and rewarded for doing so; and B) are clear about the organization’s financial and three-dimensional goals. This should include the company’s purpose; what you’ll bring to the world, the culture you want to create; how the organization will look, feel and sound if the mission and culture are embraced; and how success will be measured.
Once your view of the future is clarified, a consistent focus, keeping your vision top of mind and working together to achieve it are what keep the best employees engaged and inspired. CEOs and managers must do this for their companies and their teams. It’s amazing how often these basic yet crucial components are missing from leadership and management scenarios.
Staying in business
Absorbing the importance of being an above-average manager to keep your job and keep employees flows right into why the same approach is fundamental to staying in business. Particularly in a skittish economy, businesses that are led by below-average leaders tend to shrivel and fade, while enterprises guided by above-average leadership survive and fly.
If you’re an excellent manager, you’re likely keeping the best employees and enabling and empowering them to crank out top-notch performance. This is what keeps you in business. Your above-average approach includes an inherent motivation to keep looking ahead for the next opportunity, watching your flanks for bloated costs and the first sniff of market threats, and skillfully making decisions to thwart negative impact. The above-average manager recognizes that staying in business is a team effort, with many proficient players combining their expertise and energy to produce success.
Delivering an average or mediocre product or service no longer cuts it for the long haul, and often neither does being an average worker. The restaurant my sister and I selected that Sunday afternoon attracted us with above-average burgers and service.
Digest this same concept when thinking about managers and employees that companies want to hire. Education, experience, hard work and ongoing skills improvement are part of the above-average package. All of this comes together in the form of realizing and exceeding business and financial results.
What’s even more satisfying for above-average employees and managers? When it comes to achieving goals, there’s usually nothing average about it.
This article originally appeared in the May 2012 issue.