Imagine you run a ski-jump school. You are at the top of the mountain and watch skier one cross the threshold and make a beautiful jump. Then skier two jumps--also beautiful

Then a guy in shorts and sandals runs by you and rolls down the hill.

"You idiot," you cry. "You are a disgrace!"

But is it true? Is the guy in flip-flops really trying to do a bad job? After all, it's your school...Have you taught him the value of the proper equipment, of physical training? Does he know how to launch or land?

How about teaching him these things rather than decrying his character?

Meanwhile, back on land

Imagine now that you are a leader in your company. Your mind turns to that man or woman who has recently worried you. Someone you once trusted, but now has such performance issues that you feel they are letting you down.

"I'm a little worried about Joe... Sales have fallen off in the Eastern region," you say. "I am insulted at his lack of commitment." Notice how worry about performance so easily leads to worry about the person...

Here's when to listen to that worried-about-people voice: Never. At least not until you have passed the discussion through a simple rule:

Always blame process before you blame people.

That is, always ask what we could have done better, not what you could have done better.

And by process, I don't mean lean, six sigma, agile or anything that needs training. I mean, have you defined success for this person (or even better, with this person) as something that has a beginning, a middle and an end?

Ready, Skier Three

What if you took your employee to a "ski-jump school"? Taught them the value of preparation, execution and follow-through? Gave them some ways to assess their success, and then do better?

Let's take Joe's B2B sales team. Maybe they'd better learn prospecting, proposal-writing and closing techniques. If they haven't learned them yet, is it too late? Or can you enhance their performance? Your ski-jump conversation might go something like this:

"Joe, at this company we value cold calling." 

[Note to reader: I, Walter, hate cold calling. But I am trying to stay in character.] 

"So, Joe...ahem...Disciplined cold calling will lead to greater revenue..."

This starts the conversation about your mutual expectations, the support he will need and how to define success. You may learn that Joe is not a fan of cold-calling, or is afraid of it. Now you have something to work on together.

Now imagine that four weeks have passed since you first became concerned. The process is in place. So rather than having concerns about commitment or anything related to Joe the person, you have a somewhat-quantified piece of information that provides a rich coaching conversation. Like, "Good job! Did that simple process we discuss help you? What's working well?"

Now, if you need to "blame" anything--blame is not necessarily our best emotional color-- you can blame a specific action that your associate did or did not take.

If that gap persists in Joe, well, wave buh-bye to Joe. But at least you have separated for a reason, and not for an emotion-laden response on your part.

And you can be on the same side of the table, both figuratively and literally.

Hit the slopes

Often, I ask clients to take the "ski-jump" challenge. That is, instead of feeling vaguely put-upon by purported "people issues," the leader speaks up. Instead of ruminating on vague dissatisfaction, we clarify performance metrics. And instead of waiting, we act.

A leader's "ski-jump" exercise consists of three steps:

  1. Ask the leader--the boss--to name a subordinate's performance issue that has been colored as a personal issue.
  2. Describe a simple "ski-jump" improvement process--consisting of a beginning, a middle and end--that might help the person perform their job better.
  3. With the subordinate, brainstorm areas to work on, describe the goals and name a follow-up date.

This will work for the person involved, naturally. But also imagine what this technique does for us as leaders. Rather than having our mind clogged with all this mental chatter about so-called people issues, we have a checklist of ways to address the problem at the root.