A Job Well Done

You won't boost employee performance without the right training and supervision.

By Alex Hiam

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Q: I run a business that provides business services. As my business grows, I find myself having to turn more of the work over to employees and spend more of my time developing new customers. But it's hard to find employees with the right skills, and often I come back to the office to find they've done the work poorly. Then we get into arguments about their work, and they resent my complaining about it. What do you recommend?

A: You may be increasing your customer base too quickly. I suggest you put some effort into building the internal capacity to handle at least certain kinds of work correctly before you add any more customers.

Unfortunately, you cannot expect to build up your firm's capacity simply by hiring employees, even ones who seem qualified on paper. It takes an investment in designing and supervising the work they do. Here are some fundamentals of good job supervision that you need to institute right away:

  1. Define the characteristics of high-quality work in detail. Create a checklist for each task--each natural chunk or unit of work--to make sure your employees know what they need to do in order to do it well. Yes, I know this sounds like a chore (and it is), but it's even more important to growing a business than writing a business plan, and it takes a lot less time. Many employees in workplaces today don't know exactly what they need to do in order to do a good job. I suspect this is true in your workplace.
  2. Go over these checklists with employees. Spend plenty of time on each point, discussing it, demonstrating it and then encouraging questions and comments. Hopefully, employees will have some ideas of their own that can be added to the checklists to clarify or expand them. Let them have a role. (Yes, you are training your employees--sorry, but it's a vital part of good supervision!)
  3. Tell them why you care that they do a great job. Explain your aspirations and hopes for the business. Share any growth goals. Discuss with your employees why you feel that you, the business and its employees will benefit by pursuing these goals. For example, if their efforts help grow the business, you might be able to afford to pay higher salaries or upgrade the facilities. And also talk about the intangibles--the pride you feel when your firm is recognized as the best by customers, and how you want your employees to feel that they're part of a winning team. Relate these aspirations for your business to those checklists or descriptions of what it takes to do the work well, so employees understand there is indeed a "method to your madness."
  4. Later, ask them how they're doing with the new checklists. Are they producing excellent work that fits the criteria fully, or are they running into some problems? And if they've encountered problems, what can they do about it? In other words, begin to use the new, more specific definitions of their work as tools to engage them in a participatory effort to upgrade their quality.
  5. When things go wrong now, focus on asking (not telling) employees what went wrong and why, and how the same problem might be avoided in the future. In other words, always use errors or problems as learning opportunities. This will help keep them focused on the pursuit of high standards.
  6. Look for successes, the things employees do right. Make sure you note the good aspects of their work each day and week. Try to shift your focus from finding and fixing errors to praising and rewarding correct actions. This will help you and your employees feel more positive about the way things are going, and it will produce much more rapid and durable improvements.

Alex Hiam runs a consulting/training firm that focuses on increasing human performance in businesses. He is also the author of numerous books on management, motivation and marketing, includingMaking Horses Drink: How to Lead and Succeed in Business.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author, not of Entrepreneur.com. All answers are intended to be general in nature, without regard to specific geographical areas or circumstances, and should only be relied upon after consulting an appropriate expert, such as an attorney or accountant.

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