A Curmudgeon's Perspective

Tomatoes, Squash, Associates and Weeds

By | Sep.24.13 | Curmudgeon's Perspective, Daily Dispatch, Hiring, Law Firm Management, People Management

Otto Sorts

Each spring when I plant my garden, I have great expectations for all the vegetables I’ll be harvesting. By June, the new plants start to look a little like the pictures in the catalog, but here and there I encounter a few “volunteers” from last year’s crop. Typically, it’s a tomato or squash plant embedded among the cucumbers and beets.

At this stage, I have to encourage and feed the plants I want, but cull or thin out the ones I don’t.  I can distinguish the vegetables from the weeds and begin the process of pulling the weeds and thinning the seedlings. It’s the only way to make sure I get what I need.

You’ve Got a Garden to Tend

In our firm we use the same process to manage our crop of new and not-so-new personnel — associates, staff and partners alike. So, how do we tell which ones we want to grow and which we need to cull?

First, there are minimum requirements for every position. Your hiring process has, hopefully, verified the credentials and determined what knowledge and skills your applicants have. The paper they carry is irrelevant, though, where the rubber meets the road. Real-world testing will separate those who can from those who can’t. Pull the weeds.

Second, each organization has a culture that creates a comfort zone for its members and clients, and we make sure to cultivate people who share our values and vision. Sure, diversity is important to keep the organization viable (too much inbreeding weakens the strain), but establishing and maintaining norms helps create a cohesive, friendly workplace and organizational identity. Some plants and people just turn up in the wrong place. In Hawaii I once saw someone culling orchids from a planting. Their response to my amazement was, “Any plant in the wrong place is a weed.” A tomato in the beets is a weed. Pull it.

Third, among your acceptable staff are those who have a little something extra that makes them more valuable than the others. Maybe it’s drive or ambition (careful there, too much of a good thing can be bad), or creativity in solving problems, or just the ability to adapt and learn. Which ones do you want to spend your time feeding, training and encouraging? If you don’t value what certain ones have to offer, pull them.

Fourth, as with plants, there are people who have been good producers over time, rewarding your investment in them, but who no longer produce. It is appropriate to reward them, of course, but at some point maintaining that cost or effort will start to surpass their ongoing value. It is only right that you have rewarded them commensurate with their value as incurred. However, what they have done and what you have given them is “sunk cost” that is in the past. Future decisions must be made on future cost and benefit. You can move the plant out of the way, give it a little pasture of its own, but at some point, it has to be pulled.

So, how do you do this culling and weeding?

I have learned it is better to pull weeds when they are small, before the roots get too established. That seems to apply as well to staff. If you know they’re going to have to go, it’s easier on you and them to get it over with. Letting a weed continue to grow leads to greater problems later on, and makes the garden look bad in the meantime.

A quick removal, appropriately communicated and compensated, helps both the departing and the people left behind. Certainly, people who have a history with the organization need to be handled with care and consideration, but being indecisive or allowing inappropriate delay will only cause disruption.

You’ve got a garden to tend. You don’t want to spend all your time and effort on dealing with weeds, but instead on helping the plants that remain to thrive and grow. Seems like the same applies to your organization and your people. They need to thrive and grow without the weeds.

Otto Sorts has been reading law since before Martindale met Hubbell. Of Counsel at a large corporate firm that prefers to remain anonymous, Otto is a respected attorney and champion of the grand tradition of the law. He is, however, suspicious of “new-fangled” management ideas and anyone who calls the profession the legal “industry.” When he gets really cranky about something he blogs at Attorney at Work.

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