Green Thumb Management: Advice for Growing Great Employees

By virtue of what falls within their range of responsibilities, CLOs know better than anyone that the heart of the enterprise is the nonlinear, multifaceted, ever-changing group of people who […]

By virtue of what falls within their range of responsibilities, CLOs know better than anyone that the heart of the enterprise is the nonlinear, multifaceted, ever-changing group of people who make up its workforce.

If that sounds like hubris, try this experiment. Select 10 people who have some responsibility for others’ work success such as managers, HR staff and team leaders. One at a time, ask them, “What is the hardest and most challenging part of your job?” Tell them they can say whatever they want, they don’t have to be politically correct and no one is writing down their answers. Chances are good that about nine of them will say something about “dealing with the people stuff.”

If life were fair, employees would be perfect. They would do exactly what we asked them to do, exactly when we asked them to do it — except, of course, for the fantastic ideas they would cook up on their own, the ones that would knock everybody’s socks off, rejuvenate the company’s tired products and services and increase the bottom line by double digits.

They would be cheerful, kind, brave, reverent and thrifty, and they would evolve smoothly from entry-level to the C-suite with no bumps along the way, handing us completed performance reviews once a year that perfectly reflect their efforts and results and include their own entirely appropriate developmental plans.

Back to reality. Employees, like you and me, are flawed and hopeful human beings whose success at least partly depends on the skills of their managers. They will thrive with skillful and consistent attention and wither without it, kind of like plants.

So, as a “leader of managers,” how do you help the managers in your organization nurture individual growth? Here are five essential strategies:

1. There is no such thing as a successful one-minute gardener. If you garden consistently, your garden will thrive. Going away for months at a time or trying to do it all at once simply doesn’t work. Just as gardens need a consistent cycle of support, employees thrive with skillful and consistent attention. As a manager, regular maintenance is critical, from making clear agreements about employee responsibilities to giving feedback, even for the high performers.

2. Prepare the soil by listening. The secret of good gardening lies in adequate soil preparation. For a manager, listening is preparing the soil — it establishes an open, nourishing environment that allows ideas and people to flourish. Unfortunately, when people become managers, they too often let go of their listening skills. They think they’re supposed to talk, and the employees are supposed to listen, but listening is essential to a manager’s success. It provides the chance to find out what people know and don’t know, what has and hasn’t been done and where there might be concerns or misunderstandings. Most important, it creates an atmosphere of mutual respect, and that’s where talented employees put down roots and grow.

3. Maintain the right mindset. Just as successful gardeners approach the garden with confidence, managers should believe in employees’ potential and want to help them succeed. Without cultivating this attitude, it’s nearly impossible to create a workforce full of thriving and productive employees.

4. Don’t be afraid to prune. Gardeners prune plants to encourage them in the right direction and for more frequent blooms. Similarly, managers need to urge their employees in the right direction by providing both positive and corrective feedback. The key is to offer examples that focus on employees’ specific behavior.

5. Re-evaluate when it’s not working. Some plants are invasive and impede their neighbors’ growth. Others simply don’t thrive where you put them, despite your best efforts. Sometimes even excellent leaders have employees who don’t succeed and need to be moved for a better fit, either inside the company or out.

As the person most responsible for learning in an organization, it’s easy to forget that the simplest things can have a tremendous impact. Helping leaders in your organization learn how to manage their employees with skillful, consistent and practical attention will reap a harvest of good business results for years to come.

Erika Andersen is the founder of Proteus International, a consulting firm that works with CEOs and top executives of major corporations. She is the author of “Growing Great Employees: Turning Ordinary People into Extraordinary Performers.” She can be reached at