Leading People and Organizations
Becoming the Boss
My name is Chris Tilghman. I work for a company called Inside Track that is headquartered in San
Francisco. We provide one-on-one coaching services for university students on behalf of their university.
So we are effectively providing mentoring to new students to help them manage the transition from
high school to college on behalf of universities.
Discussion of Challenge
So my first job was as a player-coach on a new team at Inside Track that was providing a coaching
service for students who were in the application process. I was responsible for both providing the
service and also running a small team. We were improving the application yield for our client, which
meant that – for all the people who had applied, they were more getting more people starting than they
had with others, which was effectively paying for our services many times over. So from their point of
view, it was a very effective and successful service, and they asked us to expand the service. So, we
effectively tripled the amount of work that we were going to be responsible for over the course of about
two weeks. So we went from three of us to 10 of us, and I went from being a player-coach to just being
the manager of this team. I was now a little bit removed. I was not hearing everything that was going on.
I couldn't see everything that was going on. I didn't get to spend nearly as much time with any individual
member of the team as I had been able to before. And about a month in, when we started to get our
first forecast on where we were going to be, I realized that I had a few people on my team who were
performing really well. I had a bunch of people on my team who were in the middle. You know? They –
it looked good, but not great, and then I had a few people that were not performing that well at all. And
so when you summed it all up, the forecast looked like we were not going to be hitting our benchmark,
and performing nearly as well as we had been before.
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Discussion of Decision
I came to realize that my teammates – and I still use that word, "teammates," but, you know, in fact,
they weren't necessarily my teammates. They were my team. You know? They were kind of my
subordinates. They were not uniformly capable. They were not uniformly, frankly, motivated to succeed
in the same sort of intrinsic way that I was. They were not looking, necessarily, for an achievement that
would allow them to build a foundation to take the next step. You know? In a lot of cases, they just
treated this as a job, and it was a job that allowed them to have the rest of their life, but it didn't have
nearly the meaning in it that mine did. And that was tricky, because all of a sudden I now had to begin to
appreciate the fact that there were very different expectations, you know, one person to another, about
what represented good work, what represented realistic expectations. And I had to realize that there
were really different reasons that people were there and ways that they could be motivated.
All of a sudden, my job started looking a lot more complicated. For my strongest people, I could
comfortably set, you know, a bar that was 30 percent higher than my weakest people and still be hitting
the level that I needed to be at over time, and rewards needed to follow that. You know, I needed to be
providing more visibility and more opportunity for the people who were at the top and achieving more
and actually really kind of pulling the team. And I needed to be providing a different kind of, you know,
resource for the people who were at the bottom who, you know, either needed some sanctioning, you
know, and needed to be called to task for not doing the things they said they were going to do, or I
needed to be looking for ways to improve their skills.
Another thing that I did, because the nature of the work was such that it was similar person to person
but everybody was dealing with different individual cases, so everybody's group of students was a little
bit different, was to have a daily team meeting. So, very short. I mean, we might get together for 20
minutes. But we'd get together every day so that people could have a little bit of time to vent any
frustrations that they had, have a little bit of time to ask questions of the team. I had to get a lot better
at sanctioning people, and that was really hard. That was very, very hard for me because I was so used
to being able to be positive, and now all of a sudden I had to try to start being negative. Or – not
necessarily negative, but I had to be critical, a lot more critical than I had been.
The only just thing to do – at least to start, because I wasn't going to just fire these people right away –
was to set a standard that seemed fair and seemed realistic and explain it as such and explain to them
that this was the minimum standard. You know, we are going to provide you with the following
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resources, and we are going to provide you with a peer tutor or a peer coach. I am going to spend extra
time with you, but you are going to – you have got to understand that this is the minimum, and there
are other people on the team who are actually working at a higher standard. And that is where you
ought to be. That is where you can be. We believe you can be there. If you cannot get there and you
cannot do it in the next six weeks, well then the consequence is that this is not going to – it is not going
to work out. It is not going to be a good place for you.
Discussion of Results
Of the underperformers – let's say there were four. You know, you have a team of 10. There were three
that were clear underperformers and maybe one that was on the margin. One left just through natural
attrition, was not happy. And she left pretty quickly. One left after about three more months, just clear
that the company wasn't the right fit. The other two actually worked out. You know, one never became
a great performer, although he was able to meet the standard and get a little bit above it. And one
turned out to be, you know, a really solid performer and has stayed with the company, been a very
successful coach for, you know, the past four years, since that time.
It is not sufficient to assume that people are intrinsically motivated, that they all want to achieve, that
they are the kind of high-performers that places like Stanford Business School tend to collect. Just not
true, and to be an effective manager, I had to be realistic about that and not try to sort of imagine that
these people could all become sort of like me. So that was a big lesson.
Another big lesson: it is really bad when you let poor performance persist or you let a bad apple stay in
the group and just rot. That was something I did not appreciate right away. I understood what it was
doing to my goal, which was effectively the team goal, and that was a problem and I was addressing it,
but I did not understand right away that it was actually – having people who were not performing and
having people who did not have a very good attitude or were complaining was actually hurting the
attitude of the group. And I would actually have people in those one-on-one meetings that I would have
with them every week say, "Hey, what's going on with so-and-so?" I mean, that is what I came to
understand was their way of saying, “You’ve got to look into this, 'cause this is taking my attention.
Please address it.”
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