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Supporting Staff Development

EARLY IN WORLD WAR II, Winston Churchill sent this message to Franklin D. Roosevelt: “Give us the tools and we will finish the job.” This imperative holds true in business as well as combat. Employees at all levels need resources to do their jobs well. Two of the most critical resources that managers can offer are support and accountability.


Many managers underestimate the power of support, whether it be formal or informal. At our company, First Indiana Bank, we formally support top performers by making sure they get the proper recognition for the work done. We do this through nomination-based programs such as “Player of the Quarter” and “Best of the Best.” We also have a “Star Night,” which is a year-end celebration for top sales and service associates.

When developing any recognition program, managers should ensure that those recognized always display desired behaviors linked to tangible results and that the recognition events that celebrate their success are high profile.

These events need not be costly to be appreciated. For example, one formal recognition campaign at the bank, Race to Recognition, involved associates at all levels recognizing each other. It was relatively inexpensive but was a success with employees.

First, we created some blank one-dollar checks. We gave ten to each employee in the bank. Along with the checks, we had managers explain the program by telling their direct employees that this was a recognition program for everybody. Anybody could sign a check and present it to anyone else. They went on to explain the types of behaviors that we wanted to be used as criteria for doling out the money.

We ran the campaign for four weeks. At the end, we held auctions at different sites where associates could bid on and purchase items with their money. The most prized auction items were the ones that members of the senior team donated. They included symphony tickets, a poolside cookout, baseball cards, and autographed sports memorabilia.

Of course, recognition can also be informal. A culture that encourages managers to recognize employees and rewards employees for supporting one another almost always increases productivity and morale.

Informal recognition cannot be directed or required. Most of it comes from a corporate culture of care and the belief in the value of individual leaders. A major skill that we reinforce continually to our leaders is the skill of giving positive feedback.

We try to make sure that whenever praise is given, details of why we think the person or group did a good job are included. After all, if someone doesn’t know exactly what they did to get praise, it is difficult for them to do it again. Following are some tips for providing informal recognition.

Show interest. This one is easy, yet often ignored. There are no special tactics or trade secrets here. It is merely making an effort to show that you care about another individual’s personal and professional life.

For example, I try to keep close track of what my trainers are doing so that I can encourage them and offer help if needed. If someone is having a particularly challenging day, I look for a spare minute, sit by the person’s desk, and ask him or her how it’s going.

If the employee went away with his family for a long weekend, I will ask how things went.

Alternatively, some managers make a habit of walking around and greeting each person in their department every morning. They offer a genuine good morning and ask the employees if they are facing any particular challenges.

This behavior comes naturally to leaders who tend to be outgoing. However, it may be difficult for those who are introverted or believe that work is work and kind words are unnecessary. These managers must find ways to be supportive even if it is uncomfortable.

Incentives. An important way to support new behaviors is to reward them. Our retail banking division offers a case in point. Until recently, our tellers’ duties consisted solely of carrying out customer transactions and making sure their drawers balanced. Because of a reorganization, the teller function had to evolve. Tellers now interact more with customers and have more duties, including opening new accounts and introducing patrons to other bank products.

To help the tellers embrace their new roles, the company set up a system allowing them to earn extra money when they make customer referrals to other areas of the bank and when they open new accounts.

As a result of the incentive program, the new duties became more of an opportunity than a chore. The transition from a transaction-oriented role to a consulting sales role would have been more difficult and potentially less successful without those incentives.

Showcase. Individuals and teams of employees who are recognized for good performance should be asked to present their methods to their peers and managers in formal settings. This benefits everyone. Senior managers learn about the work of individual employees, and the employees gain confidence in presenting their ideas.

In addition to meetings, internal newspapers and the intranet are also great places to showcase best practices and successes. One note of caution, however, is that it’s critical for the employee to be professional in these presentations. A shoddy presentation will derail the event and undermine both the employee and staff confidence in the employee.


Every Friday, I develop a weekly action plan for the next week. I include specific tasks I plan to accomplish, the timeline for completion, and comments. I also keep track of when those tasks are completed. I send my action plan to my boss and the staff I directly supervise. This is an effective way for me to remain accountable to do what I say I will do. It also serves as an example to my direct charges, who then understand when I ask them to do the same.

Use contracts. Another good way to build accountability involves communicating with line managers or supervisors on the importance of their role in their employees’ success. The manager and employee should formalize agreements on what specific behaviors employees and managers will be held accountable for. Followup is paramount if this process is to be successful.

After setting up the agreements, performance objectives should be set. These should be actionable and observable. The program should include performance goals and set out the behaviors that employees must exhibit. Finally, managers should tell employees that they will be called on to make a report on activities they are responsible for to their team or to an executive.

Other suggestions for increasing accountability include the following:

Phone conferences. Talking with staff in a phone conference is helpful when you have people in remote locations. Managers must let these employees know what will be discussed at the conferences and what they will be expected to report on.

Most workers are hesitant to tell their peers that they didn’t have time to complete a task, so they are more likely to be successful if they know that they will have to give a public status report of their project during the conference call. To keep the process moving, managers should establish specific commitments at the end of each call.

Regular meetings. I conduct a weekly meeting with our entire senior team. The meeting, which is limited to 30 minutes, consists of addressing high-level topics such as cutting costs and improving morale. For each issue, the team generates specific plans to address each problem. The following week, we debrief those plans and either move on to a new topic or continue with modified commitments for the next week.

Staff observation. It is useful to occasionally watch how employees perform certain tasks. It is true that observing employees can be somewhat invasive. Few employees relish the idea, but they may warm to the concept if managers explain it in a positive way.

I explain the rationale to employees with the analogy of the golfer and the coach. Every professional golfer has a coach. Do you think the coach tells and shows the golfer how to improve his swing, then turns his back when he tries it? Of course not. Only when managers observe what employees do can they really be helpful.

Interviews. Managers should conduct interviews with employees they are coaching. Prior to a session, managers should make sure that both parties are clear about the issue at hand. For example, if an employee (we’ll call him George) is working on improving his customer-profiling skills, the manager should meet with George and ask him to describe how he deals with various customer situations. Then the manager can discuss both what George is doing right and what he needs to change. The manager can give George certain skills to work on. When they next meet, the manager can ask George about the progress he’s made in the behaviors discussed previously.

The manager may want to ask George to demonstrate his new approach to certain customer situations. If the manager does this respectfully, he can get an accurate measure of George and his skills. It is crucial to use this follow-up method soon after the initial meeting to create immediate reinforcement for new behaviors.

Document review. Where employees have certain forms to fill out or reports to file, managers should periodically check over these documents to see whether employees are filling them out correctly. Any employees who are making errors should be tutored or retrained. The manager should then recheck future reports to ensure that employees have applied what they learned.

This is particularly appropriate where employees must comply with laws, such as Sarbanes-Oxley. In these cases, the failure to transfer what has been learned in training to behavior on the job can have serious consequences. Managers should let employees know that they are going to check documents and also provide the rationale for the action. They should explain that supervisors will help the employee improve if necessary.

Use tools. Most organizations survey customers either directly or through a third party. At First Indiana, we do both. This data provides an excellent opportunity for accountability.

Unfortunately, many managers of sales areas discount this valuable source of information, especially when the results are negative. Instead, managers should consider customer surveys a useful gauge of staff performance and implement some sort of accountability to customer input.

It is also a good idea to conduct regular employee surveys. We send one out electronically three times a year. We use the questions the Gallup Organization developed, the “Twelve Determinants of Employee Loyalty.” Those particular questions seem to cover all or most of the cultural ingredients we are trying to build.

Results are divided by department and sent to subsequent managers. Managers then meet with their employees to select several issues to work on as a department and decide how they will do it. This use of survey data provides an excellent accountability process.

During this process, many leaders keep a coaching journal. This is a tool in which the trainer or manager writes down what is going well and what isn’t in his or her coaching. It also includes the commitments that participants make to each other.

Managers must show support and accountability if they want employees to perform well. By modeling appropriate behavior and clearly showing employees that help and rewards are available, managers can build a more productive workplace.

Donald L. Kirkpatrick, Ph.D., is professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin.

James D. Kirkpatrick, Ph.D., is the senior consultant for evaluation services for Corporate University Enterprise (CUE) in Falls Church, Virginia. Prior to joining CUE, he was a director for First Indiana Bank in Indianapolis.

This article is excerpted from their book Transferring Learning to Behavior, published by Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., in San Francisco. Those interested in purchasing the book can call 800/929-2929 or