Setting an Individual Up for Success

Talk about performance. Let’s tackle an easy one.

Just recently, I observed a manager empower a colleague to create a spreadsheet to guide the team’s strategy and action plans. The manager, not wanting to kibosh the employee’s enthusiasm, provided no direction and just set her off to complete the task.

With no direction given and no questions asked, the task spiraled out of control. The end result was an Excel monster: a massive 11×17 spreadsheet that was basically unusable.  

What I see time and time again are poor hand-offs of tasks between people. We seem to do a better job of hand-offs at the project and job levels. But let’s do it at the task level too, especially when it’s so simple. I have a few suggestions that have worked for me over the years and will increase the likelihood that you’ll end up with the results you want and expect.

  • Schedule a meeting. Allow the appropriate amount of time and schedule the meeting at a time when both you and the person completing the task can focus.
  • Prepare for the meeting. Think through what results you’re really looking for, collect any background information or other relevant documents, determine if there are existing tools or templates that should be used, gather helpful samples, and consider any strong opinions you may have relative to the task.
  • During the meeting, address the following:

– Set clear expectations regarding roles, process, timing, and outcomes/deliverables.

– Convey the approximate amount of effort the person should spend on the task: “Sue, I think this task should take you about half a day. If you’re getting a sense this estimate is way off base, let’s have another conversation.”

– Share what you know. It’s frustrating to be on a path and stumble upon new information others already knew. Let’s not reinvent the wheel.

– Based on the person’s current skills and experience, provide step-by-step instructions. Don’t make assumptions about what the person already knows. This can be a difficult balance between being condescending and being thorough. Generally, you can navigate this just fine if you check for understanding throughout the meeting.

– The step-by-step instructions should include the use of any existing tools or templates: “Karen, I’d like you to start with the project schedule template. Let’s go through a bit of it together so you can see the overall format and steps to complete it.”

– If you have strong opinions about the process or outcomes, share them: “Whatever you do, make sure you interview John, and don’t include that purple color in the chart.” If something really matters to you, having the individual figure it out through trial and error just isn’t sensible.

– End the session by discussing the immediate next step to check on progress: “Brad, why don’t you complete the first five pages, send me the file to review, and then let’s get back together no later than next Friday to make sure you’re on the right track.” It’s not logical to have 50 pages done incorrectly if you could’ve done an in-process correction much sooner.


Many managers opt for the “discovery method” of learning – where they quickly assign a task and empower the person to get it done. There are times when this can result in deep learning and breakthrough thinking, but more often than not, it ends up in high frustration, incorrect assumptions, increased time and cost, and poor quality.

Start by turning over the next task that needs completing by setting your direct report, team member, or board member up for success.

I can’t wait to hear your thoughts on this topic!