The Four Quadrants of Employee Performance
How to frame hiring, retaining and developing talent while scaling your company culture intentionally.
Hiring, retaining and developing talent is a key leadership skill. Without great talent it’s impossible to have a great team. And without a great team, it’s impossible to build a great organization.
Hiring, retaining and developing talent is also time consuming, both in amount of time daily and weekly and length of time, over months.
How much time?
The HBR classic The First 90 Days (summarized here) has a diagram that explains that a new hire can actually take 3 months to start delivering value and another 3 months to start to see a breakeven return on your investment.
The space under the line to the lower left is “value consumed” as a hire learns about the organization and the job. There’s no net contribution to be expected until three months in (90 days) — that’s one of the main reasons that new hires should read The First 90 Days, and use it to develop a plan to manage expectations of their employers — which are always high!
You, as a Leader, are understandably itchy to hire employees that can “hit the ground running” on day one…but that’s rarely a realistic expectation.
Does that mean you have to wait for 3–6 months to find out if you’ve made a good hire?
THE FOUR QUADRANTS OF EMPLOYEE PERFORMANCE
Danny Meyer is one of my favorite business thinkers. He’s the pioneering restaurateur behind such acclaimed establishments as Gramercy Tavern, Blue Smoke, and the amazing and ubiquitous Shake Shack. He’s also renowned for his focus on genuine hospitality and employee-first business thinking through his consulting firm, Union Square Hospitality Group.
He wrote one of my favorite business books, Setting the Table. Read it!
Danny recently shared one of his most impactful leadership frameworks with Tim Ferris and summarized it here. The core idea is that there are four essential types of employees with four different attitudes towards performance. For each, you can have an action point and a time frame when you start to discover what kind of employee they are.
FLOWERS AND GEMS, PUZZLES AND CANDLES
Meyer breaks down the four quadrants of employee performance this way: Can and Can’t, Will and Won’t.
“If you’ve got somebody who can and will, I want to celebrate that person. Those are my flowers. I really want to water them.”
It’s easy for leaders to take the Can/Will employees for granted. But it’s important to “water these flowers” with praise and recognition. This helps with retention, sure, but it also makes it clear what kind of culture you want to cultivate. More on that later.
“If you have someone who can’t but will, I’m gonna coach them. The wick on my candle is pretty long for someone who will…If you can teach them how to do the thing, they’ve got the right hospitality attitude. Once they learn …you’re going to have a loyal employee for life.”
What’s amazing here is that Meyer goes on to say that he has a “six month wick” for these folks (just like HBR suggests!) …and refers to these employees as gems.
Employees that have the right mindset but not the skillset are diamonds in the rough. Many things are teachable. Hospitality, in Meyer’s view, is something that is easier to hire for than to coach.
Coaching is a crucial skill for leaders, and one that is rarely taught. Cultivating a coaching leadership style is one of the key pillars of conversational leadership. You can check out a summary of my core coaching frameworks for leaders here.
CAN’T AND WON’T: LIGHT A CANDLE UNDER THEM
Unmotivated and underperforming team members affect the whole team’s morale and productivity. Meyer says:
“Someone who can’t and won’t, I’m going to put the candle underneath their rear end, and they’re going to have to learn that this isn’t working, because the longer that person stays…everyone else on the team says, “why should I try?”
I’ve seen this play out firsthand in my executive coaching practice. A client of mine made a significant hire and found that this person lacked some crucial skills and essential attitudes that got missed in the hiring process. At the two month mark, we agreed that they would light a candle under that hire. That conversation cleared a pathway to letting the hire go at the three month mark if there wasn’t radical improvement. The frustration and disappointment my client worked through in the first two months was alleviated by clear communication of expectations and goals, and it made the process of letting the hire go a month later much more smooth and regret-free.
CAN AND WON’T: THE TOUGHEST PUZZLE
It’s like trying to make a puzzle piece fit into the wrong slot, over and over again — but no matter how much the edges fray, it’s just not a perfect fit.
“The hardest one I find is the can but won’t, that’s the person that you can say to them “You’re way better than this, but for some reason, you’re just choosing not to bring it here.”
He describes the process of letting these Can’t/Won’t employees go as saying “you’re a great player, but I think you are part of a different puzzle”.
Meyer’s four quadrants, key action points and time windows are summed up here:
THE CULTURE EQUATION (OR, HOW TO SCALE CULTURE)
Meyer suggests, later in his interview with Tim Ferris, that the culture you have is, in essence, the sum of all the ideal behaviors you reward and celebrate minus all of the unwanted behaviors you tolerate.
Meyers believes that employees will notice when you, as a leader, tolerate the Can/Won’t and the Can’t/Won’t folks, thinking to themselves:
“Why do they keep batting that person in the lineup instead of benching them or sending them to the minor leagues!?”
The way to scale culture is, in short, watering your flowers assiduously and lighting candles intentionally under your potential puzzle pieces.
In practice, this is hard. Having so-called difficult conversations are, by definition, difficult. Leaders avoid these uncomfortable conversations and let them simmer, hoping they’ll resolve themselves, somehow.
Meyer’s culture equation points out the cost of doing nothing — it’s impossible to scale the culture you want to create if you let your underperforming employees sap the energy of your flowers and gems.
LEANING INTO THE COACHING CONVERSATION: CONVERSATIONAL LEADERSHIP
Watering Flowers and letting Puzzle pieces go isn’t quite enough. Your highest ROI employees are actually the gems — Can’t/Will folks who need more support and coaching to unlock their potential.
In fact, if you’re working in a high complexity and high volatility environment, eventually everyone, you included, will be faced with an uncertain situation for which there is no easy solution. At some point, we’re all going to be in a Can’t moment. If we’re going to step into the Can’t/Will attitude, and help our teams to do the same, coaching is going to be a perennially crucial skill.
If we can foster a coaching mindset for ourselves and our teams, we can always turn Can’t into Can with a calm, consistent Will.