Years ago, while working for eBay, I started my journey into the adult training world. I was a customer service representative working for the Live Chat system, and I started my Master’s degree in Education. The original goal was to prepare to become a professor and start my career in higher education, though as I continued through the process, I learned the value of adult education and training. I could see the value of industry certifications and corporate training, and I started to explore that avenue.
While progressing through my degree, my responsibilities had changed. I became a member of the Help Desk, and then eventually Team Lead, and in each role, the real thrill for me was watching someone develop and grow. At this time I started exploring my options with the Training team, moonlighting by writing training materials and content. When an opportunity opened, I applied. The Director of Training then took me aside and told me that he didn’t think I would have the right experience for the role. He saw where I had started as a customer service representative and had a preconceived expectation of my capabilities. Shortly after this conversation, I was accepted as a lecturer at the University of Utah.
On another date, also at eBay, I had a good friend who started on the PowerSeller support line, on my team while I was the team lead. This friend had a significant disability, which impacted his ability to sit for long periods. As you can imagine, working for a support phone line requires a lot of sitting and waiting, when not talking. Candidly speaking, at any other customer service company I’ve worked for, he probably wouldn’t have lasted long. But at eBay, his needs were accommodated while still setting the same high expectations as anyone else on the team. Instead of floundering, he flourished and became a high performer. We had high expectations for him and he didn’t disappoint. He lived up to them.
In both these experiences, expectations had a lot of impacts. Your expectations for yourself and others directly impact confidence. It’s been my experience that the expectations you have for someone will directly impact their performance. At a high management level, this means setting Key Performance Indicators (KPIs). Every role has (or should have) a set of key metrics that indicate success that goes beyond the “feeling” of doing well. This can be how much work is completed, the level of quality, or the overall success of the endeavor. Generalized KPIs place everyone at the same level performance-wise and the company’s expectations.
But then there are managers’ expectations. Who will do well? Who will not do well? It’s a gut reaction, either based on first impressions or by observing someone’s work for a long time. Managers make decisions on projects, tasks, or leadership based on strengths they see in their folks, as well as the perceived weaknesses that exist. These are based on the managers’ interactions with personnel, as well as their own biases.
Did I say biases? Yes, and quickly (though there are volumes that could be written on this subject), everyone has biases. Acknowledge yours, and work to overcome them as much as you can. If you don’t know them, Harvard has a series of tests you can take to identify them.
How are we impacted by expectations? I’ve seen top performers in one role crack and flounder as they move into another, or even just move to another team, because of expectations. I’ve also seen struggling performers blossom and excel because of a shift in expectations. A manager’s expectations can heavily impact the success of their direct reports.
Now, I can almost hear “What good do high expectations do when they just can’t do it?” A fair question. Expectations are important, but they alone do not drive success. Remember in my second story, accommodation facilitated success. For managers, this means regular candid conversations that feel safe for the direct report to discuss their successes and challenges. Managers can then adjust their approach, either by giving more detailed direction or stepping back and showing more trust. This approach is called situational leadership and is an invaluable tool to use either formally or informally for any manager or direct report. The process enables directs to get the help and development they need to succeed at whatever task they have before them. And given the right motivation, desire, and support, anyone can (and often will) step up to any position and expectation set before them.
So how does this apply in real life? There are a lot of job postings out there, often asking for a lot of experience in the role before a candidate can be considered. That experience represents less time and effort spent ramping someone up for a given position. When evaluating candidates’ resumes, often the mindset is “How quickly will they be on their own” instead of “Can I help them grow into the role?” It’s a thought process that every hiring manager will go through, either knowingly or unknowingly. Now, there’s always a level of expertise and experience that will be required for any position. You can’t hire a Ph.D. in Astrophysics to perform a heart transplant! But you can hire someone with a minimal level of experience for a position if you are willing to put in the extra effort as a manager to coach and develop someone in that role. I can tell you, from personal experience, that I’ve had some of the best instructors on my team come from other backgrounds. With a little coaching, some guidance when needed, and some understanding, those instructors become world-class, high-quality experts in delivery.
That same thrill that I got seeing team members develop and grow while at eBay still drives me as I work with my directs and theirs. Seeing someone excel in their position is the best part of success. And seeing someone become confident in their job is just as thrilling. By setting appropriate, high expectations, and then providing the proper support, coaching, and feedback to help them refine their skill and experience, you can develop an eager person into an outstanding performer.