Growing Great Employees: A book review by Bob Morris

Posted on: July 8th, 2011 by bobmorris

Growing Great Employees: Turning Ordinary People into Extraordinary Performers
Erika Andersen
Portfolio/Penguin Group (2007)

How green is your organization’s “thumb”?

Note: The review that follows is of the paperback edition with a new preface.

Erika Andersen makes brilliant use of a number of horticultural metaphors when explaining “how to turn ordinary people into extraordinary performers”: gardeners (i.e. effective managers), fertile soil, (i.e. a pleasant and supportive workplace), nutrients (i.e. constructive criticism, encouragement, recognition), and seeds (i.e. high potential workers with sound character and strong self-motivation). All are essential…and interdependent. Andersen’s organization of the material is also appropriate. First, she explains how to prepare the “soil,” formulate a plan, and select the “plants” (Chapters 1-3); then how to plant “not too deep and not too shallow,” how to develop a “gardener’s mindset,” and what a “mixed bouquet” consists of and why it is important (Chapters 4-7); then she provides directions for “staking and weeding,” letting [extraordinary performance] spread, and how to convert “plants” into “gardeners” (Chapters 7-9); finally, Andersen explains how to measure progress (“How does your garden grow?”), discusses why some “plants don’t make it,” and in the final chapter provides what she characterizes as “The Master Calendar” (Chapters 10-12).

Just as almost anyone can learn how to grow grass, plants, fruits, and vegetables, almost anyone can help “grow” the people for whom they are primarily responsible as well as those with whom they are directly associated. As Barbara Kellerman explains in Followership: How Followers Are Creating Change and Changing Leaders, it is also possible to help “grow” immediate supervisors and even CEOs or their equivalent.

Through Andersen’s narrative, she provides a wealth of information and advice about how to develop and consistently strengthen the mindset, knowledge, skills, and temperament that are required to establish and then sustain a “healthy” organization by continuous growth of its people throughout the entire enterprise. More specifically, she carefully explains how to:

1. Listen strategically to learn how to support employee growth in the workplace
2. Clarify and then communicate effectively an organization’s needs and goals
3. Decide which people will “take root and flourish,” which won’t, and why
4. Decide where to “plant” new employees (i.e. level, area, duties, responsibilities)
5. Develop a mindset with both macro (“garden”) and micro (“seed”) perspectives
6. Provide customized attention (e.g. corrective feedback) to each “plant”
7. Support struggling workers who can improve, and “prune” those who can’t or won’t
8. Delegate authority and encourage prudent risk-taking
9. Help others to increase and strengthen their own skills as “gardeners”
10. Balance with others shared responsibilities for organizational and individual growth
11. Use the “management decision tree” to help identify hopeless “plants”
12. Apply the material in the book to the reader’s own circumstances

Re the last point, Andersen invites her reader to check out the resources available at http://www.growinggreatemployees.com. Meanwhile, in the final chapter of this book, she provides a series of “Try It Out” self-diagnostics following a brief explanation of how to initiate movement toward mastery of the various skills identified and discussed in the previous eleven chapters: “Don’t Stop Yourself, Honor How You Learn, [and] Practice.”

Recent Gallup research indicates that only 29% of the U.S. workforce is positively engaged (i.e. loyal, enthusiastic, and productive) whereas 55% is passively disengaged. That is, they are going through the motions, doing only what they must, “mailing it in,” coasting, etc. What about the other 16%? They are “actively disengaged” in that they are doing whatever they can to undermine their employer’s efforts to succeed. There are dozens of excellent books in which their authors explain how to increase the percentage of positively engaged employees. I know of no other single source that provides better, more practical advice on how to achieve that worthy objective than does Growing Great Employees. I offer my congratulations to Erika Andersen on what I consider to be a brilliant achievement.

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