Michael Kaufman has the people who made his company. And he has the people who will make his company.
It’s Kaufman’s job to know the difference.
“Can the heroes of the past become the heroes of the future?” says the president and CEO of Specialized Education Services Inc. “You have to assess if you need the heroes of the past around anymore or if they can become the future of the company.
“It’s hard, because you might really like and respect somebody, but they might not be able to come with you on the journey you’re beginning. It’s tough to move someone along because it’s just not working anymore — especially when they were there to help you grow from the beginning.”
With approximately 1,000 employees throughout the SESI organization — which conducts programs for special-needs students in public school districts throughout 11 states and Washington, D.C. — Kaufman and his leadership team have an ongoing task as they continually analyze the people within the SESI organization, determining what puzzle pieces they have and how they can best fit together to strengthen the organization moving forward.
“When you hire someone, you want to start from day one thinking not only that you hired them for a job, but you start thinking about what they can do here in their career,” Kaufman says. “You start thinking about their leadership trajectory. If people see and feel that, they’re going to want to work for your organization.”
Determining the trajectory of people within the organization means evaluations of their strengths and weaknesses, ways that the strengths can be optimized and ways the weaknesses can be neutralized — either through skill compensation from others or skill enhancement of the individual via training.
“To me, that all comes with building relationships,” Kaufman says. “You need to be very comfortable talking to people about what they’re good at and what they need to work on. If you spend time with people, you can tell them that tough feedback, because they’ve seen that it’s in their own best interest. You want them to do well.”
Assess your people
Not many people like performance reviews. Whether they’re monthly, quarterly or annually, no one relishes the idea of sitting down with their boss and having their work critiqued.
You might not like the fact that your company has to conduct performance reviews. Depending on how many employees you have, it can become a lengthy process involving many different people. It’s man-hours that could be put to use running the business instead of making sure your employees are doing their jobs at an optimum level. But standards have to be maintained.
That’s why Kaufman and his team try to navigate what can be a less-than-pleasant process by continually coming back to the concept of continuous improvement. At SESI, performance reviews focus on the positive aspects of an employee’s work as much as the areas for improvement. Any need for improvement is phrased in the context of the employees’ growth as an individual and a professional.
“We have different areas we look at to assess how a person is doing,” Kaufman says. “Since we are an educational company, we call it ‘A-plus performance.’ That A-plus performance comes around different things that we look at and test. It could be students growing from the beginning of the year to the end. It could be staff assessments of the leaders, district satisfaction surveys or financial targets. We communicate around those regularly.”
In all cases, Kaufman wants his employees to buy in, which makes what he and his staff communicate and how they communicate it vital to the continuous improvement of the organization and the people who work in it.
“I feel that if you create rules and goals from the beginning and you can create buy-in, and you can assess the progress against those goals, nobody feels that they’re getting cheated,” Kaufman says. “It’s very fair.”
One of the ways Kaufman facilitates communication is by creating a sense of ownership between an employee and his or her progress. He doesn’t want supervisors simply dictating an employee assessment. He wants employees to take an active role and look within.
“I love to do self-assessments,” he says. “You ask someone to assess how they are doing, and it’s interesting to see how most people will be tougher on themselves than you will be. It’s great to get someone to look at themselves and acknowledge what they need to work on before you even need to tell them yourself.”
Individuals are often their own worst critic, so in some cases, you need to paint a realistic picture. You don’t want to sugarcoat your assessments, but you don’t want employees to develop an excessively negative view of their performance. It’s something Kaufman reinforces when he brings the leaders of his organization together at meetings.
“When I bring our leaders together — and that’s all our middle and senior leaders, which I do a few times a year — I really try to teach them that communicating with employees is all about authenticity with affinity. You have to be authentic, but you have to have affinity for the person.
“I used to be a big sugarcoater. I only wanted to tell people the positives, and I realized that people liked me, but their respect for me was somewhere in the middle. I found out the more honest I got, it’s what people wanted.
“If a person doesn’t feel like you know them, it feels like criticism when you give them feedback. The glass is only going to be half-full if they know you want them to do well. And you should want them to do well. Your company is only successful if your employees are successful. If they can’t perform, you’re not going to look good.”
Develop new leaders
The practice of assessing the skills, strengths and weaknesses of your team members will only matter if you put your findings to use. Your assessment methods can help identify areas of focus for training and improvement, but it is also going to help you find individual roles that will allow your company to best leverage the skills and talents that each person brings to the table.
Great talent can look less than stellar if people in your company are utilized in roles that don’t properly suit their skills or personality.
“We had one of the most credible people in the company running a school,” Kaufman says. “He was outgoing and gregarious; he loved people and loved the company. But he really struggled with giving tough feedback. If someone was struggling, he would pretty much ignore it and only highlight the positives. That led to a bit of a free-for-all at the school.
“But as far as the school districts, he was amazing. He’d check up with them to see how they were doing, and the people who ran the districts absolutely loved him.
“So I created the position of outreach director for him. It was really where he needed to be. He was so good at it; we’ve added other outreach directors in other parts of the country. He basically created the position by assessing his strengths, and we were able to work with him and find a suitable role in the organization.”
If someone is struggling in their current role, you may or may not have another place for that person in your organization. But before you cut ties with a mismatched piece, you should always step back, look at the landscape within your company and see if there are other places where a given person might make a better fit.
Cutting good talent loose should only come as a last step. Once it’s gone, it’s gone, and if your company gains a reputation as an organization that treats employees as interchangeable pieces, you’ll have a more difficult time attracting good talent and making quality hires in the first place.
“You really are only as good as your employees,” Kaufman says. “You have to look at that and find ways to develop them. As a CEO, if you’re going to grow and you want to have more operations, you have to create a replicable model that can be run by other people besides the CEO. That’s why the best gift you can give to somebody is to believe in them before they believe in themselves.”
You believe in your people by giving them the structure to improve their skills, move up in the organization, and continually learn — both in formal training and on the job. You often learn on the job by making mistakes, which is why you can’t be quick to punish someone who commits an error.
“You have to be extremely generous with praise and really allow people to do their jobs,” Kaufman says. “Don’t micromanage them. Allow mistakes.
“If you can find an incredible talent who believes they were put on this planet to do what they’re doing right now and you can get them to see that they are capable of even more than that — that they can become an amazing leader creating more leaders — that is the whole idea of believing in someone before they believe in themselves. It’s the greatest gift I ever got as a leader.
“And it really is the greatest gift you can give to someone in the business world.”
How to reach: Specialized Education Services Inc., (215) 369-8699 or www.sesi-schools.com
Assess the competencies of your people.
Critique with the goal of improving your people.
Identify and develop new leaders.
The Kaufman file
President and CEO
Specialized Education Services Inc.
What is the best business lesson you’ve learned? To create leaders from within. Always make sure you are doing that. When you interview somebody, don’t just interview the person for the position that you’re seeking. Interview people for all they can be.
What traits or skills are essential for a leader? You need strength, compassion, accessibility and accountability. You need to be someone who is well-rounded and understands what it takes to lead an organization. You need to be able to look at the numbers. Don’t run from them, and don’t make excuses. Let everyone know what is going on in the organization, because there shouldn’t be any surprises for anyone. The strongest leaders are transparent. Don’t act differently based on whoever is in the room.
What is your definition of success? If someone thought I was an incredible CEO, that’s nice, but the real question is whether I lived my life with dignity and class, and have I earned the respect of others. Not just that I got respect because I ran an organization, but that I earned it because the people knew I had the best interests of the organization at heart.