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One of the hardest leadership decisions to make is how to carve up discretionary time for coaching direct reports — we all know there is more work to do than time in the week to do it.

Got a few minutes?

If you don’t make this decision actively, by default it will be made for you, by your direct reports, sounding something like:

  • “A few of my friends are applying to graduate school, and I’ve been thinking about it too. Do you have some time this afternoon for me to run some questions past you?”
  • “I know my last performance review wasn’t great, it’s just that I don’t feel that the projects I’m doing are really…taking me anywhere. Can we talk?”

And then over the next 20 minutes (or 2 hours), you dig deep and show your best motivational, inspiring, empathetic, and visionary leadership self to the no-longer-disenfranchised Sally Staffer who bounds back through the cubicle farm to work. Exhausted, and a little relieved, you turn back to your sales proposal or whatever it was you were doing that is actually going to put money in Sally’s paycheck this month.

Meanwhile, that all-star you hired six months ago–what was her name again?–has finished up another project, early, and it’s better work than you were turning out after two years on the job. Why doesn’t she ever stop by your desk? What would an hour of your inspirational best do to her, and the company’s, performance? Or is she already interviewing with your competitor because she’s not getting the senior development time she rightly deserves?

Leaders who don’t take charge of the discretionary development time are destined to spend it with the “squeaky wheels” who are marginally committed and mediocre performers, living out a world predicted by the Peter Principle. Many versions of talent management / performance management matrices are available to help you to understand where each of your employees stand.

Cornell’s Talent Management Matrix compares current performance and future potential.

All the matrices have a current, quantitative axis (e.g., performance rating) and a forward-looking, qualitative axis (e.g., capability, commitment). Your discretionary development time should go first into the top right corner containing the best performers today that have the highest potential for the future. Michael Beer’s book talks about getting the whole organization to High Commitment, High Performance. The ones in the lower left corner should be actively managed out of the business.

Yes, invest time to understand the motivations, interests, and development hurdles of the folks in the other corners: you will both learn something from the conversations, and the business and your career-long network of talent will be better for it. But when you are the one setting the agenda and dividing up your scarce time, it won’t be taken up by the “squeaky wheels” at the expense of the A-players quietly giving their best.

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