Think of a parallelogram split from the top left corner to the bottom right. You’re left with two triangles.

The triangle on the right, standing on its tip, is the employee triangle. When you bring an employee into your organization, if you don’t take care of them appropriately, they’ll fall to one side or the other because there’s no foundation. I call these people novices.

You could have 20 years of experience and still be a novice. If you or I decide to move into another career or even just go to a different company, that’s taking a bit of a step backward. You haven’t lost your professional knowledge, but you’ve lost an understanding of company culture, politics and how everything gets done, landing you in novice territory.

Throughout our careers, we move in and out of the novice phase depending on what’s going on at that point in time.

As a business, you want very few people to be novices. Novices are a challenge. They take up the bulk of management’s time.

The best way to get employees out of novice mode?

Train them.

The triangle on the left-hand side that’s standing upright is training. The only way we can be successful is through other people, so our key responsibility as leaders is developing employees.

When we identify novices in our organization (which, again, may not necessarily be our newest employees), we want to devote much of our time to training them. We need to identify their needs and create a game plan for meeting them.

Coach them.

Once an employee is out of novice mode, they go into growth mode. The vast majority of employees spend the bulk of their career here. There’s always room for improvement, of course, but they do 95% of their job well.

We don’t, however, abandon all training here. The primary role of leaders of people in growth mode becomes coaching. Think of this as moving an athlete from the training room, where they get ready and lift weights, to out on the field. What is the coach’s role other than to get the most out of the athlete and help with the strategy for winning the game?

At any given time, 80% of our employees should be in growth mode, and we should focus on coaching them. We want to keep them out of bad habits and give them the feedback they need to be successful. We’ll monitor their progress and provide assistance where they need it. They may need clarification of expectations along the way if they veer a little, but at this point, they’re productive employees who just need continued encouragement.

As individuals, growth employees take less management time and need less attention than novices.

The trick is to move our people up to the tip of the triangle, which is what we call mastery.

Support them.

Very few of us ever truly attain and sustain mastery. That’s not through any fault of our own, but simply due to the pace at which business is changing today. Most of us are forced to stay in constant learning mode.

Our job as leaders with masters in our organization is to support them. Masters are the folks who are doing their entire job well. They’ve gotten to the point where they don’t need coaching, but we want to make sure we’re keeping them challenged.

Delegating higher-level projects and work accomplishes that. These people are our future leaders and are likely looked to as informal leaders amongst their peers, so we want to keep them growing with the organization.

The beauty of delegation is that when done properly (unlike its cousin, dumping), it is a well-thought-out employee development tool. As people get into mastery level, we naturally spend less time with them. As we’ve gone up the performance continuum from novice to growth to mastery, we spend less and less time with individuals simply because they require less and less time.

So often, when I talk to business managers, they tell me their biggest role is as a firefighter or human Band-Aid. All they do is fix problems.

To an extent, as leaders, solving problems is what we get paid to do. But when those problems are being caused because we haven’t addressed things on the employee side, a vicious cycle starts where leaders don’t have time to work because they’re so busy putting out fires.

To supervisors who are struggling with the number of hours in a day, I say bite the bullet somewhere.

You can either continue to be on the hamster wheel, or you can say, “I’m no longer willing to be a firefighter. Some fires I’ll let burn as I spend time with my employees’ training and coaching.”

So which will you be? A firefighter? Or a leader?

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