Six steps to building “fire and forget” people

When I was in the U.S. Army, a long time ago, Europe was divided, East and West. We in the West would sit looking East across the wire at the Warsaw Pact soldiers as they sat looking West at us. In those days it was important for us to know about Soviet weapons and how our weapons stacked up to theirs. Most occasions we were sure that our equipment was superior. Whether it was true or not, this was a big morale booster for us since we were so outnumbered in almost everything. We needed better equipment to counter their superior numbers. Thankfully we never had to “field test” any of those assertions about our equipment.

Anyway, one type of weapons system I remember them talking about was anti-tank missiles. The Warsaw Pact had something called a “Suitcase Sagger” missile. We had Dragon and TOW missiles.

Our weapons were superior to the sagger, we were told, because ours were “fire and forget.” I remember that was where I first heard that term. You see, if a sagger gunner wanted to shoot his sagger at one of our tanks, he had to guide the missile using a joystick. This made it much harder for him to actually hit his target, since he had to track both the tank and the missile.

Shooting a Dragon or TOW missile was so much easier. You just needed to keep the cross-hairs on the target, and the missile would get there on it’s own. Hence the term “fire and forget.” You could fire the missile and forget about it, trusting it to get where you wanted it to go.

Fast forward…

I have been a hiring manager in IT for several years now and I use the term “fire and forget” often. I try to be a “fire and forget” team member. I like to work with people who are “fire and forget.” I like to tell them where the target is and let them get us there. We get more stuff done and life is so much simpler.

Working with “sagger” team members can be a drag. This is because you have to spend so much more time and effort getting things done through them. Like the missile, you must manually guide them to the target. When I find a “sagger” team member I try to help them get to the point where they are “fire and forget” as well. Some get there and some don’t. If you are a leader, whether your team members are “fire and forget” or “sagger” people is your responsibility.

The reason I say this is nothing new. Delegation and team leadership comes up all the time, but it keeps coming up because we keep doing it wrong. Not because we don’t care but because we have so much on our plate. That said, the best way to get stuff off our plate is to move “sagger” people over into the “fire and forget” group. It’s pay the price now or pay the price from now on.

So how to move someone from the “sagger” camp to the “fire and forget” camp? It is an ongoing and iterative process.

1) Assess capability as well as desire.

This should be an ongoing, collaborative discussion with the individual. Incorporate 360 degree assessments from team members and customers that the individual interacts with. This should already be going on; if it is not you should start doing it as soon as possible. Don’t single anyone out, start with everyone on your team. This should be obvious but as Zig Ziglar always said, “we don’t have to be told but we do need to be reminded.”

Find out the person’s likes and dislikes, where they want to go with their career and so on. Discuss past performance and get a feel if they even want to be a “fire and forget” type of person, some don’t.

I had a team member several years ago. He was an excellent technical resource but didn’t show much desire beyond his current role. In one of our regular discussions I pointed out that he wasn’t ever going to be in a position to be promoted if he didn’t step out and expand his boundaries. He pondered that for a minute or so and nodding his head, said “I am ok with that.” He continued to be a valuable resource for us from a technical perspective. I knew he was off the list of people I needed to spend time with helping grow into some other role. You can’t do it for them. It was a win-win for both of us.

2) Trust them

You want and expect your team to trust you as their leader. They want and expect your trust as well. Sometimes you have to make a leap and trust them without much evidence. As a leader it will always be your place to trust your people first. You will never earn their trust without first showing trust of them yourself.

Trusting means you trust people before they prove they are worthy and after they prove they are human. Sometimes they will let you down. When that happens you must make the first move. Rebuild their trust in themselves by reaffirming your trust in them. Start small and work up based on the person and your assessment of their capabilities.

Trusting means you trust people before they prove they are worthy and after they prove they are human

Keep in mind, you never know what might happen if you trust a person with something bigger than you think they can handle. It is always possible that your expectations or assessment is flawed. Don’t aim low for someone else. If failure isn’t fatal try giving someone a large dose of trust. Make sure you are clear about the target. Make sure they know that your door is always open for questions and consultation. Be crystal clear about any other expectations and let them go. If you follow the other suggestions given here, stretching them might help them exceed both of your expectations.

Tightly coupled with trust…

3) Keep tabs but don’t meddle

Once you have given a person your trust to hit a specific target it’s time to take your own hands off the wheel. Nothing kills trust faster than a meddling boss. Meddling can drive a “fire and forget” person back into the “sagger” camp.

Asking for regular status updates is fine. Stopping by to chat is good. Making yourself available to them is an an absolute must. If the wheels start to come off you will hear about it. If you hear about it later than you should then that is a training opportunity. Before you start “training” though, make sure you were as open and available as you should have been.

If you do need to get involved don’t just sail in, take over, and shuffle the person off to the side. Do some fact finding. Ask them about what is going on, what issues they are having. Get them to talk and once they are talking listen. Ask them how you can help and listen. Just listen.

Don’t solve the problems you see, take time to understand the problems as they see them. If you don’t think they are thinking straight ask open ended questions. Having to answer your questions might help them think from a different perspective. Asking is always better than telling. It’s hard to do but it’s better for everyone in the long run. Socrates didn’t invent the Socratic method for nothing!

Finally, if you do have to get involved, do everything you can to extricate yourself as soon as possible. You can’t do it for them and everyone learns by experience. As some genius said, “good decisions come from experience, and experience comes from bad decisions.”

4) Let them fail (small)

When I was growing up I never got into many fights. I worried about how much getting into a fight might hurt and as a result didn’t stick up for myself as much as I should have. Then I got into a fight. I got hit way more than I hit the other person. I lost by any measure you could use to judge winning or losing in a fight. But because of that fight I found out that getting hit didn’t hurt as bad as I had always worried it would. This didn’t make me get in more fights but it did make me worry less about them and so I stood up for myself more.

Anyone moving from the “sagger” to the “fire and forget” camp may worry a lot about failing. This is natural. They may worry for their job, losing your trust, feeling like a failure, whatever. Your job is to ensure that what you give them to do is within their ability. If it is a stretch, it must not be something that is fatal if they fail.

I think that trying and failing is one of the best things that can happen at any time. We all learn so much more from failing than we ever would by succeeding all the time. Our people need to know it’s ok to fail as well. We know that failure is an important part of life and business. They will learn more about you, about the business and about themselves by failing than anything else. Getting up and dusting themselves off can be a positive experience as long as we make it one.

I read about a guy who was hired for a new job. It was a responsible job, and his first day there he found his boss was going away on a vacation. He was a little freaked out about his boss leaving him alone from day one as you might imagine. His boss understood and told him there were only three emergencies that he had to worry about.

  1. For the first type of emergency he should call the fire department
  2. For the second type he should call the police
  3. For the third type of emergency he should call the ambulance

“Anything other than that we can fix when I get back.” That is how we should all work with our teams and how we should look at failure. Most of us are not rocket scientists or brain surgeons or the like. We can lighten up a little.

5) Give good feedback

You can’t fix what you don’t know is broken.

Many years ago I was in a meeting for my performance review. I had been working on a development project and for all sorts of reasons it had gone on longer than anyone liked. Even so, I had complete confidence going into that discussion that I was doing a good job. My boss at the time was new to the company and had no context. She just told me that I would not be receiving any raise, stock or bonus because of poor reviews I had gotten. I asked who these reviewers were, she couldn’t tell me. I asked what these reviews said…she said she couldn’t tell me. Completely disgusted I closed the meeting telling her that I didn’t have much hope of improving based on that kind of feedback.

There should never be surprises like that but they happen much too often. We have to have the guts to tell our people things that we think they may not want to hear. It’s fun to tell people that they did a great job. We love to let people know we liked the way they completed a task or helped a customer or solved a problem. What sucks is having to tell someone that we are letting them go because their performance isn’t up to par. That conversation will always suck. It will never be routine, at least I hope not. The only way that conversation can be bearable is to know you have done everything to help the person improve. That means telling them when they could do better. Telling them how they might handle a situation another way. Being open with them all the time. You can’t do it for them but you owe it to them to at least give them the opportunity to do it for themselves.

In reality I think most people crave this kind of feedback. I bet if you asked your current team if they wanted more feedback to help them improve they would answer yes. Wouldn’t you like more feedback from your boss?

A “sagger” person may only be a “sagger” person because they do not know what a “fire and forget” person looks like. Show them by your own example, tell them where they can improve, and support them if they decide to make the move on their own.

6) Rinse and repeat

This is not a once and done proposition. Improvement is never ending. We are never going to be “done.” We should expect and help our team members to keep going as far as they want to go. Keep trusting them to do more, keep having their back when they fall down and help them up again. Keep the lines of communication open and listen to them. Keep giving them the chance to exceed even your expectations. Do this and in time you will find yourself leading a team of stars. Leading a “fire and forget” team will free you to do more of your real job, finding targets, by letting your team do their job, figuring out how to hit them.