Notes on "Managing to Change the World"

Notes on "Managing to Change the World"

The book “Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Manager's Guide to Getting Results” by Alison Green and Jerry Hauser comes highly recommended from a wide variety of top executive directors of non-profits, and after reading it, I can say these positive recommendations are entirely justified.

Don’t let the title fool you - while talk of “changing the world” may sound pie-in-the-sky or even hippyish, this book was relentlessly practical. The principles also matter more than just for non-profits… I think anyone managing others should read this book, regardless of whether they are working in non-profits or not. So far this is my favorite management book that I have ever read.[1]

The density of information is amazing and it will be difficult for me to do the book justice with a summary, and the book is short enough that I encourage everyone to read the actual book cover-to-cover rather than just my summary here. Nevertheless, I will persist with summarizing.

Note there may be some things in this book that I disagree with, or at least don’t fully agree with. I’d be careful to read the book critically. There is also a lot of good advice that is not in this book. In these notes I mainly aim to summarize what I find as the key takeaways of the book, from my understanding and as applied to my personal context, rather than try to present my all-things-considered view on how best to run a non-profit organization. Also note that this post is a personal post and does not necessarily represent the views or practices at Rethink Priorities.

Summary of the Summary

  • Management is about getting things done through other people and your job as a manager is to get results.
  • Good managers set goals, are clear about what those goals are, hold people to those goals, help people meet those goals, are clear with people about when they aren’t meeting goals, and are not afraid to tell some employees they aren’t right for the job. Good managers ensure people are in roles where they will excel and get everyone aligned around a common purpose. Good managers delegate, but don’t disappear after - they don’t do the work themselves but do ensure implementation happens and help employees do their work.
  • Most managers should spend less time actually doing work than they probably spend, but more time guiding other people through their work than they probably spend.
  • The best way to ensure delegation goes successfully is to (1) be clear from the start about what you expect, (2) stay engaged enough along the way to make sure you and the employees are on the same page and to ensure the ongoing quality of the work, and (3) hold people accountable for what they deliver.
  • The most common way managers fail at delegation is by not staying involved throughout to check on progress. You should have a regular (typically weekly) 1-on-1 meeting with each employee you manage to connect personally, review progress against the plan, ask probing questions, provide feedback, help the employees adjust priorities, and create connections between employees.
  • When giving feedback, be specific. When asking questions, be specific.
  • Delegation usually starts by handing off specific tasks and projects, but the true power of delegation emerges when you can hand off broad responsibilities.
  • When interacting with your own boss (managing up), have empathy and remember they are a person. Guide them toward doing the right thing and make managing easy. When asking for input from your manager, apply the one hand rule - keep questions to yes/no or multiple choice, make an initial recommendation / default, and make everything clear upfront but provide background at the end as necessary.

What is management?

The point of management is to get more done than you would be able to get done on just your own. Thus, management is about getting things done through other people. Most importantly, management is results-oriented - your job as a manager is to get results. Managers also have the ultimate accountability for their employees- if your employees do not produce the results you are hoping for, it is also your fault as the manager.

Switching to the Manager Mindset

One of the biggest lessons of management is that the ways of working when you were doing things on your own do not apply to working with others. One big change you should make is where you personally spend your time:

  • Don’t just spend time on what is immediately at hand or what is most comfortable to work on, but what is the most important.
  • Know that if you don’t deliberately choose what you should do, carve out time for it to happen, and defend that time, then what you will do will be chosen for you.
  • Use comparative advantage - even if you are 10% better than your assistant at proofreading, you are likely >200% better than your assistant at fundraising, so you should focus on fundraising and let your assistant do the proofreading.
  • If you can delegate it, you should delegate it. Tasks generally should flow down to the person who can do it well enough (even if not perfect), to free up other people for more important or more challenging tasks.
  • Don’t feel bad about spending time where you bring the most value and not spending time where you don’t. While some non-profits may have an “everyone is in this together” ethos where the Executive Director also stuffs the envelopes, this is not a good use of time. It’s okay to hire dedicated envelope stuffers and focus your time on the most important tasks.
  • While you are spending a lot of your time managing, you still need time to get things done. You should review your calendar regularly to ensure you have time to do the most important things. Don’t just accept every event that comes your way. Consider scheduling 2x 3-4hr solid blocks of time each week to do this most important work (think of it as a meeting with yourself).
  • You're a manager, so you should spend time managing. Even if you do less direct work, you should still guide more. Spend time reviewing things, giving feedback, having check-in meetings, helping set employee priorities, visiting the field to see your employees in action, etc.

Many new managers fail to make the shift from doing to guiding - they simply try to spend just as much time as they used to on their own work and try to squeeze in managing others between the cracks, treating management as an inconvenience.

Delegating Projects

Delegation is a win-win for the manager and the employees - the manager gets to shift responsibility to someone else and do more with less manager time, and the employees get to enjoy responsibility.[2]

The best way to ensure delegation goes successfully is to (1) be clear from the start about what you expect, (2) stay engaged enough along the way to make sure you and the employees are on the same page and to ensure the ongoing quality of the work, and (3) hold people accountable for what they deliver.

Management problems that appear to be personal issues with a bad employee are much more likely to be about issues with expectations and communication. The book summarizes the approach as “guide more, do less” - a good manager will set very clear expectations about what is to be achieved and will follow up to ensure that the results are achieved. A good manager generally will not do the work for the employee or dictate to the employee exactly how it is to be done (beyond some guidelines and suggestions).

Frequently, managers do not guide enough, especially after the project has been specified and handed off to the employee.

Specifying a Project

Specifying the project in the beginning is an important step of setting expectations. A good project plan is more than just a summary of the project, but answers the following “Five W’s and an H”:

  • Who should be involved?
  • What does success look like?
  • When is the project due? (and how does the priority of this project compare to other projects?)
  • Where might the employee go for help?
  • Why does this project matter?
  • How should the employee approach it?

The goal here is to come to a clear, shared understanding of what results are to be expected.

It is important to instill a sense of ownership and avoid defining the task too narrowly. You should tell your employee that they are in charge of something, rather than just helping.

However, note that delegation is not a “hand off and then it's done” sort of thing - the manager should be continually involved by monitoring progress, ensuring expectations are clear, and offering the employee help when they need it. The manager should not do the work directly, but should guide the employee as needed and requested.

Good delegation also makes the project a conversation rather than a dictation. If some parts of the project are flexible, you can work with the employee to get their opinion (e.g., “You’re in charge of logistics for this event - what do you think success will look like?”, “Who else should be involved with this project?”, “What timeline makes sense?”).

Make sure to give your employee all the relevant background and context, as well as any initial impressions, upfront. It can be frustrating for the employee to spend time figuring out something that you already knew. Providing the employee with templates or samples of good work is very helpful.

Once you have the task specified, to ensure alignment it is helpful to have a repeat back, or have the employees re-explain the project back to you, either verbally or in writing. It can be surprising how many times a manager thinks they are being crystal clear only for the employee to misunderstand something.


In projects where a number of people are involved, it is helpful to set out their roles explicitly. MOCHA (Manager, Owner, Consulted, Helper, Approver) is a good framework for this:

  • Manager - assigns the responsibility for the task to the employee and holds the employee accountable. Ideally the manager makes suggestions, asks hard questions, reviews progress, and intervenes if the work goes off track.
  • Owner - the owner is the employee who is in charge of completing the task and does all the work, maybe with helpers. The manager instills the employee with ownership, and the employee might in turn informally manage other people (see “Helper”).
  • Consulted - someone other than the manager who is asked for input throughout the project
  • Helper - someone who can help do the work, and is managed by the Owner
  • Approver - someone who has to sign off on the project before it is final. This may be the manager.

Each project should only have one manager and one owner.

Example: Run a fundraising campaign

  • Manager: The executive director sets a goal of raising $100K and checks in on the campaign periodically to assess progress
  • Owner: The fundraising director launches the campaign and sees it through
  • Consulted: The fundraising director consults with the communications director frequently
  • Helper: At the direction of the fundraising director, a fundraising associate helps by emailing all the major donors
  • Approver: The executive director tracks progress toward the goal. The communications director signs off on the email template being used for major donor outreach.

Sample: Example Project Plan

This project is to: ____________

It will be completed by: ________

This project will be a success if: _______

The MOCHA is

  • Manager: _______
  • Owner: _______
  • Consulted: ______ (why?)
  • Helper: _______ (what?)
  • Approver: _______ (why?)

The steps of the project will be (include mini-milestones throughout):

  • Have outline to review by Y
  • Have first draft to review by Y
  • etc.

The book itself has a much more extensive sample project plan.

Preferences vs. Traditions vs. Requirements

When communicating a role and how it should be done, it is important to distinguish between preferences, traditions, and requirements:

  • Preferences (e.g., “I prefer texts over calls”)
  • Traditions (e.g., “We’ve always done three rounds of confirmation calls”)
  • Requirements (e.g., “We need to turn out 200 members”)

Preferences and traditions are negotiable, requirements are not.

While not mentioned in the book, I think writing a “how to work with me” document is a good idea to make these more explicit.

Staying Engaged

The most common way managers fail at delegation is by not staying involved throughout to check on progress. You should have a regular (weekly) 1-on-1 meeting with each employee you manage to connect personally, review progress against the plan, ask probing questions, provide feedback, help the employees adjust priorities, and create connections between employees.

You should have a good idea of what you want to get out of the 1-on-1 meeting and how to get it, but you should also calibrate your meeting to the needs of the employee.

The manager should also think about what can go wrong and ask probing questions around those areas - instead of asking “Are we on track?”, ask “What indicators do we have that show we are on track? Can you walk me through how you’re moving forward on X?”, etc.

Rather than assume things are going smoothly, the manager should assume things are not going well by default, until proven otherwise. (Though if the manager is going to ask the employee critical sounding questions, they should explain that they are relying on this principle.)

It is important for the manager to also get a good direct sense of the quality of the work upfront, as early as possible. Rather than have the employee spend several weeks on a first draft, review an outline and then approve it before moving on to the first draft. You should only need to see small pieces of the overall work, sampled evenly throughout the process, to ensure the quality.

It can also be useful to occasionally observe the work first-hand, if possible (e.g., sitting in on a media training being delivered by the employee, or attending a meeting with a prospective donor to hear the pitch).

If the work is not being done right, it is important for the manager to not redo the work themselves, but rather guide the employee towards doing it correctly. Similarly, rather than immediately jumping to offering solutions to problems posed by the employee, it is helpful to first get their perspective by asking what they think.

Good questions to ask to create engagement with an employee:

  • What would a successful next week look like?
  • Are you on track? How do you know?
  • Will your plan work? How do you know? How confident are you? Where might it go wrong? How can you mitigate that?
  • What seems to be working well? Why is it working well?
  • What are you most worried about?
  • Have you thought about what you would do if {{THING}} happens?
  • What is your timeline for {{PROJECT OR TASK}}?
  • How much of your time do you spend on {{THING}}?
  • Can you give me a specific example of {{THING}}?
  • Can we take one specific instance of {{THING}} and talk through how you are approaching it?
  • What other options do you consider for {{THING}}?
  • What else needs to happen to achieve {{GOAL}}?
  • Is there anything we should be starting on now in anticipation of what might be coming up in the next few months?
  • What is happening to throw us off track? What are we doing to restrategize?
  • Are there items we should de-priortize? Are there deprioritized items we should prioritize?

Good questions to ask to create engagement with an employee who is managing others:

  • How are you managing {{PERSON}} on that?
  • How are you making sure {{PERSON}} is on track?
  • Should we make sure you and I are aligned on {{THING}} before talking to {{PERSON}} about it?
  • What is {{PERSON}}’s plan for {{THING}}?
  • What are you most worried about in terms of how {{PERSON}} will do {{THING}}?
  • Have you given {{PERSON}} feedback on {{THING}}?
  • What’s your sense of how {{PERSON}} is performing? What are his/her main areas for growth? How are you taking those on with him/her?

When managing managers, it helps to have skip-level meetings where you occasionally (perhaps monthly or quarterly?) check in directly with the employees your employee is managing.

Know when you should get more involved

While it is important to delegate and protect your own time, sometimes you do need to get more involved. Remember your goal isn’t to just delegate no matter what, but to get results.

In one vignette in the book, an ED and a regional director had agreed on ambitious goals that were critical to the organization’s success, but the regional director was not on track to meet those goals. Instead of checking in periodically, hoping the regional director would deliver, and then blaming the director when she didn't succeed, the ED went as far as what some might call “micromanaging”, insisting on daily check-in calls that turned things around in a few weeks. The ED then stepped back once thing were back on track.

Sample: Example Weekly Check-in Doc

This next week will be a success if: _______

Key updates are

  • ______
  • ______
  • ______

Items for manager’s review

  • ______
  • ______
  • ______

Lessons learned from the past week

  • ______
  • ______
  • ______

Not prioritized this week (FYI)

  • ______
  • ______
  • ______

Next steps

  • ______
  • ______
  • ______

Creating Accountability

Creating accountability throughout and at the end of the project is important for ensuring employees know that you mean what you say when you set expectations. It’s important for employees to know that their quality of work will matter - as the manager, you need to correct negative outcomes and reward positive outcomes.

Another important goal is to surface lessons for the future - even if the outcome was positive, there likely are important lessons learned.

A good format for doing this is to take written notes and schedule a retrospective meeting between the manager and the employee to discuss. Ideally the retrospective meeting is scheduled in advance during the project planning phase, to ensure that it happens.

Skill, Will, and Importance

There are three components that inform how you navigate delegation for a given employee and task - skill, will, and importance.

Will refers to how much the employee intrinsically likes or dislikes a task, with the idea being that if the employee dislikes a task, they will be less motivated to do it and do it well (all else being equal).

Skill refers to how good the employee is at the task. When assessing skill, make sure you are assessing task-specific skill - don’t just assume that a stellar employee is skilled at this particular task.

Importance refers to how important successful completion of the task is to the success of the organization.

Effective Meetings

Advice about good meetings is usually very obvious, but shockingly rarely followed:

  • A good meeting is helped by thinking explicitly beforehand what you aim to get out of the meeting, creating an explicit agenda, and circulating that agenda to everyone in advance. The agenda should keep track of items everyone wants to raise.
  • It shouldn’t be all business - good meetings should start with a few minutes of human element.
  • Meetings are best when everyone is focused and not distracted by phones, laptops, Slack/chat, email, etc.
  • Over the course of the meeting and after, you should make sure next actions are very clear and there should be agreement over who is responsible for what, and when it should be done. It can be especially helpful to email everyone a summary of the action items after the meeting.

Getting Stuff Done and Organizing Information

It’s also important to have good systems for keeping track of everything and ensuring things get done. Every piece of information needs exactly one place (that is not your head). Your system should make things easier and enable you to focus on only one what is the most important while ensuring other things won’t get ignored or fall through.

Good tests for your system are whether it can handle these situations:

  • While you are working someone calls you and you say you will call them back when you are done. How do you ensure you do?
  • While you are driving home, you have an idea. How do you capture it?
  • A friend recommends a good book for you to read next summer. How do you remember?
  • You just received an agenda for tomorrow’s meeting. What do you do with it?


One good tool is to hire an assistant. The best assistants tend not to be career assistants but less experienced workers who are smart, efficient, energetic, and ambitious. They usually only stay in the role for 1-2 years, but learn the role quite quickly. In order to rely on an assistant, you have to be clear that they need to have airtight systems that ensure 100% follow through so that nothing falls through the cracks - you can delegate something to them and forget about it, and they won’t forget about it and it will come up when needed. You should also be clear about comparative advantage and that you are going to delegate to them plenty of things you could do yourself. Usually a good assistant can help multiple executives at once.


Here are tips to get control of your email:

  • Only check email during defined periods (though make sure still you have a way for staff to get to you with time sensitive blocking requests)
  • Turn off notifications and “new” message indicators to avoid the temptation to check emails outside these periods
  • If you can do a task in two minutes or less, do it right away
  • Reply to emails in a way that makes it clear who should drive what steps and how people should move forward so they don’t need to keep coming back to you
  • Don’t use your email as storage. Only emails that need to be dealt with should be in the inbox. Once you reply to an email, you can archive it with the knowledge that it will come back to the inbox when they respond.


The book outlines a system called “Three Homes”, but I won’t repeat it here as there are plenty of places to get systems, and “Three Homes” is not all that different from the more famous “Getting Things Done” system.

Delegating Roles

Delegation usually starts by handing off specific tasks and projects, but the true power of delegation emerges when you can hand off broad responsibilities (e.g., put someone in charge of fundraising). This is done the same way you delegate anything else.

Each person on your team should be able to say what they are responsible for. You should create roles for each employee that clarify what they are owning, what the expectations for the role are, and how they should approach their job.


Roles let you shift a broad responsibility and goals let you create accountability around that, as well as stretch the employee to achieve more.

Goals are usually higher level than projects and are typically accomplished by the strategic culmination of multiple projects.

A good goal is SMART:

  • Strategic: The goal reflects the most important aspects of what the role aims to accomplish
  • Measurable: You can easily tell whether the goal has been met or not, usually by referencing a quantitative target. Also you usually want to measure against an outcome (what was achieved), rather than activities (what was done).
  • Ambitious: Accomplishing the goal represents significant progress and involves stretching the employee a bit. The goal should be achievable, but not easily - aim for ambitious goals to be completed ~80% of the time rather than 100% of the time (too easy) or 60% of the time (too hard).
  • Realistic: The goals cannot be mere wishful thinking or aspiration. The goal should be tied to a concrete plan.
  • Time-bound: There should be a clear deadline for reaching the goal.

Generally you want each employee to have 1-5 goals at any given time and to be established at a regular cadence (e.g., quarterly, annually). In a case where an employee has multiple goals, it might be helpful to assign them relative weight.

It is okay for goals to be interim goals. You should try to avoid changing goals midstream.

Each employee should be able to know their goals without having to look them up.

Goal Plans

Goals answer “What are we trying to accomplish?” and “How will we know if we accomplished it?”. Plans establish “How will we get there?”. Plans itemize the key activities needed to reach the goal, a timeline for that, and an assignment of responsibility for each step.

In addition to the weekly one-on-one for keeping track of progress on individual projects, it is helpful to have a monthly “step back” meeting to review progress on goals. The step-back meeting can also focus on morale, development needs, and lessons learned.

Goal Milestones

Once you have goals and a plan to get there, you should create milestones along the way that refer to accomplishing something by a certain date that is earlier than the goal date. Great milestones refer to interim progress (e.g., for an annual goal of raising $100K a milestone might be to raise $50K by July), but sometimes this isn’t possible and milestones can refer to activities / inputs (what the employee is doing).

Organizational Mission and Goals

Organizational Goals

Just as employees have goals, the organization itself can have goals. There is really no conceptual difference between organizational goals and employee goals - many of your organizational goals might be owned by specific employees as their own individual employee goals, and organizational goals can even be thought of as the goals of the executive director.

Just like with individuals, you should try to keep the number of organizational goals small (1-5). Ask “if we accomplish nothing else, what would we need to achieve this year to be successful?”

You should create a plan and milestone for organizational goals as well - this will end up forming your strategic plan.

You should create accountability around organizational goals by reporting them to the board, or even donors. They can also form the basis for the annual evaluation of the executive directors.

Mission Statement

The mission statement of the organization is a singular, higher-level goal that unifies all the organizational goals and sets out the purpose of the organization. While they usually can be derided as vague or vapid, a good mission statement helps clarify to everyone what you are setting out to do and why.

A good mission statement is a concise, action-oriented statement of your organization’s fundamental purpose. They usually start with a verb (e.g., reduce, eliminate, protect, make) plus a description of a problem the organization wants to solve.

Asking “Does this advance our mission?” should also be a useful question to decide whether to take on certain projects or go in certain directions.


The book dislikes the word “onboarding” as it sounds too jargon-y, but I’ll carry on in using it for lack of a better term. Onboarding is important as the messages you explicitly and implicitly send on the first day has a large impact on the culture and expectations of the employee. Here are some good things to do:

  • Create an initial training agenda before the employee starts that lays out everything you plan to cover. Make sure the agenda makes it clear about the goals and desired outcomes for the first few weeks, as well as what the expectations are.
  • While not covered in this book, one really relevant bonus idea is for both the employee and the manager to write a “how to work with me” document.
  • Ensure the logistics (e.g., laptop, email, workspace, supplies) are ready in advance.
  • Check in very regularly in the first week or two to see how the employee is adjusting and whether they have any challenges.

Sample: Example Orientation Agenda

This next week will be a success if:

  • ______
  • ______
  • ______

During the first few weeks, your role involves:

  • ______
  • ______
  • ______

What you can expect from me is:

  • ______
  • ______
  • ______

What I expect from you is:

  • ______
  • ______
  • ______

Topics we will cover in the first week are:

  • ______
  • ______
  • ______

Upcoming meetings for you are:

  • ______
  • ______
  • ______


Culture is the invisible message about “how things are done around here” and helps employees know how to conduct themselves without being told. A culture will exist whether you want it to or not, so you might as well try to actively shape it.

Although no two organizational cultures are exactly the same, high performing organizations usually have cultures defined by rigor and accountability around results, shared engagement around the mission, and positive energy.

In such a culture:

  • Concrete achievement is valued and employees are held accountable to their goals and commitments.
  • People persist until they get the desired results.
  • The bar for performance is high and there is a sense that “not just anyone can work here”.
  • Ideas are subject to debate and scrutiny, regardless of their source.
  • Employees and managers are open about their flaws and how they can improve and share constructive feedback with others. Employees and managers focus a lot on learning from experience.
  • The actual impact of the work is prioritized over appearances.
  • Employees feel very invested in the direction and success of the organization. They regularly voluntarily suggest ways the organization can improve.
  • Employees are enthusiastic about their work in a visible way.
  • There’s a sense that everyone is working toward a common goal.
  • People operate with goodwill, and unconstructive interpersonal conflict is discouraged.
  • All the above elements are authentic and genuine.

Ways to enforce/create/cultivate culture:

  • The best way to create a culture is for the executives to lead by example. For instance, if you say after a meeting you will email a document that day but you don’t, employees will get the implicit signal that it is okay to be late on deadlines. If you do the work on time or proactively explain why you don’t, employees will understand that deadlines and commitments are serious.
  • When orienting new employees, discuss your values and what they mean in practice. It may help to even have non-contrived hypothetical scenarios about how your values would play out.
  • You should give constructive feedback to people the moment you see them going against the values.
  • You should give positive feedback to people the moment you see them acting out the values.
  • Consider posting a list of core values in the office and/or providing a list to all employees.
  • You should periodically review and edit your list of values with your entire team or your most senior people.
  • Rituals, celebrations, and awards can be a good way to reinforce shared values.

You should incorporate an assessment of how well your employees have demonstrated the values as part of their performance review.

How you wield authority

The best managers are neither wimps nor tyrants, but normal yet assertive people.

Wimp = bad. Wimps let their desire to be nice trump their obligations to hold the quality bar high, hold people to standards, warn them when they are falling short, and take action when the warnings don’t work. Wimps avoid conflict and present requirements as mere suggestions (though get frustrated when these “suggestions” aren’t adhered to). Wimps let consensus rule even when it shouldn’t.

Tyrant = bad. Tyrants yell, react with defensiveness, are passive-aggressive, and make unreasonable demands (e.g., ask someone to work over the weekend to complete something that isn’t time-sensitive). Tyrants block out other’s input even when they have something important to add.

Normal and assertive = good and effective.[3] These managers act with confidence, directly lay out expectations, operate in a fair and straightforward manner, and back up their words with action. They are direct and don’t shy away from difficult or awkward conversations, are calm and avoid hostility and anger, are open to the idea they might be wrong, are fair and willing to make decisions, and are comfortable in charge. Normal, assertive managers welcome what others have to say and recognize they can be wrong while also remembering that it is the manager’s job alone to make the final call.

Keep in mind that being normal and assertive might make some people unhappy. You should try to keep your employees happy within reason, but getting results is more important than making people as happy as possible all the time. Yet, don’t be so gung ho about messing with people’s feelings that you become a tyrant.

Ultimately, you should just try to be normal. Don’t overthink it. If you’re normally kinda quiet, don’t feel like you need to lead an office cheer. If you use humor in your personal life, don’t be afraid to use humor in your professional  life.


Contrary to popular belief, this book claims that you do not need to spend money on fancy professional development programs, formal mentorships, etc.[4]

Instead, employee development comes from strong, hands-on management with ambitious goals and lots of feedback.[5] Managing to good outcomes, as the remainder of the book is about, should also be sufficient for giving the employees a lot of development as feedback and goals will be built-in and employees will have the opportunity to learn by doing. Asking an employee to apply new skills or apply their old skills at a higher level (e.g., moving from managing a team of two to managing a team of eight) often produces significant growth.

It’s important to know what you can change and what you can’t - you can train someone in a new software in a few weeks, but you can’t easily train someone to become a critical thinker or strong writer in a few weeks if they aren’t.

It’s also important not to use employee development to procrastinate or disguise what really should be a negative performance review followed by a performance improvement plan, which is qualitatively different.

Opinions vary, but the book is against using separate development plans as this may risk distracting your employees from their main goals. Instead, development should arise as part of their approach to their normal work.

Delivering Feedback

Feedback is one of the most powerful tools to develop an employee, and direct feedback on how an employee can improve will go a long way towards that employee improving. Feedback should be given constantly to reinforce behavior you want to see more of, prevent bad habits from being ingrained, and foster an atmosphere of open communication. It’s good to address problems early and provide feedback while things are still small, rather than tell someone that they’ve been doing something wrong for months.

Feedback can be:

  • positive - recognizing someone doing something well
  • developmental - sharing a way someone is doing something good and how they can do it even better
  • corrective - telling an employee that something must change in order for them to meet your expectations

Positive feedback is a very underrated way of creating motivation and providing accountability.

Good feedback (positive or negative) looks like this:[6]

  1. Describe a specific observed behavior in a single sentence (e.g., “I noticed that when you give a presentation, you use the same presentation for both inexperienced and very experienced groups.” - note that this is not “You should work on your presentation skills.”)
  2. Provide two or three specific and concrete examples (e.g., “In our last presentation, people had already been to this training before but you repeated all the introductory definitions from the first training. And in the presentation before that, you asked people if they ever have done this before when clearly everyone has.”).
  3. State the impact of the behavior (e.g., “as a result, our attendees are leaving confused and are wondering if they are in the correct training. One person even asked for a refund!”)
  4. Make a recommendation (“Try keeping your presentation the same for the introduction group but notice ahead of time when we are doing a follow-up training and provide different content.”)
  5. Ask the employee for their perspective (“What do you think about this?”). Actually listen.
  6. Follow up later to ensure things are on track.

Note that negative feedback should always be delivered to people individually, even if it is a group of people that failed to meet expectations.

Performance Reviews

A more formal way of delivering feedback is performance reviews. This is an important tool for consolidating feedback and creating accountability around it, as well as creating accountability around accomplishments and goals. Employees should be evaluated on what they did (projects), what they accomplished (goals), and how they did it (values/culture). This evaluation should be clear so that each employee knows exactly where they stand. It can also reflect on the retrospectives from each project and how the projects themselves went.

These performance reviews are a great way to let your employees know how you are feeling about their performance and for you to hear how they are feeling about their job. In the case of lower performers, it also lets you send a clear signal about the consequences of failing to improve. Though note that rarely should anything in a performance review come as a surprise - ideally you have been giving feedback throughout, early and often!

A good performance review will discuss each goal and how the employee succeeded or fell short and why. You should pay attention to the overall tone you are setting and make sure the topline takeaway about overall performance is clear -- a common failure mode is to accidentally give a lukewarm-sounding performance review to an employee you’d be devastated to lose, or to have to fire an underperformer after having not made it clear in the performance review that you need to see improvement.

Like feedback, performance reviews also benefit from being very specific and citing specific examples. You should also aim to make the review holistic and resist the temptation to overweigh more recent events. Even if a problem has been resolved, it is good to mention it and just note the resolution.


Organizations often take their strongest performers and promote them into new roles only to see them flounder because the skills for the new role are not the skills that allowed them to do so well at their old role. This is especially true with promotion into people management, as people management is a qualitatively different skill than being good at doing what it is you are managing people to do. The world’s best football player is not the world’s best football coach, and the world’s best coach is probably not that great at football! Instead, it’s important to make sure the people you promote are promoted based on their strength and skills match with the role you are promoting them into.

You shouldn’t feel the need to promote employees in order to retain them.

Motivation and Retention

If you have the right people, you shouldn’t have to spend too much time actually motivating them. Instead, spend your energy creating an environment that breeds motivation naturally by[7]

  • giving your employees meaningful roles with lots of genuine responsibility
  • giving them clear feedback about how they are doing and how they could do better
  • holding them to ambitious but attainable goals
  • helping them make progress and mentoring them along the way
  • giving them a sense that they are learning
  • giving them opportunities to work on more and progress (though this may depend on the employee - some employees will welcome the new challenge, but other employees would see the challenge as a burden)
  • helping them connect their work to the bigger picture
  • praising their efforts
  • showing them you care

This also applies to retention - it isn’t just about salary and bonus, but also about the above list of things. (Though money and bonus are also important, and it is worth investing in compensating people well.)

Also, don’t underestimate the value of asking employees about retention directly. While this is rarely done, taking a valued employee out to lunch and asking them “How can we make sure you stay around for the next two years?” can open a discussion to valuable feedback. It can also be helpful to list all your employees and list the strategies you can use to retain them.


If you notice yourself not feeling excited about working hard to retain an employee, If you notice yourself not feeling excited enough about an employee that you want to work really hard to retain them, you should consider whether they should remain in your organization. It’s always sad to have to let someone go, but it’s clear that managers frequently don’t fire people when they should and the costs of letting low performers remain in the organization outweighs the costs of firing them. Many managers are shocked by how much more gets done by a superior replacement relative to the person who was just fired.

Managing Up

In addition to managing others, most people have a boss too. Even the Executive Director or CEO is usually accountable to the Board. Just as you can get better results through improving your ability to manage your employees, you can also get better results through managing up. This is basically management in reverse - take a look at all the principles of good management and figure out how to set yourself up to enable the manager to implement those principles as easily as possible.

For example, it’s helpful if your manager works with you to form goals and keep you accountable to them. You can help this along by being proactive about your goals, get clear about what success looks like, and talk explicitly about this with your manager. When you think you might encounter challenges, try to anticipate tricky situations and talk through with your manager in advance how you will handle them.

It’s also helpful to proactively discuss what decisions of yours your manager wants to be informed about, what they want to be consulted on, what they need to pre-approve before you do, and what they don’t even want to be bothered with.

You should make sure you have a system for checking in regularly and put yourself in charge of making sure it happens. If your boss cancels the meeting, ensure it gets rescheduled.

While ideally your boss should be providing you with regular feedback, it can be helpful to prompt this by asking your manager to debrief on how things went.

Throughout managing up, it is important to understand what you can affect and what you can’t, and focus only on ensuring what you can control goes as smoothly as possible. Try to work within your manager’s context and style, though also do give feedback (and definitely don’t tolerate abuse!). It’s important to remain emotionally intelligent and understand that your boss is a human too.

One Hand Rule

It’s also helpful to make it easy for your boss to give input by applying the one hand rule:

Imagine the person you’re emailing going from one meeting to the next and checking their inbox between meetings. Could they reply to your email while waiting for Zoom to launch? Could they send off a response in the time that it takes to walk from the bus or their car to the office? Or will they glance at the email, see that it requires a longer reply than they have time to type, and set it aside for later (which may never come)?"

This involves keeping questions to yes/no or multiple choice, make an initial recommendation / default, make everything clear upfront but provide background at the end as necessary. This link has some examples.

Bonus Notes

I removed notes from here on "Hiring and Recuriting" and on "Firing" due to them being relevant to less people and due to me being more skeptical of the advice here for being less evidence-based. I think these notes still have value but I’d be careful to read them critically. You can read the bonus notes by clicking on those links.

  1. To see other management books rated by how good they are, look to Michael Aird’s list. You can also see my personal rankings of all the books I have read since 2011. ↩︎

  2. Though we should also keep in mind that delegation is not costless - there will be less direct control over the quality of the work, more work for the employee, and two people’s attention needed now instead of just one person. (This point comes from my co-worker David Moss, not the book.) ↩︎

  3. My co-worker Michael Aird adds to me that, in teaching, there's the concept of a "warm demander", which is kinda similar. Here, the teacher combines personal warmth toward students with also pushing students to high standards. Concrete guidance and corrective feedback are used to help students meet those standards.” Additionally, in parenting, there's an idea of authoritativeness vs. authoritarian vs. indulgent vs. neglectful styles. ↩︎

  4. I agree with the book here, but this is ironic given that the authors of the book went on to create a company that sells professional development programs. ↩︎

  5. This can be thought of in terms of the concepts of deliberative practice and/or ultralearning. ↩︎

  6. This just covers what was in “Managing to Change the World” but another great resource on delivering feedback is “Giving and receiving feedback” by Max Daniel. ↩︎

  7. The book doesn’t mention it, but I think there also should be something about fostering a strong team spirit, a collaborative and collegiate atmosphere, friendships, fun, etc. (This point comes from Michael Aird, not the book.) ↩︎