Turning a low-performer into a star

Martin Cocaro

Sr Engineering Manager at MuleSoft



"A few months after I had become a manager for the first time, a software developer was under-performing in her tasks. She always struggled with new tasks and required a lot of hand-holding to complete them. Attempting to raise this developer up to the team's level took a lot of effort from the team. They were starting to be frustrated about the situation, as deliverable dates were not being accomplished due to other team members having to help this engineer. The interesting part of the story is that she was very appreciated among the team members, as she had a 'Help' attitude - she would always be there to support you if you had a bad day. This made things even harder."

Actions taken

"Over the next six months, things got a bit ugly. I started to lose the respect of the team members, as they thought I was neglecting the issue at hand. However, the person was cherished by everyone, so making a decision was quite difficult, as the team was not ready to let her go. As time passed, she and I started working on improving her performance. We started by assigning her maintenance bugs and improvements, but since she had difficulties understanding tech components and behaviors, this failed quickly. She then moved to non-urgent, important tasks on the roadmap as a pair programmer. This was even worse, as the other developer was always forced to explain what he was doing. Eventually, she moved to non-important, non-urgent tasks that she was able to perform alone. She did this for some time, and the team morale increased as to deliver projects and saw that she was able to finish her tasks alone. Unfortunately, this did not last for too long, as she was tasked with boring tasks and her morale suffered. During a one-on-one, we discussed this and I gave her candid and tough feedback that we had tried but she was not improving. That's when I suggested that we leverage her social skills in a different role - that she should try being a Functional/Technical Analyst. When she moved into her new role she found it hard, since it was a completely new territory for her. However, since I had been in that role early in my career I was able to train and coach her. She started becoming more optimistic about herself, and the team noticed she was delivering and using her strengths to improve the communication between the Product/Marketing team and Engineering. Her documents were very detailed, and always up-to-date. As you can imagine, she continued on that path to become an indispensable piece of the team. I keep in touch with this developer every now and then. She continued on that path and now has her own company doing Scrum/Agile consultancy for some of the world's best companies. I feel really proud of who she has become, all because of her hard work and grit."

Lessons learned

"When someone is underperforming, it does not mean the person is not a good fit for a team or company. There's always a reason, and even if the role feels bigger for the person, think again. While my engineer struggled in a role and initially had a negative impact on the team, by utilizing her strengths instead of fixing up her weaknesses she became a star player."

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Martin Cocaro

Sr Engineering Manager at MuleSoft

Leadership DevelopmentCommunicationOrganizational StrategyCulture DevelopmentEngineering ManagementPerformance MetricsLeadership TrainingPerformance ReviewsFeedback TechniquesCareer Growth

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