Over many years in industry, you start to see patterns that are suspiciously correlated with lower performance.
All of these cues are highly associated with low performance in my observation, but more interestingly, all of them have nothing to do with low performance directly. They’re incidental symptoms that just happen to show up when someone is struggling. Here’s what to look out for:
Often Late to Meetings
There are several ways to be late to a meeting:
- You can show up 1-2 minutes late without any notice
- You can show up 5 minutes late or more, but send a message in advance to other attendees that you’ll be running behind
- You can show up 5 minutes late or more without warning
There are a lot of reasons to be late. You could have a small emergency. You could lose track of time. A one-on-one meeting might go long. But almost without fail, employees who are regularly significantly late without warning also have some other type of performance problem going on.
I suspect that the underlying cause of this cue is that significant unannounced lateness means that someone is generally flustered or in over their head. Either their meetings are running too late, or their meetings are running so hot that they don’t have time to pause and shoot off a quick “need 5min” in Slack. In either event, they’re operating at the outside edge of their available resources.
Note: it is not a signal of poor performance if someone is regularly quietly late to large meetings that they don’t value. (although it might be a signal of low engagement… or bad meetings)
Poorly Informed on Their Industry’s Ecosystem
One of the most common signs of low performance, particularly in SaaS: experienced people who just don’t know much about the industry.
Due to their role, many people only see a relatively small sliver of their company’s business. That in and of itself isn’t a red flag. What’s worrisome is when someone appears to have very little understanding of their company’s ecosystem and industry. For example:
- Has never heard of any of the common horizontal SaaS platforms that have very wide user bases (think of Notion, Gong, Figma)
- General lack of familiarity with what the most well known tech companies are (they work in SaaS but would recognize less than 10% of the Forbes Cloud 100)
- Unable to name major competitors to your business
- Unfamiliar with any of the major conferences, blogs, or podcasts that cover your industry
- For engineers or designers – no familiarity with common sources of news or inspiration for practitioners in your field
There isn’t a precise science to being out of touch, but if you frequently think “that’s weird, I’m really surprised that someone with their experience hasn’t heard of
Scaling is complex and it’s hard to be creative and forward-thinking without a broad understanding of your company’s environment. Additionally, the best solution to many business problems is to copy from the best – if you don’t know the other players in your space, you can’t learn from the winners.
Small Typos in Big Emails
Lots of people have typos in their writing, especially if they’re busy. But low performers regularly have large amounts of typos in messages that are really important. Whether it’s a sign of rushing or lack of attention to detail, there’s something about a significant number of typos that tends to be indicative of worrisome performance.
The question of “how many typos is too many” is obviously subjective, but I find that the following test is generally enough: if you think “weird, this email has a ton of typos” while reading, it’s too many.
Bad at Excel
I’ve noticed that struggling at work is often correlated with struggling with Excel (and its equivalents). For example, when someone is struggling with a project and their manager hops in to help them overcome a roadblock, it’s surprisingly common to find that they’re having trouble getting a formula working, or even knowing what data to track at all.
At more senior levels, this weakness often manifests as avoidance or unwillingness to dive into quantitative analysis. Think of someone making decisions based upon anecdotes, rather than playing with the data that they have.
Strong operators generally seem to like Excel – I suspect that this is because spreadsheets give you the ability to visualize a complex data problem such as compensation management, a sales forecast, or product analytics in one place.
So what do you do with this? A few thoughts –
- Some of these cues can be identified before someone starts on your team. If you ask candidates about the ecosystem of companies that their current employer interacts with, engage with them a bit via email, and ask them about a time they had to use spreadsheets, you’ll catch a lot of yellow flags.
- Look for these cues when you’re troubleshooting on your team. These cues aren’t fail-safe, but they can help you direct your limited attention in busy times.
- If you notice yourself falling into these patterns, consider that you might be struggling yourself. I now look for cases in which I have a bunch of email typos or am showing up to meetings late, as these are often warning signs that I’m running out of personal bandwidth.