Great But Realistic Expectations

A common term I’ve been hearing in this era of workforce consolidation and reduction of staff is “stepping up.”

If you're asking your staff to "step it up", make sure to give them the necessary tools.

It is most commonly used when people are facing a new challenge and have suddenly found that some of their support staff--or perhaps even some of their supervisory staff--are no longer with the company. What should be done about negotiating the big contract without so-and-so here to handle it? Well, someone has to step up.

There is a lot of good that can come of this. People need to be stretched now and then, and hidden talents are often found in this way. Folks find they have depths of resourcefulness they never knew they had. Sometimes it is a jolt for others who have grown complacent as they observe the sudden rise of the formerly silent and invisible.

I point to the NFL strike that occurred in the early 1980s. Owners unwilling to bend to union demands fielded teams made up of former players, college players who never made it to the NFL, and others who were invited to simply “walk on.” This last group included everyone from truck drivers to piano movers.

The funny thing was, fans kept watching--and even began rooting for some of these guys. More than a few of the new players were invited to stay with the teams after the strike was settled.

And believe me, the strike was settled much faster when the striking players saw that their jobs were filled by players who maybe offered a different type of intrigue, but one that was worth watching all the same.

Another example: My dad was a metallurgist at Ford Motor Company for 42 years. At one point, he took a lateral transfer onto the assembly line floor as a supervisor so that he could work the graveyard shift to put my sisters and me through college.

As the holidays approached, he always had a little party for the 20 or 30 men who worked the line he supervised. These guys were the most genuine, “salt-of-the-earth” people you could imagine, and they all spoke with such reverence about my father.

I was really struck one day when one of them smiled and whispered to me: “Your dad thinks I’m much smarter than I really am. That’s why I try so hard for him.”

I guess I could rest my case right there. See, most of us don’t even begin to know how high we can reach until we are truly challenged, but more importantly, ENTRUSTED. My dad got so much out of these guys because they were empowered by his faith in them.

Equally, then, we should not consider the situation a done deal if we merely set a challenge before someone and walk away. If indeed that person is not equipped to “step up,” supervisors can’t just shake their heads and walk away.

Maybe that particular person had reached his capacity where they were, and that’s not always wrong. You know we can’t have all chiefs and no Indians. It is critical that the process is balanced.

My mom’s career offered a similar observation. As a conservatory graduate, she not only worked as the musical director of the church with an adult choir, children’s choir, and church orchestra, she also taught piano and voice as a sideline through the college conservatory.

Many of her students were peers of mine, and they often told me what a tough teacher she was. How there was no escaping her high expectations.

It would go something like this:

“Hi, Mrs. Ciancutti. Before we start, I just want you to know I didn’t practice much this week, so I might not do that well.”

“Why didn’t you practice?”

“I had no time this week. I was very busy.”

“With what?”

“School, family, sports practice after school…”

“You have those things every week.”


“So you just didn’t take the time to practice this week, right?”

“Well…yeah. You’re right.”

“You know your parents work hard to pay for your lessons. If you choose not to practice, you waste their money and my time and your time. Do you understand the responsibility you have here?”

“Yes, I do.”

“Do you want to quit playing the piano?”


“OK. Let’s start and see where you are, and then next week you’ll zip right through this piece because you’ll work twice as hard as you did this week, right?”


I have to tell you, folks, nine times out of 10, this delivery worked. In fact, on the occasion that it didn’t work to push the student, it was often the speech that was needed to prod kids into deciding if they really wanted to take music lessons or not.

Certainly if they felt my mom was too strict they were welcome to move on to another teacher, but both parents and kids alike knew they were really just finding a teacher that was more tolerant and willing to accept subpar intentions and performance.

Mom probably saved many of them a lot of wasted money when it was clear that the student never intended to work that hard. Practice is not an option when you choose a career in music; it is required.

Again, that premise offers the most important consideration when pushing people to “step up.” And like I said earlier, this can be the hardest to determine.

Does the person I am challenging have the tools to step up and meet the challenge or am I just setting them up for a failure I can already predict?

To that end, the challenger must be frank with himself and his expectations. The failure of such a challenge can ripple through a company with relentless speed. If workers see their peers struggle, fail, and fall by the wayside, morale follows.

The only way the company can dissuade that opinion is by offering every transparent opportunity to assist the newly challenged to improve their skill sets and achieve better things.

Yes, the 2013 vogue rage in companies to “step up” is being invoked all over the country right now, but please, as you challenge those around you, be sure they have the tools needed and, if not, find a way to help them develop them. These are not tools that can be rented.

Finally, for those who cannot step up as hoped, make sure they know that their efforts and intentions were appreciated and that they are still needed where they originally were. Let’s not get so impressed with improvement that we lose track of the value of what we already have.

Ron Ciancutti is the Purchasing Manager for Cleveland Metroparks. He is not on Facebook, but he can be reached at