Helping an employee with a bad track record

Hi all,

I recently took over managing an employee who had a bad track record last year. He unfortunately got in the bad graces of our Head of Product, mainly for stepping on some toes and reaching out to people above the Product Head to strategize on big projects without getting buy in from the Product Head and missing key steps that are required in our organization. I think these were all innocent mistakes, but nonetheless the Head of Product wasn't very fond of this employee and changed up his role quite a bit at the end of last year.

This employee has now been in their new role for about 6 months. They've stayed in line and performed at a rate I would expect for their level. They now want to get in front of the Head of Product to get back in their good graces. I am unsure how to help them navigate this. I don't particularly want to "show off" their work, since IMHO it is average work, nothing spectacular. I always show off work of my top performers (ex. a project that they did a great job on), but I feel like setting up time for this individual feels weird, since it's not like they are going above and beyond.

For context, it's a pretty large org - 300ish employees, so the Head of Product has a LOT going on besides this employee, and I want to be respectful of his time. I need a gut check. Am I being paranoid? What is the best course of action here?

I don't think you're being paranoid. Maybe ask the employee what he is specifically trying to accomplish in this meeting? Is he looking for executive sponsorship on a particular project, and if so, what is the impact to the business if the project receives sponsorship? If it's purely to repair the interpersonal dynamic, perhaps suggest that this employee find a value-add activity or deliverable that could help the Head of Product, thereby achieving the goal of having something "above and beyond" to showcase and rebuilding trust / affinity for the Head of Product toward this employee. Best of luck!
Thank you! Yep, the goal is mainly to get back on their good side. I will brainstorm a little bit how to help them do that. I just don’t know if there’s a project right now that can help with that so it may take some time. Thanks for the perspective.
This is a super weird ask on their part. You can't fix this for them. You CAN give them the feedback that this is only the type of thing you would do for a top performer, and you can give them guidance on how to become a top performer instead of an average performer. (It sounds like they might be under the impression that they are exceeding expectations?) Also, it's a fairness issue. For the people who actually are your top performers, are you even "setting up time" between them and the Head of Product? Or are you just bragging about them in emails they are cc'd on, or giving them credit for things publicly? You shouldn't treat this person any differently.My guess is that if you give them this feedback (I will help you if your work quality improves), they might be frustrated and go rogue and try to reach out to the Head of Product directly, and it sounds like that's going to backfire.Your gut instincts are correct. Don't treat this person any differently than any other employee. If they don't take the feedback well or try to go around you and wind up getting fired, I'd call that survival of the fittest.
Thank you for weighing in on the equality piece. I think that’s important here. I am going to brainstorm a few options of what a successful chat would look like, and then see if he is able to check those boxes. If not, I’ll tell him to work on those things until there is a good opportunity to meet.
Internal company politics and hierarchies are mind-melting to me. It's bad enough that it sounds like there was retaliation against this employee for missing some red tape process in the org. But now they can't even set their own meeting with the head of a department without going through their manager first?300 people isn't *that* big of a company. Even if the HOP is very busy, I would hope that anybody across the org could look at their calendar (or work with their EA) to request a 20 minute coffee chat with a clear agenda. If the agenda isn't valuable to the HOP, they can always decline.Encourage them to think mindfully about how they want to spend time with the HOP and how it will provide mutual value. Is there a business insight they want to share, a topic where they could ask for more alignment, or would the meeting be framed purely around personal relationship or career development? Following this exercise through to conclusion, the employee may decide this isn't the right moment to ask for a meeting.Even so—I would dig into why this employee wants to repair the relationship with the HOP and get back "in good graces." What would that unlock for them that they're not getting today? Are they struggling with people pleasing / rejection sensitivity more broadly? Or, are they genuinely being blocked from being more successful in their role because they don't have this person's support?
Yep, totally agree with you on the politics piece and that’s where I’m torn. I don’t want to gatekeep him from the HOP, but I like the thinking around trying to understand concrete goals of the meeting to structure something that is mutually beneficial
I had a similar situation several years ago - except she never asked for this type of engagement. Her and I focused on making sure her work was spectacular. That she continued to grow and create impact. This goes a long way in rebuilding relationships. Simply performing and out performing expectations. It took a long time to get to the place that she was respected by the two people, but it didn't hinder her growth and eventual move into another department that she really wanted to join. I tell you this because I find that coaching the individual on the best way to navigate this is going to help them far more than you setting up a conversation with the Head of Product. Let them know that it takes time to repair perceptions and that their focus is best served in doing an exceptional job because over time that is what the Head of Product will see without any special meeting to showcase it.
I don’t know what the solution is (though I agree coaching might generally be a good place to start), but I think it’s a bit weird that you’re buying into the whole going above and beyond thing. Hasn’t this been used to keep people down significantly more than push them up?? If you cannot find a way to support this employee, is it true that they are just meeting the bar? Because to me it sounds like “above and beyond” is actually the bar here.There are tons of reasons why someone may not be going above and beyond and I hope you’re considering more than just one (the ability or lack thereof one). Given the employee’s misunderstanding of social hierarchies and performance level according to your standards, it seems like communicating more directly/precisely would help. Social hierarchies aren’t in-built in everyone and performance assessments are very subjective, especially when it’s based on one thing and another is expected.