Many people mistakenly believe prodigal means lost, wayward, or not achieving up to one’s potential. This notion comes from the Bible story named the Prodigal Son in which a son leaves the family and is welcomed back upon his return. The word prodigal actually means extravagant, extremely generous and overly free in giving away valuables. If you further study the Prodigal Son parable, you will see that it is about a son who asks his living father for his inheritance so he can leave the family and spend lavishly on himself and his friends. He does return, but only when he has spent all of his riches and has nothing to show for it.
How does that lead us to a prodigal employee?
All employees are given resources like money, training, equipment, and sometimes a team of their own to lead. These resources are an investment from their owner intended to fulfill the goals of the company. A prodigal employee therefore is not one that is lost, or wayward, or not living up to their potential. No, like the parable, a prodigal employee is spending the resources that were provided in areas that don’t generate the expected return for the team or the company.
How do you handle the prodigal employee?
If you find that one of your team members is fully using every resource that you have provided but not generating the success that was expected, they are focused on the wrong goals. From the surface it often appears that they ignored the goals that you had for them and pursued other goals that achieved individual success but did not accomplish the purpose of your team.
Before you settle on the easy conclusion that the prodigals only care about themselves, I suggest you follow the advice from Jim Collins, author of Good to Great. In essence he said, “In times of success great leaders look out the window to credit others, and in times of trouble great leaders look in the mirror to evaluate what they could have done better.”
You see, prodigals are very capable of generating success when provided adequate resources. Your job as the leader is to focus your team’s strengths on successfully accomplishing the vision of the team.
Here are four questions to review with a prodigal employee:
Once you review these four questions with the prodigal employee, then it is up to them to turn their focus to the right goals.
1) Does the prodigal employee understand the purpose of the team?
If you have not fully defined the purpose of the team, your team has two choices; operate with no purpose or define their own purpose. Absent a clear purpose, the prodigal employee, who is geared to success, will have chosen their own purpose. You are responsible for defining the purpose of the team so each employee will seek to accomplish the same end.
“You have to know where you’re going. If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll never know if you’ve arrived.” – Denis G. McLaughlin, The Leadership GPS
2) Does the prodigal employee understand how your vision achieves the purpose?
Even if you have a clearly defined purpose for your team, there are many ways to achieve it. Your vision sets the route your team will take to reach its purpose. If you don’t over communicate how your team will achieve it’s purpose than you aren’t communicating enough. Left undefined, the prodigal employee will define their own vision.
“The very essence of leadership is that you have a vision. It’s got to be a vision you articulate clearly and forcefully on every occasion. You can’t blow an uncertain trumpet.”
– Theodore Hesburgh, as quoted in The Leadership GPS
3) Does the prodigal employee understand how what they do fits into the vision?
Ok, so you have a clearly defined purpose and vision for your team. There is one more level of understanding you must focus on: taking the vision down to the employee level. The prodigal employee may struggle in seeing the connection between their individual goals and the larger vision and purpose of the team. Remember, the prodigal employee is success driven, without this connection they will instead focus on what they think will help achieve the teams goals.
“Great leaders are almost always great simplifiers, who…offer a solution everybody can understand.”
– Colin Powell, as quoted in The Leadership GPS
4) Does the prodigal employee obtain personal success in accomplishing the success of the team?
Each person is looking for personal satisfaction in their life and in their job, the prodigal employee is no exception. For your vision to be effective you have to set it in motion and it must have an immediate impact on your team members. With each success, they need to feel that their job satisfaction is improving, along with the purpose of the team being accomplished.
“Successfully achieving your team’s purpose comes through a vision that consistently delivers small successes for each team member.” – Denis G. McLaughlin, The Leadership GPS.