If you’ve ever read a book that you didn’t have time to finish in a single sitting, then you know the value of a bookmark.

It’s an ingenious, though simple invention.  Not only does it mark your place without harming your book, but it saves you time when you return and allows you to pick up right where you left off without missing a sentence.

So what does the bookmark have to do with leadership development in your credit union?  Much more than you might think.  Let me explain.

One of the things that often holds leaders back when they move into a new position is the natural tendency the team to hold on to past events and use them to color future judgments.  It is a damaging practice that is hard to avoid and it can severely limit the effectiveness of a new leader.

Consider Lisa who works at a mid-sized credit union in the southeast.  She was promoted to branch manager last month and is just getting settled into her new role.  The biggest challenge she feels is making the shift from being a member of the team to being the leader of the team.

But there is another problem.

One of her employees has a history of past performance problems from a time when he was experiencing some serious challenges in his personal life.  The general feeling of Lisa’s team is that this employee “has problems,” and they clearly expect him to screw up again at any moment.

Enter the bookmark as the leader’s best friend.

Here’s how Lisa can use it to deal with this situation.

First, she needs to have a conversation with the “problem employee” where she lets him know she understands there were problems in the past, but that she wants them to put a bookmark in place–what matters from today forward is what he does from today forward, she is not going to use his past to define his future.

Second, she needs to walk her talk.  Explain the bookmark concept to the team and let them know that the focus under her leadership will be on future behavior and performance, not on past issues and problems.  Let them know that her expectation is that everyone will succeed and that she wants the team to focus on what happens from here.

Third, when any team member comments about anyone’s performance or suggests that they expect certain behaviors from the past to emerge, Lisa (or anyone else on the team) needs to remind them that they have put a bookmark in place and are moving forward, not looking backward.

While at first blush this may seem a bit idealistic, that doesn’t mean it can’t and won’t work.  The key is for the leader to believe it, live it, and coach the team to own the concept.  It doesn’t mean she won’t work to improve past performance problems, but it does mean that she won’t put people in a box based on past errors–which will make her a better leader and allow her team to grow and evolve, despite past missteps.

ACTION ADVICE: Take a careful look at your team.  Are there people who are still paying a price for past mistakes in terms of performance expectations and evaluation?  Where would it be beneficial to put a bookmark in place for the team or any of the individuals on it?  How can you use the bookmark concept to change your expectations about a team member and help put them on the path to success?  Think about it, give it a try, and you’ll learn how well it works.

It’s Your Turn…What’s your best idea for getting performance back on track?  What tools and approaches do you use to prepare new leaders for dealing with the sometimes toxic history that they inherit?  Please share a comment and contribute to the discussion…