Mid-Level Leaders — Senior Managers, Directors, Senior Directors — are the linchpin for creating results in most of our organizations. Their task is to interpret the company’s vision and strategy, create a localized vision and strategy for their organization, and then create the capacity for execution and results. The role of bridging the strategic and operational, vision and execution, future needs with today’s pressing demands, and the expectations of senior leaders and the front line has always been challenging. In today’s environment of multi-generational workplaces, rapidly changing technology, increasing competition and an ambiguous economic climate it is even more so.
Our recent research has identified 5 critical capabilities Mid-Level Leaders need to help their organizations forge the future:
- Drive collaboration and break down silos. Creating an environment in which collaboration across work groups, departments, time zones and geographies occurs easily is essential for Mid-Level Leaders to succeed. Previous barriers to collaboration are quickly falling away thanks to the collaborative tools and technologies that seem to change daily. Mid-Level leaders should make creating an culture of collaboration and investments in technologies to facilitate collaboration a priority.
- Manage talent. No one has a better view to the young talent in the organization than the Mid-Level Leader. Mid-Level Leaders should conduct talent reviews to create a broader understanding of the talent in the organization and to develop key talent early in their careers.
- Drive performance and create a culture of accountability. In a workplace where more and more people collaborate and where talent is valued, differences in performance expectations come more clearly into focus for everyone. The Mid-Level Leader needs to establish standards for performance and create accountability for meeting those standards. Nothing destroys the desire to collaborate or the desire for strong performers to make an impact than the knowledge that people aren’t held accountable for their performance or perceptions of favoritism or lack of equity.
- Make Effective Decisions. Effective, efficient decision-making is a key role for Mid-Level leader, especially in an environment of collaboration and cross-functional integration. Mid-Level leaders need to think about how they can establish approaches that allow them to get broad input efficiently, weigh and balance that input, and use it to make decisions that drive the organization forward.
- Engage and Retain Talent. Innovation, creativity, and excellence are what will propel success for American companies as global competition increases. Mid-Level Leaders need to truly embrace the thinking that “people are our greatest asset” and focus on engaging and retaining talent broadly. More often than not people come to work wanting to perform well and make a contribution. The more the environment engages their hearts and minds, the better that performance will be.
This posting is co-written with my colleague Stefanie Heiter, Strategies in Play, LLC.
In the emerging virtual workplace, do you miss the comfort of walking by an employee’s desk and feeling confident she or he is working hard and doing a good job? If you can’t see them working, do you wonder what they are really doing? Are you baffled by how to set expectations that will drive results when you are not working in the same place? Are you concerned about whether your talent has the right competencies to hit the ground running when it all turns around?
Today’s workplace is characterized by people working in dispersed locations, within matrixed structures, with colleagues from multiple functions – even multiple organizations. Gone are the days when high performance was assessed by how much time someone ‘put in’ at the office. We are less likely to be ‘going to work’ and more likely to be ‘working’. Technology affords 24/7 access from almost anywhere. ‘Do more with less’ is now a mantra heard across countless companies via all communication media.
Despite these changes, managers are still expected to manage performance, regardless of location, time zone, function, or even language barriers, and often in the face of decreased budgets and reduced labor force. Successful managers have learned to overcome the challenges of virtual leadership, and move to results-based performance management. Here are strategies and tips successful virtual leaders use to create an effective results-based performance management approach:
Focus first on intentional, consistent relationship building. Create presence with employees by checking in (not checking on) frequently. Use more real-time technologies like telephone, instant messenger, chat, or text. When you check in, ask questions focused on getting to know their locations, resources that are needed, what else is happening, sharing information and decision-making whenever possible, and asking about their lives. Presence involves being available to people so they don’t have to make up reasons to be in contact.
Slow down to speed up. Take time upfront to define how you are going to stay in touch, share status, keep people in the loop, and when and how you will ‘meet’. Considerations here are protocols for high use technologies such as email (i.e., names in ‘to’ line means action required whereas ‘cc’ line means information only, when to ‘reply’ versus ‘reply to all’). It means agreements about when and when not to use technologies, defining who should be included and NOT included in particular categories of information and meetings.
Discuss both the ends and the means. Clearly understand the expectations you have of the individual. What does success look like? Make sure your definitions of success focus on the results the individual is achieving, not just the activities. Think about using the SMART criteria – specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time bound – to both set and communicate goals. A goal of “Have 5 customer satisfaction meetings each month’ focuses on what you want someone to do. The goal “Increase annual customer satisfaction by 10% through improvements identified in customer satisfaction meetings” focuses on the result.
Another thing to think about is how the individual will achieve the goal. What behaviors will they exhibit? When people work virtually, they don’t have the opportunity to learn the culture and the way things get done. Explicitly help them understand what works and what doesn’t in your organization. How are people expected to behave? How should they be working with others to meet their goals? Sharing stories of how others have been successful is a powerful tool for communicating expectations. It paints a picture of the type of results and behaviors you expect.
Create a game plan. Once you’ve set clear expectations, staying connected and establishing accountability is essential. Specifically discuss which technologies you will employ for different communication needs. Is status best delivered through email? Do you utilize Sharepoint as a repository for different types of documents? How should time sensitive conversations occur? How should the individual communicate with others on the team? When should they make a decision on their own and when should they make sure the two of you talk first? Determine the most effective mix of ‘old’ and ‘new’ technologies. A client recently shared that their geographically-dispersed sales team is using a private Twitter site to share product information, market intelligence and sales tips in real time. They credit the site with increasing the effectiveness of their sales efforts. Determine what suite of technologies you will use to assess progress against goals. Real-time conversations will be part of it but also consider the use of technologies that allow for asynchronous communication.
Create a feedback and coaching loop. Feedback on performance is most effective when it is timely and about performance that you’ve directly observed. In a virtual world, the ability to physically see someone’s performance is not always possible. Create processes that allow you to gain meaningful information about an individual’s performance. For example, a sales director uses a survey with customers to get input into a sales person’s performance. While she created the survey to get direct feedback from customers who interact with her salespeople in live situations that she is unable to attend, it has created better customer relationships. The customers have told her that they are thrilled to be asked because it allows them to be heard. Also use technology to coach. For example, virtual meeting software could allow a less experienced team member to simulate a client presentation to you, providing you with the opportunity to coach them in real time.
Maintain the relationship. Our first tip was about relationship building. Once you’ve built the relationship, take steps to maintain it. When we primarily use technology to communicate, we often feel like we need to have a reason to communicate. Develop a culture that says it’s ok to just check in – not check up on – by calling or initiating contact without a specific need. Make it clear that you don’t see this as a sign that someone doesn’t have enough to do. Also, make a point to communicate the positive. Say thank you, recognize an individual’s achievements and results. If we are in the habit of using technology as a vehicle for only task oriented communication, we miss an opportunity to use it as a vehicle for building capabilities and engagement. Model this behavior with our team and you’ll find that when you do need to communicate because of a specific need, those conversations are more productive.
Effectively leading performance in a virtual world is similar in many ways to effectively leading performance in a more traditional workplace. Leaders need to communicate expectations, monitor behavior and results, and establish an effective relationship so that we can work through the invariable issues and problems that arise. In a virtual world, we have an ever growing toolkit to help leaders be more effective. By understanding how to use each appropriately, leaders can get strong performance in any of the many work arrangements we find today.
A third of all CEO’s surveyed by The Conference Board say the most pressing issue they have is attracting, developing and retaining the right talent. Two of the biggest factors in engagement and retention are trust in senior leadership and the relationship people have with their managers. With 75% of employees in a recent Gallup
Organization survey reporting that they are unengaged or actively disengaged at work, leadership is not successfully addressing this issue.
Leadership excellence has a multiplier effect on organizations. Investing in developing leaders, increasing the leadership multiplier effect, is a short-term and long-term strategy that allows your organization to adapt and thrive in various economic circumstances by attracting, retaining and engaging your human capital.
What is the leadership multiplier effect?
Resources spent on leadership development have a cascading effect throughout the organization. The effective leader creates exponential value for the organization through his or her influence on the strategy, people and processes in the organization. One leader’s effective decisions and actions has a ripple effect that can impact dozens or hundreds of employees, positively changing business performance for the entire department or business unit. Likewise, the impact of poor leadership decisions and actions can lead to the decreased ability to attract, develop and retain the right talent.
In addition, effective senior leaders model behaviors and skills for other leaders in the organization. They set the tone for the leadership practices that define the organization and its culture. They demonstrate the business skills that address business issues and create innovation. They define and operationalize high performance through their interactions with each other and the entire organization.
As others mature in their leadership roles, their effectiveness is increased for having been effectively developed and for the role-models presented by senior leadership. A cascade is created. With more effective leadership focused on the right things at all levels in the organization, factors impacting business performance improve. Groups led by effective leaders are more engaged resulting in higher productivity rates, increased willingness to give extra effort, and greater acceptance of change. In other words, effective leadership creates an environment that attracts and retains high quality talent.
Ensuring the effectiveness of your leaders is critical whether your business is expanding or contracting. When your business is expanding, bringing on new people, introducing new products, serving new customers, leaders need to integrate and assimilate the growth. They need to plan strategically for growth, effectively develop their teams, establish business practices and maintain the engagement people feel in those initial few months on the job.
When business is contracting, leaders need to manage the change brought on by staff reductions, reduced revenue streams and increased cost constraints. They need to maintain the remaining staff’s focus and morale. Need to maintain customer service levels, identify how to do more with less.
Optimizing the Leadership Multiplier Effect
For the leadership multiplier effect have its maximum impact, leaders must be developed effectively. Effective development includes:
1. Identifying the core of effective leadership. What makes leaders effective? One way to start thinking about leadership effectiveness is to identify what results you want the leader to achieve and use this to identify behaviors that are effective in achieving those results.
2. Communicating what is expected of a leader. This communication is not always in words. It’s important to understand that how you select, how you assign resources, what people are held accountable for and how you recognize and reward say a great deal about your expectations of leaders.
3. Assessing your leaders against your model of effectiveness. If some are less effective than you need, identify a strategy for addressing it. It may be development, assignment changes, or an exit strategy. No matter what strategy seems most appropriate, it should start with a frank conversation with the leader.
4. Identifying potential leaders within your organization and outside your organization. Do you have the bench strength you need? Also remember thatleaders aren’t just those with formal titles but also those in roles that are pivotal to business success.
5. Developing leadership effectively. Formal learning experiences, business-driven assignments and projects, coaching, mentoring and other leadership development experiences need to align with the business strategy and the expectations you’ve communicated about leadership within your organization. Utilize a suite of development activities that build leaders throughout their careers. Developing leaders is process not an event. You must take a planful approach to leadership development, not one that only addresses obvious flash points that may be ignoring underlying causes.
By taking advantage of the Leadership Multiplier Effect, you will optimize talent and create competitive advantage.