The More Things Change… the More We Need to Lean on the Fundamentals

I recently came across this article written nearly 10 years ago. In some ways it felt a bit quaint, but I was struck by how applicable the ideas were to not only this decade, but to our current Covid business reality. Enjoy.

Results-Based Performance in a Virtual World

This posting is co-written with my colleague Stefanie Heiter, CEO, Bridging Distance.

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.

10 Tips to Help Your Team in a Disrupted Environment

Coronavirus is creating more disruption than many of us have ever experienced. It impacts our personal lives and professional lives. It’s doing the same for everyone around us. The situation changes daily with closings, cancellations, and now, decisions to have many people work from home.

Working from home may be a new way of working for some people or old hat for others.  Either way, it’s now a reality for everyone. Here are some tips to help you successfully lead your team as they adjust to working in a new way, in a new location, in a world of disruption.

1. Reflect. how are you feeling about what is going on? How do you feel about the remote work? In times of uncertainty, your team largely will calibrate their response to the uncertainty based on your response. Set up routines for yourself to help you ‘keep calm and carry on.’

2. Show empathy. people are experiencing everything from minor concern to outright fear, not to mention disruption on multiple fronts. In addition, people may not be able to create the most productive work environment. Schools may close. They may have older relatives they need to check in on. Their ability to shut it all out may be taxed. Talk about Feelings First.

3. Move off email, communicate real time. Even in the most email-driven organizations, we see each other all the time. When everyone is remote, we don’t. Relying only on email can feel isolating. Pick up the phone. Get on Skype. Make a live connection.

4. Set up a cadence for communication. What was your cadence up to this point for team and individual meetings. Keep that. What else do you need to add? This is a rapidly changing situation. At a minimum, daily updates, should be the norm until the pace of disruption slows down. The length of the updates can change, but the regularity shouldn’t change abruptly.

5. Check-in, 1-on-1. do personal check-ins with each person. Make sure they are adjusting well and have what they need to succeed. Ask questions. Actively listen.

6. Collaboratively create contingency plans. There are lots of unknowns and risks right now.  What contingencies might your team need? For example, how will the team adjust if members become ill and are out for several days? What if someone has an ill family member they need to care for? Working collaboratively on these plans will create buy-in and better solutions.

7. Create a virtual break room.  Create ways that team members can catch up with each other and chat. It can be as simple as having each other’s cell phone numbers to send texts, hop on Skype/Facetime or actually call each other.

8. Focus on engagement. It’s really easy to feel disconnected when everyone is remote.  Key drivers of engagement are helping people feel they are part of something bigger, the ability to make progress and feel competent, and the ability to make decisions about how one works. Make sure your team members are feeling good about these factors.

9. Break the tension. This entire situation can be nerve wracking.  If your team is not dealing directly with the health crisis, building in some fun could help bring some relief.  A silly contest, posting pictures of your ‘home office’(which may be the kitchen table!), a rotating responsibility to share a dad joke everyday could be just what the team needs.

10. Review the week. Whether on shared drive, Slack, or a live meeting, review the week with everyone. What did we accomplish? What issues are we having? How is our communication cadence working? How is everyone feeling?

One of your goals is to create a level of predictability for your team in a highly unpredictable situation. The more quickly you can use some of these tips consistently, the quicker you will all create a rhythm that works for your team.

Do you need some help getting your head wrapped around what to do with your group, specifically? Do you want someone to help your group exceed expectations in a very difficult environment? Call Edith at 1.978.475.8424 or email her at e.onderick-harvey@nextbridgeconsulting.com.

Am I Dressed for This?

Much of the country is experiencing record-breaking, bitter cold this winter.  And yet, some weeks, we’ve had snow storms on one day, with bright sunshine and 50 degrees the next.  In a few months, we’ll be experiencing heat and humidity.  The old saying goes ‘if you wait a minute, the weather will change.” As human beings, we readily adapt to these weather changes. We build a wardrobe for whatever the weather in our area brings – hot, cold, rain, snow, sun, etc. 
 
You could apply that old saying to what happens at work these days – wait a minute, and it will change. As I sat yesterday evening in front of the fire, I was thinking about what kind of wardrobe we are building for ourselves at work so that, when change happens, we have what’s needed to adapt. Are we building an athletic wardrobe so that when we need to reach  across silos we are comfortable and able to move easily?  Do we have our creative hat when we need to approach a challenge in a new and unique way?  Do we have our metaphorical heavy coat so we can get results even when things feel blustery? 

Too often we put on armor to protect ourselves from having to adapt and change.  Wouldn’t a wardrobe with a nice pair of shorts help us to be comfortable when things get heated?  Or a well-tailored coat for when we have to face a cold front?  Or a comfy pair of jeans for when we need to be ready to stretch and reach feel so much better?
 
What are you doing to not only broaden your work wardrobe, but to update it for what’s needed in 2019? How about your teams?  Are they stuck in a snowbank?

Improve Your Global Mindset and Strategic Thinking

Recently I had the pleasure of talking with a Danish company at their annual meeting in Dubai. It reminded me that some of the most instructive client relationships I have (especially the long-term ones) are those that provide me with a global perspective. It also reminded me of this newsletter article I wrote several years ago…

Some of you may have heard the story of the truck stuck under the bridge and the dilemma of how to get it unstuck. If you don’t know it, I’ll share it at the end of this post.

I thought about that story at a recent professional meeting where the topic was developing a global mindset. All of the speakers had interesting perspectives to share and one in particular made a point that was particularly thought-provoking. His company’s research had shown that experiencing another culture had a significant impact on one’s strategic thinking. He further explained that “experiencing” a culture didn’t mean going there on vacation for a week or two.

It is immersive, longer-term experiences like ex pat assignments or managing global teams where you had to travel to work within their culture. The speaker noted that these assignments have this profound impact because they change your perspectives on the world, how it is organized and how it functions. These different perspectives allow you to be more nuanced in your thinking about how different parts of a whole interact, the variables that impact it, and the implications.

How, then, can someone stretch their perceptions and perspectives and develop their strategic thinking when working globally isn’t a possibility?

Seek out Projects That Involve Global Teams.  It’s not the same as working overseas, but working on projects with global teams is a great start. It will expose you to different ways of thinking, conversing, and decision-making. Regardless of your role, really listen to others.

Regularly interact with people in a different function or area of the company. Marketers and engineers don’t think alike. Operations folks think differently from researchers. See how someone different from you may be experiencing the same organization, issues, etc.

Interact with those outside your industry.  For years, benchmarking was the buzzword when you wanted to get a more strategic perspective and to understand the industry more broadly. The problem is that it is a closed-system approach. Biotechs benchmark other biotechs. Car manufacturers benchmark other car manufacturers. The perspective of someone in a totally different industry about your issue or situation will cause you to think about the variables and interactions more broadly, more strategically. It helps you see the forest for the trees. One of the things that made Steve Jobs so successful at product design was that he thought about products and perspectives he gained from things like digital animation architecture.

Hire people who are different from you. I hesitate to say hire for diversity because too often that is narrowly defined. In addition to the more commonly referenced and important diversity categories, we can hire for diversity of thought, experiences, and education. Also, the US has new populations from other cultures within the country that can be brought onto teams. So, if working globally isn’t possible, the US still has a rich population of people to choose from. Then, regularly ask those you’ve hired for perspective and input on the business issues you are working to address.

Thinking about your daily business interactions expansively will help you develop the broader perspective needed to think more strategically.

So, the story about the truck stuck under the bridge goes like this…  A truck was stuck under a bridge, backing up traffic. The police, fire and tow truck drivers were trying to figure out how to get it out, but they had no workable solution.  A little boy walked up and asked what was going on. The police officer explained the dilemma. The little boy looked at him and said. “Let the air out of the tires.”

Among other things, the story illustrates how important it is to look for and value unique perspectives, especially those outside your typical orbit. Something a more global perspective can provide us.

Is Storytelling One of Your Leadership Superpowers?

I’ve been working with some senior leaders recently on using powerful tools like storytelling to engage others in strategy. Just last week, I also saw a headline that Marvel’s most recent movie – Ant Man and the Wasp – opened in 1st place this past weekend. It was their 20th straight #1 opening. Marvel is telling some great stories. How can we, as leaders, start telling some great stories?

A recent article in The Mission identified 20 Storytelling Lessons We Can Learn from Marvel, analyzing what makes them so good at the art of the story. I’m not going to discuss all 20, but but here are three that all leaders can use to make storytelling one of their superpowers.

  • Heroes are not inherently interesting. Only dynamic, flawed characters can connect with dynamic, flawed humans. Too often leaders, especially senior leaders, are viewed by other people in the organization as being different from them. And, too often, these leaders hide the parts of themselves that would make people believe any differently. I’ve facilitated many leadership sessions where a senior leader shares his or her story. The most impactful stories are those where the senior leader opens up and shares the stories of the hardships, the mistakes, the questioning of themselves and the missteps that they have experienced in their lives and careers. And what they did to overcome those challenges that led to success.
  • The world is more than blue sky and green grass. Create a believable universe, not a pretty backdrop. When we tell a story, we may tend to gloss over the parts that aren’t too pretty. We only talk about all the benefits that will come from the company transformation. Just like showing your own human, less than perfect side, you should paint a realistic picture of what your team and your organization faces. “The new organizational structure will position the company to be more successful. AND… yes, it will mean growing pains. Some people will no longer fit into the company’s future, and some people will have to learn new ways of working or report to new managers. And we’ll all have to manage a degree of uncertainty as all the kinks are worked out. We don’t take these steps lightly.  But there is no growth without growing pains.“
  • Avoid info-dumping by maintaining a thread of suspense until the last possible moment. I recently saw a video by Lani Peterson, who is an executive coach and storytelling expert. She explained what happens when we talk facts and figures. She notes that we make sense out of information by turning it into a story and comparing it to other stories we’ve experienced. We, as the listener, have to do all the work. As leaders, if we are focusing on facts and figures – info dumping – rather than weaving a story that builds to a important point, we are not engaging our listeners. Instead, they’re in their own heads, working to figure out how to make sense of what we are telling them. When you’re communicating, don’t rely on Powerpoint or spreadsheets to share where the organization is going or why a particular decision was made. Build a good story that pulls the pieces of the story together, allowing for the big reveal at the end.

If you’re a fan of Iron Man, one of Marvel’s most successful heroes, you probably see all three of these dynamics play out. Marvel gives us a character, Tony Stark (he inhabits the iron suits) who is deeply flawed. Like most people, he struggles with his weaknesses, overcoming them on the way to saving the world. Likewise, Marvel also doesn’t try to paint the good guys’ organizations in the story with an overly flattering brush. Like the heroes, the agencies eventually overcome their own challenges. And finally, like most good stories, there is a feel-good twist at the end. A sense of the heroics of overcoming difficulties both superhuman (defeating an evil empire) and every-day (salvaging a friendship, or coming together as a team) in the service of a greater good.

Growth by Design

I was having a conversation with a CEO earlier this week. The business is very successful and healthy. But like most CEO’s, he is concerned with growth and what’s next for his company. During our conversation, we talked about taking a step back, what I sometimes call taking in the view from the balcony. This view allows you to see how the different aspects of the business and organization are working together (or against each other) to achieve today’s results. And begs the question… how effectively will our current structure and processes spur that next phase of growth? Taking this view helps you to create growth by design, making it easier to align and integrate purposefully. And it prepares the organization to take that next step.

Growth by Design is our framework for helping clients build an organization that can propel them to the next level. It has three core components.

  • It’s starts with compelling clarity, ensuring alignment of the vision, mission, goals and culture. Every leader and every employee should know at all times exactly what their priorities are and how they fit with the strategy and goals of the organization. A how they both serve the mission.
  • Second, you need to leverage the critical drivers – understanding and instilling the growth imperative, making change agility part of your company’s DNA, and ensuring you have the talent to innovate and execute.
  • Third, the organization needs to build adaptive structures and processes– both business and human resources/talent processes and structures — that meet today’s needs but also prepare the organization for what’s next.

Asking the right questions and finding the best answers will help even the most challenged CEOs and senior teams cut through the fog. Building a compelling strategy for what lies ahead… begins by design.

Change and Keeping the End in Mind

change_innovation

Trying to promote change and innovation? Keep the end in mind with a robust, vivid, compelling vision that you keep front and center. It can unleash innovation and be a touchstone, barometer and guide for what and how things get done.

When you have a robust vision of the future, it opens up possibilities. Rather than closing down options, it can allow for change and innovation. With a robust and compelling vision, the focus becomes on achieving the vision — on moving forward — not just making the here and now more efficient or productive or less risky. It allows people to engage in creative thinking about how to get to that vision because ultimately there can be a wide variety of ways to achieve it. Without a vision:

  • people and organizations become overly focused on what and how things are done now
  • change represents uncertainty and as humans, we hate uncertainty
  • there is no gauge to measure a new idea, which makes the idea that much harder to justify pursuing

The vision provides a road map for how something new or different is, indeed, not leading us into uncertainty but closer to the ultimate destination.

And it’s important that the vision not just be a statement that hangs on the wall. It needs to serve as a tool to guide conversations, to help make decisions, to determine how resources are allocated and to promote debate.

How are your vision helping promote change and innovation?