Issues 2012: Creating a Culture of Excellence

Back in 1982, Tom Peters went In Search of Excellence and profiled 40+ companies who were examples of excellence. If we look back at that book some of the companies are gone now or are not what we would hold up as examples of excellence. That’s because excellence is not an end state. It’s an organizational state of being that’s characterized by continuous movement in pursuit of ever-higher achievement. In a culture of excellence, you are never done or…you never quite arrive.

The drive for excellence — for continually improving on even our most outstanding achievement — when paired with compelling clarity, sets the stage for achieving or even exceeding the goals defined in the strategy. The question is how do you create a culture of excellence and performance?

Excellence is about self-reflection: Without knowing who and where you are in your journey, it is difficult to continually pursue ever higher levels of personal or organizational achievement. What values are of core importance to me? How do I add value? What values are core to the organization? How do we add value for our customers? Am I clear where I am taking my organization? Am I communicating a standard of excellence?

Excellence is about continual, personal growth: Without professional growth, our performance, and that of our organization, will not be characterized by excellence. Leaders need to be a role model for their teams. They should ask “how can I use my strengths more fully to achieve the results we need to be successful?” It’s equally important to ask yourself and others, “What do I, as a leader, not know and need to learn? What skill do I need to develop and how should I apply them?”

Excellence is about setting the expectation for excellence: In environments that achieve excellence, the standard for it is communicated broadly throughout the organization. The communication isn’t just verbal. It’s communicated in goals and objectives. It’s communicated in everyday actions. It’s communicated in the quality of anything that’s produced, from emails and meeting agendas to products and services. It’s communicated in processes that focus on continual improvement.

Excellence is about creating a culture that looks at behaviors and results: Cultures that only look at results can become toxic. It can be too easy to turn a blind eye to unacceptable behavior because “hey, he/she gets results.” Leaders need to be as concerned with how people achieve results as with the results they are achieving. How do we meet our customer’s expectations, meet our business goals and behave ethically and with excellence? What behavior do we hold up as the gold standard in the pursuit of results? What behaviors are completely unacceptable?

Excellence is about tapping into each person’s drive for excellence: The neuroscience of excellence tells us that higher and higher performance comes from the need to direct our own lives, to create new things and to improve ourselves and our world. In his book, Drive, Daniel Pink talks about tapping into the third drive — the drive produced from engagement in the task itself when the task allows us to experience autonomy, mastery and purpose. Too many of our organizations are using what Pink calls the second drive – the carrot and the stick – to try to create higher levels of achievement. What we know is that this only takes achievement to the level of what one needs to do to get a reward and to avoid a negative consequence. It doesn’t lead us to excellence.

Excellence is about improving those around you and managing performance: As the saying goes, the tide lifts all boats. In order to instill a culture of excellence, leaders need to manage performance and development proactively by praising excellence and having the difficult discussions that are needed to improve performance. Too often we short circuit the ability to achieve excellence because we are unable to give the difficult feedback that allows others to build their capacity to contribute. Unfortunately, many of our performance management practices also drive a trend towards mediocrity by relying too much on the carrot and stick.

As Tom Peters did almost 30 years ago, go in search of excellence in your organization. Model it, practice it, celebrate it and watch the impact on performance.

Performance Management and Unintended Consequences

Last year, the state of Georgia published a report showing that cheating on a statewide exam was occurring at 80% of the schools in the Atlanta school district. It had become a regular practice to change answers on student exams in order to meet the performance standards set for the schools and district. Some educators even had ‘cheat parties’ where they would get together on the weekend to change the answers on the tests. A statistical analysis showed that the probability of the type of performance improvement shown year over year was one in quadrillion.

Former Superintendent Dr. Beverly Hall, who retired in June 2011 as head of the 48,000-student district, is accused of creating a culture of fear, pressuring faculty and administrators into accepting ever-increasing targets of achievement, and turning a blind eye to the way those goals were achieved (USA Today, July 12, 2011).

If you were to ask Dr. Hall if her goal was to create a culture of cheating, I’m sure she would tell you that her intent was to create a culture of high performance and student achievement. Cheating was an unintended consequence.

One of a leader’s core functions is to build high performance. We set goals, create accountability, give feedback, and provide praise or other consequences. However, we rarely stop to think about the unintended consequences. We don’t ask whether we’re driving behaviors that we don’t want by the way we approach performance.

Those familiar with the Atlanta situation say that Dr. Hall was ‘data-driven’. The numbers were the results that mattered. Sound familiar? Managing by the numbers alone opens the door for people to behave in ways that we may not want or expect (think Enron, Lehman Brothers) I recently saw a posting by a sales manager who found that one of his sales reps performed well one day a month — the day before the sales results needed to be turned in. That’s all he needed to do to reach his goal and get his commissions. The manager was concerned that he wasn’t doing much the other days. Rather than driving performance, the numbers-only approach was limiting it.

Rather than focusing purely on the numbers, we need to focus on both the results and the behaviors that lead to those results. What’s acceptable and unacceptable behavior on the way to the numbers? Do we turn a blind eye to bad behavior because, ‘she gets results’? Are we creating expectations that cause people to spend their time “gaming” the system or to focus on achieving real performance? What are the unintended consequences of how we are leading?

Five Reasons Leaders Don’t Succeed

LeadershipJessica had been on the high potential list every year since she started with her biotechnology company. She was moved into a variety of roles, taking on different responsibilities and succeeding each time. She was known as a strong leader because of her ability to achieve results. When she was moved into the Director of Operations role things started to change. Within 6 months of taking the role, she wasn’t delivering the results everyone thought she was capable of delivering. Her team was contentious and morale was wavering. What was going on? Had Jessica topped out her potential, a living example of the Peter Principle? Had she lost her ability to lead?

Of course she didn’t lose her ability to lead. Her abilities and skills had not just simply vanished but other parts of the situation had changed. I’ve seen five common reasons why a leader who has been effective in the past is now failing.

1. Some skills, critical skills were overlooked before. Let’s talk about the obvious reason first. Some leaders have not developed key skills that they need to be successful. Just like brilliant students who breeze through school, sometimes people climb to positions of leadership because they are brilliant marketers, brilliant scientists, or brilliant (put your profession here). But along the road to success, the people around this leader choose to overlook a key skill (or two or three) until it can’t be overlooked any more and causes huge issues. For example, if we go back to Jessica, throughout her career it was noted in talent reviews that she could be abrasive and often got things done through force of will rather than by building relationships and coalitions. She thought of herself as ‘results-focused.’ When she moved into her Operations role, it became imperative for her to build relationship with peers in other parts of the organization to get results. Interestingly, her ‘results-focus’ is what got in the way.

2. Cultural mismatch. This is a common reason why leaders who have been wildly successful in one environment for a long time, fail miserably in a very short time in another. The way a person operates and becomes successful in one culture can be very different from another. For example, a leader may have been very successful in a culture that valued quick decision making and risk taking. Put that same leader in an environment driven by consensus and a desire to explore issues from every angle before moving forward and wait for the results.

3.  Process and system mismatch. In the 1800’s, some people did very well in the wild, wild west and others went back home to the security of their established communities. Some leaders are very adept at working in environments with less defined processes and systems. They either work without them or really enjoy putting them in place. Others thrive in environments where processes and systems are clearly defined. Think of the serial entrepreneur who is put into a large, complex organization that has acquired his firm. Change was a way of life in his entrepreneurial firm but isn’t in this large organization. Leading change in the former was easy; everyone thrived on it. In the new organization it takes real work. The processes that exist are meant to maintain the status quo not change it and people in his new organization wonder why he was once perceived as someone who drove change.

4.  Lack of management support. Even the most seasoned executive needs people in her corner. She needs people who support her success. She may need coaching and mentoring to navigate the new role. Even the best CEO won’t succeed if the Chairman of the Board decides she is not the person for the job and needs to go.

5.  Organization structure. We all have been in situations where roles aren’t clear, responsibilities are redundant, unnecessary internal competition is the norm, resources aren’t available or decision making is lost in layers of management morass. Leaders can find themselves in the same situations. I worked for an organization once that routinely pitted leaders against each other by giving them the same issue to address or initiative to lead in different parts of the organization without each leader knowing about the other’s charge. There could only be one winner in this situation so one of them automatically was going to fail.

What’s a Key Driver of Performance?

If you’re serious about improving performance and driving growth, focus on how happy and engaged your people are. That may seem very mamby pamby, but there is growing evidence that it’s not such ‘soft stuff’.

Here are a couple of Gallup statistics to consider:

 
Actively disengaged employees erode an organization’s bottom line.  Within the U.S. workforce, Gallup estimates this cost to be more than $300 billion in lost productivity alone. (Source: Gallup website) 

Beyond the significant differences engaged workgroups show in productivity, profitability, safety incidents, and absenteeism versus disengaged workgroups Gallup’s research shows that engaged organizations have 3.9 times the earnings per share (EPS) growth rate compared to organizations with lower engagement in their same industry. (Source: Gallup website)

Now the question is what really drives engagement? Teresa Amabile, a Harvard Business School Professor and Steven Kramer researched that question. What they determined is this — of all the events that engage people at work, the single most important is simply making progress doing meaningful work. In a September 4th New York Times article, Anabile and Kramer note “As long as workers experience their labor as meaningful, progress is often followed by joy and excitement about work.” Interestingly this positive ‘inner work life’ (as the researchers call it) has a profound impact on creativity, productivity, commitment and collegiality.

The leader’s role, then, is to help people make progress — remove obstacles, provide support, recognize progress and provide feedback on what’s not working. Unfortunately, almost all managers don’t see making progress as a compelling motivator. When Amabile and Kramer asked 669 managers from around the world to rank five employee motivators,they ranked ‘supporting progress’ dead last. Ninety-five percent of these leaders failed to recognize that progress in meaningful work is a far more important motivator than raises and bonuses.

So, next time you are trying to create motivating environment, don’t automatically think about traditional rewards. Think about whether your people feel like they are moving up the mountain or if they feel like their pushing a boulder up the mountain only to have it roll back down on them.

Creating a Powerhouse Team

Creating a Powerhouse TeamA couple of weeks ago, I defined the Powerhouse Employee as one who’s highly capable and highly committed.  Capability is something you can hire for or develop. An investment in skill-building is never wasted unless those skills become obsolete.  Commitment is something most people come to a new job full of. They are ready to go, excited to be there and committed to success.  The ironic thing is that, after a period of time in the job or with the company, you find commitment takes the big dive.

As a leader, spend time this week thinking about where your team’s capability and commitment levels are.  How are you increasing them or decreasing them?  As you do this, take money out of the commitment equation.  That’s the cheap and easy way to try to create commitment and one that really doesn’t work for anything but short bursts.  What are you really doing, really putting effort into that is making a difference in how people feel about working for you?

The Legacy of Steve Jobs

The Legacy of Steve Jobs

Between an earthquake and a hurricane, we heard that Steve Jobs announced he is stepping down as CEO of Apple. Jobs has been the face of Apple and its innovative environment for two decades. Naturally there is commentary on what his departure means and on what it means across media — from The New York Times to BNET to mashable.com.

The questions remains about what Apple will be like without him and only time will tell. Let’s take a look at the lessons we can learn from Jobs and the culture he built at Apple:

 

    • The Think Different mindset. Apple has created products that we didn’t know we needed and done it Apple’s way. They are famous for doing things on their timetable and listening to Apple’s own drummer. While most other companies are looking at the best practices of others to determine what they should do, Apple created best in class. Don’t look to others to tell you how you should move forward. 
    • Bring in thinking from the outside in to inform, not to replicate. This is different from search for best practices. It’s about being curious and looking for good ideas. Jobs noted that being ousted as CEO back in 1985 was one of the best things that could happen to him. He built a little company called Pixar that changed movie making and animation forever. He took those experiences from a company that was not a traditional tech company and infused them in Apple upon his return. 
    • Build an environment where taking risks is expected. Risk taking is hard for many people and is especially hard in a really tough economy. Jobs is a natural risk taker and by infusing that into Apple’s way of working, has changed technology, our expectations of the aesthetics and design of our technology, and quite honestly, has literally changed industries (think about it, car manufacturers changed their designs to include ports for iPods). If Jobs were the only risk taker at Apple, it would not be the company it is today. He took that desire and ability to take risks and built it into the culture.
    • Have a successor.  Steve Job’s departure will be smooth because he has had a successor identified for 7 years. His wake-up call came when he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2004. Because of the time and effort that has gone into grooming his successor, his resignation letter simply had to state that he recommended his successor take over. While I’m sure his resignation was a huge part of the conversations at Apple the next day, there was no doubt that a capable, though different, leader was stepping into the void.

 

As you approach your work, put a little Steve Jobs swagger into what you do and see what results it brings.

How Can I Take My Performance to the Next Level?

I woke up yesterday morning and the calendar said it was almost July.  July!  How can it already be half way through the year?  This realization made me think about the goals I had set at the beginning of the year and where I stood against those goals.  I asked myself, ‘How can I take my performance to the next level?”  At this time of year, especially in companies that have mid-year check-ins as part of their performance management process, you and your people may have this same question.

What do I need to do to get to the next level?

When our people ask this question, they are usually looking for us to help them navigate the performance or career development waters and give them the answer for where they should be taking their performance or career.  When asked this question, use the GOAL Development Conversation Framework to guide the conversation.

First, determine the individual’s Goals. Review where the individual is in his or her current role.  Are they ready for a move?  What are the individual’s personal and career goals?

Second, gain the individual’s Observations on what he or she does well, areas of interest and development needs. Ask for examples.

Third, add your Assessment and the assessment of others, if you know them for a fact.  If your team member is interested in moving to another role, what skills and competencies does someone need to be successful in that role?  How does this person compare to that profile right now?  What do they need to develop?  How does it align (or not align) with their interests?

Finally, create a Learning plan.  What more do you or your team member need to learn about the role in which he or she is interested?  What skills or competencies do they need to develop?  How do they need to better showcase strengths?

 

What Butler’s Final Four Appearance Can Teach Us About Competition and Leadership

 Anyone who’s watching the NCAA basketball tournament and was watching on Saturday saw Butler pull out a huge win over Florida in overtime to move on the the Final Four.  This isn’t their first trip to the Final Four. Last year they were not only in the Final Four but in the National Championship game.

As someone who went to college and grad school in Indiana, Butler University is a familiar name to me just not as a basketball powerhouse.  They are a school of 4,500 students in Indianapolis.

Florida has 50,000.  Before beating Florida, they knocked out Wisconsin and #1 ranked Pitt, the odds-on favorite for many to win the tourney.
What can Butler teach us about being competitive when others have more people, deeper pockets, more supporters and a legacy of winning?

 They have a clear, burning goal — to win.

  • They believe in their ability to achieve that goal. Butler’s star senior is a guy named Matt Howard.  People say he doesn’t look like a star player.  He’s described as ‘a hell of a basketball player with a weird skill set and surprising strength.’It’s said his teammates say he is quirky.  He’s also describes as someone you always believes they are capable of winning in any situation. And that adamant belief causes other to believe, too.
  • You don’t need a lot of people, you need the right people. They are a school of 4,500 people.  They are not a marquee name in the world of college sports (though I’m sure that’s changing).  Yet, they found and cultivated the group of talented athletes that have made it past teams 10X their size.
  • They persevere. In those four tournament games they’ve won up to this point, they’ve beaten their opponents by only 13 total points.   They overcame an 11 point second half deficit to win against Florida.
  • Strong, strategy-focused leadership adds to competitive advantage. The Butler coach, Brad Stevens, is 34 years old and this is his second trip to the Final Four.  He is measured and balanced in his approach.  He has a strategy for the game and plays to that strategy.
  • They work as a team. Trite, I know.  They are a basketball team after all. But not all team sports revolve around the team.  Look at some players in professional sports teams and it often seems the play is about shining their light the brightest, not shining a bright light on the team.  As Nick Fasulo or Beyond the Arc said when comparing Butler to the last non-BCS team to be in the Final Four, UNLV in the early 90’s Instead, “[Butler] is the embodiment of a overachieving group of athletes dedicated to one single goal, led by one of the brightest and boldest coaches in all of sports.” They are a clear example the whole being greater than the sum of the parts.

Go Bulldogs!

Five Capabilities Mid-Level Leaders Need Now

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

Results-based Performance in a Virtual World

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.