Identifying Priorities

Concerned about someone whose performance is off track? Identifying Priorities, the next SLII® micro skill in our blog series, is a directive leadership behavior that helps learners stay focused on their goals.

If you have someone on your team who doesn’t seem to be performing at the level you expect, it’s possible the cause is not a lack of skill or motivation. Many times the reason people don’t meet performance expectations is because the order in which they prioritize their tasks is much different from the way their manager would have them do it. As a consequence, these individuals often are reprimanded for not doing what they didn’t know they were supposed to do. Unfortunately, this is a misunderstanding that happens all too often between people and their leaders.

Areas of Accountability

One of the biggest obstacles to high performance is the problem of unclear organizational expectations and accountability. If you and the person in question haven’t had a recent conversation about identifying and ranking priorities, give this activity a try.

Take a minute to identify and list the top ten priorities, in descending order of importance, that you hold this person accountable for. List the most important priority as #1, the second as #2, etc.

Now ask the person to make a list of the top ten priorities they feel they are held accountable for, also in descending order of importance. Don’t reveal your list until the other person is finished writing.

Now compare the two lists. How much do the lists match in terms of rank and content? If you are like most companies we work with, you’ll find only about 20% alignment between the two lists.

In many instances, managers are surprised to find they are holding someone accountable for results that are completely different from the priorities the person has on their list. Keep in mind that priorities can change rapidly depending on the person’s role and/or the pace of work in your department or organization.

For a more specific example, let’s take a look at an excerpt from Empowerment Takes More than a Minute, a book I coauthored with Alan Randolph and John P. Carlos.

“Have you ever had your employees list ten things they think you hold them accountable for?” asked Janet.

“Why would I do that?” replied Michael. “We tell them what’s expected of them, and they all get annual performance reviews.”

“You may have just diagnosed one of your biggest problems,” said Janet. “Tell me, when people leave their performance review sessions with you, do they feel validated or surprised?”

Michael reflected on the last three reviews he’d completed. “Come to think of it, they act surprised. Two of my last three reviews involved disagreements. The people said they didn’t know they were responsible for certain areas.”

“Since there is often a difference between what people think they’re supposed to be doing on a day-to-day basis and what their leader thinks they should be doing, I recommend that each of them make a list and compare the priority of things on the two lists. Let me give you an example of how [it] works.

“A couple who are friends of mine own a convenience store. They were constantly in a quandary as to why things they thought were important weren’t getting done around the store. So they asked their assistant to list the ten things she thought she was accountable for. This is the list the assistant produced.” She handed Michael a slip of paper.

  1. Shrink (inventory loss)
  2. Cash over or short on the register
  3. Stock shelves
  4. Clean rest rooms
  5. Test gas tanks for water
  6. Fresh coffee at all times
  7. Clean parking lot
  8. Organize back room
  9. Rotate stock
  10. Ordering

“My friends, the owners, made a list of the ten things they held the assistant accountable for. It looked like this.” She gave him another slip of paper.

  1. Sales volume
  2. Profit
  3. Customer perception
  4. Quality of service
  5. Cash management
  6. Overall store appearance
  7. Just-in-time inventory
  8. Training employees
  9. Protecting assets (maintenance)
  10. Merchandise display

“When they compared lists, the problem became obvious. And as they told me about it they said, ‘The fault turned out to be ours as leaders. We tell people we’ll hold them accountable for end results such as sales, service, and so on. But the things we talk to them about day in and day out—the things that stick in their minds—are routine tasks.’ They told me they were sending mixed messages. The [prioritizing activity] really helped them to see what they were doing and to appreciate the pain they were causing their assistant as a result.”

The great news is that this exercise can be the beginning of a mutually beneficial conversation where you work together on identifying the person’s priorities in a way that sets them up for success—and confirms to them that you are there to help them achieve their goals.

An aligned purpose and clear expectations are the foundation of an effective work environment. Make sure that people’s priorities are on track and on target. Connect the dots between individual roles and the goals of the organization. When people see that connection, they will put more energy into their work and get more out of it. They will feel the importance, dignity, and meaning in their job. It’s good for them, for you, and for the organization.

Keep watch here for more SLII® micro skills!

Providing Rationale

As a leader, there’s a lot you can do to help people get things done while also boosting their motivation and confidence. We call these leader behaviors SLII® micro skills. Continuing our series about these leadership skills, in this post I’ll discuss Providing Rationale—a supportive behavior that too many busy leaders overlook.

Answering the Question “Why?”

Nobody wants to do meaningless tasks. Sometimes, without a bigger perspective, certain tasks may seem confusing—or worse, pointless. People who aren’t given reasons for a request are more likely to ignore or resist that request.

By Providing Rationale, leaders answer the question, “Why?” Take time to explain to people the reasoning behind a request, and how their work will help achieve larger goals. Give people a mental picture of what’s needed.  What will it look like if what you would like to see happens?

Creating an Environment of Mutual Respect

If you simply assign a task without giving a rationale, the person is left to guess at your reasons for making the request. That’s demotivating; they may wonder why they should bother to do it at all.

Also, assigning a task without providing a rationale doesn’t allow the person to apply their own knowledge and skills to analyze and solve problem. They’re not called to stretch and grow. Their creativity is stifled. Consequently, they aren’t invested in the result. Not only does this undervalue the individual, it also hurts the organization.

Providing Rationale creates an environment of mutual respect. When you explain your reasoning and the bigger picture, you show respect for the person’s intelligence and give them an opportunity to respect your thinking as well.

Equipping Future Leaders

In our book Helping People Win at Work, Garry Ridge writes about an experience from his teenage years that taught him the importance of providing rationale. He was working for a man named Jack Lambert, who used to repair tennis rackets:

“I remember one day watching him regut and restring a racket. It took him hours to do this one racket. I said to him, ‘Mr. Lambert, why do you spend so much time stringing one tennis racket?’ He said, ‘Garry, someone will play an important game with this racket. They’re depending on the quality of my work for the result they get.’

Garry learned early on that when you explain the reasons behind an assignment, you empower the person you’re leading to take ownership of the results. As a teen, Garry also worked for a hardware store owner, Warren Knox, who provided him with a rationale for keeping the store organized and clean: “If you expect people to come in and shop at your store,” he told Garry, “it’s got to be appealing and inviting. It’s got to provide a warm and attractive atmosphere.”

As Garry recounts: “I remember when Warren Knox’s father died. He left me alone to take charge of the store for two days. He just turned over the keys to me and said, ‘You know what to do.’ And I did. I ran the store for him during those two days. I opened the store. I made sure the product was out. I handled the money. When he came back and I gave him his keys, he didn’t question anything. He taught me how to get an A, and he knew I would be an A player when he was gone.”

So, when you assign a task or project, remember to provide a rationale, because when you answer the “why?” question, people will be better equipped to step up and make the organization a success.

Establishing Timelines

If you are a regular reader of my HowWeLead.org blog posts, you’ll know I’m writing a series of blog posts highlighting each of the micro skills (also called leadership behaviors) used by an effective SLII® leader. This time, I’m covering Establishing Timelines, a Directive leadership behavior.

The First Secret of The One Minute Manager is One Minute Goals. Similarly, the first of the three primary skills of an SLII® leader is Goal Setting. Both of these key principles are about manager and direct report agreeing on what needs to be done—and when. When setting goals, it is critical that the SLII® leader establishes clear timelines for goal achievement.

You’ve heard me say that all good performance starts with clear goals. But how do you know a clear goal when you have one? For a goal to be clear, people need to understand what they are being asked to do—their areas of accountability; as well as what a good job looks like—the agreed-upon performance standards by which they will be evaluated.

When a direct report is new to a task, the job of goal setting largely belongs to the manager. As the manager sets a goal, they establish agreed-upon performance expectations and a realistic timeline for achieving that goal. The manager also explains the method for tracking the direct report’s progress toward goal achievement and how often this tracking will take place.

Here’s an example. New hire Michelle’s manager, using a Directive leadership style, sets a goal for her to complete a large proposal three weeks from today. They schedule meetings for every Tuesday and Thursday along the way to track her progress toward her goal. Why? Because the odds of Michelle delivering a high quality proposal are greatly increased if her manager regularly reviews the project and subsequently either praises Michelle’s progress or redirects her efforts to keep her moving in the right direction. Her manager worked side by side with Michelle to set her up for success—and she achieved her goal within the established timeline.

Establishing clear timelines for goal achievement is an integral part of SLII® leadership. Keep checking here for more updates on the other SLII® micro skills!

Asking for Input

In my last several blog posts, I’ve been writing about SLII® micro skills—leader behaviors that help direct reports get things done while increasing their motivation and confidence. In this post I’ll focus on Asking for Input—a supportive behavior that not only develops mutual trust and respect between leaders and direct reports, but also benefits the organization.

Why should a leader regularly ask direct reports for their input? There are multiple reasons; I’ll talk about three of the big ones here.

Asking for input engages your direct reports.

The Gallup organization—famous for its employee engagement research—has long recognized that one of the primary reasons employees become disengaged is because they feel their thoughts and opinions don’t count. This disengagement has a significant negative impact on productivity and the bottom line.

The leader who charges ahead and makes decisions without asking for input from followers contributes to employee disengagement. A study conducted by John Izzo, author of Stepping Up: How Taking Responsibility Changes Everything (Berrett-Koehler, 2012), found that the number one reason employees don’t take more initiative at work is that their leaders fail to get their input before making decisions. This is right in line with our own research on organizational change. When those who are being asked to change are not asked for their input, the change is likely to fail.

Whether it’s on a small project or a large change effort, the principle is the same: by asking for input, leaders can turn disinterested employees into an engaged ones.

Asking for input sets up a mutual, two-way conversation.

In the old days, leadership was regarded as a top-down conversation. The assumption was that the leader was the one with all the answers and the people doing the work were merely “hired hands.” Today, we recognize that leadership is more of a side-by-side endeavor, where both leader and direct report work together to create results.

By asking for input and listening well, leaders create connectedness and build trust with those they lead. A climate of trust leads to more productive employees and a healthier organization. In our research of more than 1,000 leaders, 59 percent of respondents indicated they had left an organization due to trust issues, citing lack of communication as a key contributing factor.

Asking for input also reduces the chance of miscommunication. For example, suppose you’ve just given instructions on an assignment to a direct report. To ask for input, you might say, “I’ve been talking for a while and would like your feedback. Why don’t you recap for me what you’ve heard, so I can make sure I’ve given you the direction you need to be successful?”

Asking for input stimulates people’s best thinking.

Not only does asking for input improve employee engagement, but it also taps into people’s inherent intelligence and creativity. Let’s face it: direct reports often know more about their jobs than their managers do. They also have far more power and potential to contribute to the organization than leaders often realize. From the 3M Post-It® Note to the Starbucks Frappucchino®, stories abound about employee innovations that went on to become multimillion-dollar revenue earners.

But even when focused on everyday projects, asking for input invites employees to participate in problem solving and contribute their expertise. The positive results are two-fold: The employee has more job satisfaction and the organization benefits from the employee’s knowledge.

If leaders don’t ask for input—and value that input—they may be hurting their organization more than they know. Keep in mind that when Steve Wozniak was an engineer for Hewlett Packard, he tried five times to get management interested in his idea for a personal computer. Wozniak finally left HP, teamed up with Steve Jobs, and founded a little company named Apple. Talk about a missing out on some good input!

In the coming weeks, I’ll be covering the remaining SLII® micro skills, so watch this space!

Direct Report Brand New to a Task? Show and Tell Them How to Do It

In my last few blog posts, I’ve covered one Directive and two Supportive leadership behaviors—micro skills commonly used by SLII® leaders. In this blog post, my focus is on Showing and Telling How, another Directive leadership behavior. Directive behaviors are actions that shape and control what, how, and when things are done.

As part of our company’s SLII® training, we teach that when someone is new to a task or goal, they need specific direction from their leader. One aspect of this direction involves the leader showing and telling the direct report how to do the task correctly. After all, if someone doesn’t know what a good job looks like, how can they be successful?

As simple as this seems, many leaders have a problem with showing and telling how. Why? Because they believe it’s inconsistent to manage some people one way and others a different way—so they choose a leadership style they are comfortable with and use it all the time, on everyone. But suppose a leader’s preferred style is Delegating—assigning a task to a direct report and then leaving them alone to figure it out. That style simply won’t work on a person who has no idea how to do the task. The leader is setting the direct report up for failure.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Here’s an example. Let’s say you hire a smart, likeable, outgoing person to sell your service or product. They possess many of the qualities a great salesperson needs, but no actual sales experience. On the other hand, they have a positive attitude and they’re eager to learn and committed to being a successful salesperson. In terms of sales, according to SLII®, this person is an Enthusiastic Beginner who needs a Directing leadership style.

Knowing this, you give your new hire specific direction about everything that has to do with sales. You go with them on their first sales call. You have detailed discussions—even role play with them—on how to close a sale. You show them what experienced salespeople do and let them practice in low-risk situations. You create a crystal clear picture of what a good job looks like, and you remember the importance of checking for understanding all along the way. Throughout this showing and telling process, both you and your direct report know that you are setting them up for success.

As an SLII® leader who uses all four leadership styles as well as the Directive and Supportive micro skills, you are building meaningful connections with your team members—and you’re inspiring them to take on the new challenges of our ever-changing world.

Watch this space in the coming weeks for introductions to more SLII® micro skills!