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!

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!

A Fresh Look at SMART Goals

If you are familiar with SLII®, our company’s leadership model for powering inspiring leaders, you know that effective SLII® leaders are highly skilled in the two primary areas of leadership behavior: Directive and Supportive.

We define Directive leadership behaviors as “actions that shape and control what, how, and when things are done” and Supportive leadership behaviors as “actions that develop mutual trust and respect, resulting in increased motivation and confidence.”

In my last blog post, I wrote about Listening, a Supportive behavior. This time I’ll be refreshing your outlook on Setting SMART Goals, a Directive behavior.

What is a SMART Goal?

The concept of SMART goals has been around for decades. Different people and organizations may have slightly different ways of explaining the letters in the SMART acronym. Our twist on this familiar concept is the order in which you should write the goals, which is: S, then T, then R, A, and M. I’ll explain as we continue.

S is for Specific. A goal should state exactly what you want to accomplish and when you want to accomplish it.

T is for Trackable and Timebound. Performance standards, including a timeline, must be in place to enable frequent tracking of each goal. Are you making observable progress toward goal achievement? What will a good job look like?

So first, you decide exactly what you want to achieve—S—and then determine how you are going to track or measure progress toward goal accomplishment—T.

Once the S and T are in place, use the other three SMART criteria—the R, A, and M—to check if the goal is truly SMART.

Relevant. Is this goal important? Will it make a difference in your life, your job, or your organization?

Attainable. A goal has to be reasonable. It’s great to stretch yourself, but don’t make a goal so difficult that it’s unattainable or you will lose commitment.

Motivating. For you to do your best work, a goal needs to tap into either what you enjoy doing or what you know you will enjoy doing in the future.

Example #1: A Personal Goal

The first example is from the book Fit at Last: Look and Feel Better Once and for All, which I wrote with Tim Kearin, my good friend and personal trainer. Although my initial goal wasn’t exactly SMART, it was specific: I envisioned going to my 50th class reunion at Cornell and hearing my classmates say, “You’re looking good!” My less critical goals were to be able to do the limbo and to learn how to tap dance. (Again, maybe not so SMART.)

Fortunately, Tim helped me write the following goal. It’s rather long but it is SMART and, I’ll admit, a big improvement over the goals I had written.

SMART Goal: In one year, through an effective eating plan and exercise program with guidance, support, and progress tracking from Tim Kearin, I will weigh less than 200 pounds. I will gain 1 inch in height through posture-specific exercises, reduce my neck circumference and chest circumference by 1 inch, reduce my waist measurement by 5 inches and my hip measurement by 4 inches—and get rid of my “fat pants”.

This goal is Specific (we knew what we wanted to happen and by when); Trackable/Timebound (I knew Tim would keep great records and set a reasonable deadline for completion); Relevant (health is more important than almost anything else in life); Attainable (I knew I needed help and Tim was the perfect trainer for me, and our numbers were realistic); and Motivating (I looked forward to feeling better, looking better, living longer, and having healthy numbers for future doctor visits).

Example #2 – Career-Related Goal

The second example is taken from a recent Indeed.com article and involves a person with their eye on a promotion.

SMART Goal: I will earn a promotion to senior customer service representative by completing the required training modules in three months and applying for the role at the end of next quarter.

This goal is Specific (the person knows exactly what they want and when); Trackable/ Timebound (completing training in three months and applying for job the following quarter); Relevant (important to rise to a new level and make a difference in income and stature); Attainable (training first will provide skills to qualify them for the promotion); and Motivating (exciting career move, new challenge, higher pay).

Example #3: An Organizational Goal

The third example of an effective SMART goal is taken from FitSmallBusiness.com regarding employee training.

SMART Goal: Confirm that 90% of team members have completed new inventory management software training by the end of third quarter.

This goal is Specific (the company knows exactly what they need and when they want it); Trackable/Timebound (90 people will need to complete training, deadline set for end of third quarter); Relevant (important for entire team to merge together to new platform, which is more efficient than current platform); Attainable (majority of people have completed training, which is web-based and easily accessible); and Motivating (eager for better overall productivity, motivated to get the rest of the team trained).

Remember—all good performance starts with clear goals. If you don’t know what you want to accomplish, there is very little chance you will get there. So whether it’s for your personal life, your work life, or your organization, make every goal a SMART goal. It’s the best way to ensure success!