SI Review: December 2012

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Leading the Way, Simply

Streamlining the job of being in charge (book extract)

By Scott Wintrip

Leadership is one of the most challenging jobs, but it is also one of the most important and rewarding. One of the keys to enjoying and having tremendous success is finding ways to make the complex task of being a leader simpler and easier to manage.

I learned through my own successes and failures over the years. Over time, I have embraced a simpler way to effective leadership. “Sustainable Leadership” has evolved out of my passion for simplifying the job of being in charge. Sustainable Leadership, very simply put, is a razor-edged sword that cuts through the Gordian knot of complexity that is leadership today. What it does is help you be a more effective leader in a way that is so simple you’ll be amazed at how energized you become in your job.

While my Sustainable Leadership system covers best practices in the eight key areas of effective leadership, this article addresses four that have an especially positive impact in the current market. As you read this, compare and contrast what you are doing with what I am suggesting. Most important, if these ideas don’t seem new or remind you of something you’ve heard before, ask yourself, “How much am I doing that, and how sustainable is it currently in my leadership?” You’ll find that, much of the time, you’ll know many of these ideas, but that does not mean you are doing them consistently. Sustainable Leadership, if used suitably, will make your leadership more effortless and rewarding and will create better results.

Sustainable Action Plans

One of a leader’s primary functions is to define the strategic direction of the company, what you want to accomplish. While the designing of how that happens is the responsibility of your team, you need to generate buy-in as they create the action plan to then execute. So, you’ll be coaching your team through a four-step process:

  1. Assess the current status and the goal. Assessing your current benchmarks and where you want them to be (the goal), and by when. With these beginning and end points in mind, along with a clear timeline for completion, creating a plan of action is easier to generate and implement.
  2. Create a step-by-step road map. With clarity on the starting and ending points, charting a course is straightforward. You can guide your team backwards from the achievement of the desired strategic outcome or forward towards the goals in a step-by-step process. It’s a simple conversation of, “What will you do next? And what about after that? And after that?” If you start at the end and work backwards you’ll ask, “What will need to happen to generate that outcome? And what must happen before that? And before that?”
  3. Plan daily and weekly actions. Since the achievement of long-term goals happens over a period of time, the steps of the road map must be distilled down into manageable quantities of work. Your next step in coaching is to guide everyone in planning daily and weekly measurable actions. This way, you’ll both know if you are on track, ahead or behind, and be able to make adjustments, accordingly.
  4. Follow-up for progress. Coaching without commitment is just another conversation so this final step in action planning is to ensure that accountabilities are met, adjustments are made, as needed, and support is given to help achieve the actions, steps in the road map and finally the goal itself. The ideal is to hold weekly one-on-ones.

Wendy Tordilio, a director at Joulé Staffing Solutions, a regional staffing firm headquartered in New Jersey, implemented this approach earlier this year and is finding that accountability is more productive, as a result. “Everyone is clear on where we are going, what’s expected and how we are going to achieve our goals,” she says. “Our branch managers and employees are all on the same page, and both new and tenured employees are making faster progress than we have in the past.”

Progress, Not Perfection

Perfection is illusive, progress is not. One of the greatest ways you can drive progress by your direct reports is through dedicated one-on-ones. Held at the same day, same time each week, these meetings, lasting no more than 30 minutes, cover the follow questions:

Q1. On track, ahead or behind? With action plan in hand, you can quickly review daily and weekly accountabilities and how they are contributing to the road map and overall goals. You simply ask, for each one, “Are you on track, ahead or behind?”

When someone is behind you discuss how to get back on track and by when; when ahead how to stay ahead; and when on track how to stay on track.

Q2. Where do you need practice? Practice may not make perfect, but it certainly does create progress. Make it a requirement to bring two to three challenging situations from the past week as topics for practice. Then, you’ll demonstrate how to handle each situation differently then giving an opportunity to try out what you just demonstrated. Situational practice gives people opportunities to try on new skills, do things differently and perform better next time.

Q3. What’s your commitment? The last two minutes of the meeting are to ensure that this coaching, too, is not just another conversation. You’ll ask, “What are your commitments based upon this meeting,” listening to ensure all of the key points are part of the action plan for the coming week.

The beauty of one-on-ones comes full circle as each session picks up where you left off, gauging progress on the commitments made in the previous meeting along with the next review of daily and weekly accountabilities.

Performance Improvement Plans

When unmet expectations become a persistent pattern, it’s time for an increased level of intervention, a performance improvement plan (PIP). Different from disciplinary action, a PIP implies that you believe in someone’s ability to change versus chastising mistakes or shortfalls.

There are four phases to a PIP.

Phase One. This is a four-step process. First, discuss the expectations not being met, and why it’s important that this improve. Second, plan together measurable improvement actions. The more you elicit these from the employee the better. Third, set a review meeting where you ascertain progress and next steps. Fourth, request that the employee document the conversation via e-mail. In writing this, they begin to integrate what they understand is expected and you receive written feedback on this understanding. If something was misunderstood, you catch it before it’s an issue.

Phase Two. If expectations are not met, repeat the same process with you documenting the process in step four to demonstrate that the persistence of the issue has become significant.

Phase Three. When expectations are still not being met after phase two, then use the process in a last attempt to support the individual in turning things around.

Phase Four. If there is still no improvement, then the most compassionate thing to do is terminate the employee. In that final meeting you briefly discuss how the expectations are still not being achieved and the need to end the employment relationship. There are often no surprises here as it was made clear at the end of phase three that this was the last chance. This deflates the intense emotion that often accompanies a dismissal.

The first person I ended up having to let go using this system was a previously productive salesperson who had slid into persistently poor productivity levels. When we got to the final phase, he actually thanked me for letting him go. I asked why he was thanking me. He said, “Because you tried so hard to make this work and clearly this can no longer work for me. This is not right. It is time for me to move on.”

Postmortems

At the end of important events there is something to learn, regardless of the outcome. That is where the postmortem comes in. As the leader you are the forensic pathologist for your business, assessing why things went well, so you can repeat that, or why and when they did not, so you can avoid that outcome in the future.

Postmortems require engaging the involved parties in answering the following questions:

  1. What was the outcome? While this may seem obvious, outcomes are a culmination of a series of successes, a chain of failures, or a combination of the two. By discussing this in detail, you’ll learn more and be able to take away more from this process.
  2. How did this vary from the forecasted outcome? By comparing the desired result from the actual result, you’ll learn important details about what’s working, and what’s not in your planning process.
  3. What adjustments were made to the plan along the way? Your preparations will get better if you learn from the planning you did, that you changed, and that you will do in the future.
  4. How were we surprised at any point during the initiative? You can have a surprise-free and a drama-free business if you start learning from unexpected events that happened along the way.
  5. What mistakes were made? Mistakes provide huge learning opportunities, and help you to avoid the same pitfalls in the future. In addition, they can be opportunities to strengthen relationships that were negatively impacted.
  6. Who did we acknowledge for their efforts? Often leaders are so busy that their intention to recognize others does not happen. This question allows you to acknowledge both positive and negative contributions now and improve on them in the future.
  7. What else can we learn, change, repeat, or improve? This safety net question helps to ensure you miss none of the value of the postmortem process.

Postmortems have become a vital business practice at Award Staffing in Bloomington, Minn., a staffing and recruiting provider for the Twin Cities. General Manager Amy Grussing has used this process on multiple occasions as part of her commitment to driving continuous improvement. “While making mistakes is frustrating, it’s inevitable and it’s human,” Grussing says. “Each time we spot learning opportunities, we take the time to answer the postmortem questions and always take away both opportunities for improvement and confirmation of what we are doing well. Our processes consistently get better, and they already were quite good in the first place.”

Sustainable leadership requires a commitment to avoid complexity, wherever possible, and continuously maintain a methodology that consumes less time, energy and effort. Imagine all the things you could do with that time and all of that positive energy!

Scott Wintrip is president of StaffingU and the Wintrip Consulting Group and is author of the new audio and e-book on leadership entitled Sustainable Simplicity. He was named to the Staffing 100 by Staffing Industry Analysts in 2011 and 2012. He can be reached at scott@scottwintrip.com

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