Contemplating Leadership Series by Susan Baker
What’s the key to high performance?
We are lucky enough to live right on the edge of the New Forest, just tucked in on the Hampshire side of the border with Dorset. The Crescente office is a two minute walk from one of the New Forest’s beautiful lakes. The lake is home to a heronry and at least two buzzards (as well as being a haven for anglers). It’s a beautiful setting, and, every day, I walk my dog, Milo, in the Forest. My daily dog walk is where I take, consciously or not, my thorny issues for problem solving. When I’m short of ideas and feel ‘stuck’, inspiration often comes after an hour of tramping across the heather thinking about other things.
At the risk of sounding like a mix of Springwatch and one of my favourite management development gurus, Stephen Covey, I’d like to talk about yesterday’s dog walk where the pressing problem on my mind was how to make a real and sustainable difference to people’s performance.
Clients often ask us to work with them to improve the performance of their staff – helping them set up systems and train their managers in the tried and tested, good practice approaches for performance appraisal. In the 20 or so years I’ve been managing staff, I’ve seen first-hand the positive impact of implementing a sensible appraisal system based on a few, clearly described, priority competences, and driven by real conversations between the people involved. I’ve also seen the negative impact of a time consuming process, underpinned by far too many jargon laden competences, and targets that are definitely not SMART and sometimes barely comprehensible.
So, as Milo went bounding eagerly up to other dogs and splashed happily in the network of small boggy streams that cross the heathland I was asking myself what the real core of encouraging high performance is. We know that a decent performance appraisal system sets targets and expectations, provides a common language for feedback, makes sure the opportunity is there for appraiser and appraisee to build a good working relationship through regular dialogue, and provides a consistent framework for measuring, rewarding great performance and remedying performance problems. But does any system, however good, guarantee high performance?
I walk my dog every day (well, ok, maybe not in pouring rain or blizzards – he would refuse to go!). Why? No one makes me. I’m not set any SMART targets (dog to be walked for 45 – 60 minutes each day in varying locations and meeting at least one other sociable dog each walk). I’m not measured against competencies (you will train your dog in recall. You will responsibly bag and bin any dog poo!) Most days I enjoy it. Sometimes I really don’t feel like going out – the sofa and the wine glass look incredibly inviting- but I put on my coat, load up my pockets with training treats, and go. I’m never told I’m a good dog owner, that the dog has found the walk particularly satisfying or unpleasant (though occasionally we have encountered a worryingly frisky pony or cow). In the absence of targets, encouraging or remedial feedback, performance related pay or the threat of dismissal, what keeps me going? Well, perhaps it goes like this;
· I am very attached to my dog (my values and commitment underpin my daily walk. I’m not walking because I’m told I ‘should’. My heart is engaged)
· I believe I myself am absolutely necessary for my dog’s wellbeing (I know that the ‘business’ is dependent on me doing what I’m doing)
· I decide when I go and where (I have control over my day and can vary it as much or as little as I like)
So, with those thoughts in mind, what would we advise our clients who really want to improve staff performance?
· Engage your staff right from the beginning with the values and vision of your business (don’t impose or simply inform – engage)
· Make it clear from the recruiting stage onwards that what they do is necessary and valued
· Delegate as much decision making power as possible as often as possible.
Then, and only then, put in some sound and sensible performance systems – and offer training that inspires your people with the concepts behind the processes as well as how to implement those processes confidently.
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