Archive for the ‘Communication’ Category

Managing the Front End: How a commitment conversation can make all the difference

There’s a moment which underpins good Achievement Culture: The Moment of Commitment.

Delivery of results is a process that starts with the setting of a goal and ends with the applying of consequences (good or bad). A lot of focus is often placed on the latter part of this process – whether people are performing and how they should be rewarded. We’ve found most leaders spend a lot less time on the front end of the process–actually getting clear commitment to the right goals. So many performance issues can stem from the way the ‘front end’ is managed.

Be accountable…

Accountability is a contract between two people. One delivers something to the other, who then holds them to account in exchange for money, or other reward, assigning stewardship of resources to enable delivery. Playing on the word accountability, the interaction is one of: “Can I count on you?” “You can count on me”.

The manner in which this contract is negotiated plays a big part in the likelihood that it’ll be achieved. It’s best done through a ‘commitment conversation’. These can be used successfully for:

• Annual financial targets and plans
• Date-specific delivery (e.g. project implementation)
• Activities to be completed (e.g. take action on a non-performer)

The ideal outcome is when:

• A true commitment is made – the individual gives their word and means it.
• The figure/date/deliverable is something both parties are happy with.
• Good risk anticipation and mitigation has increased the optimum balance between stretch and achievability.
• Doubts have been expressed and resolved.
• Your direct report or colleague feels confident they can give their word: “you can count on me,” and you feel confident they’ve done the prep work to ensure they’ll deliver.
More frequently, however, we’ve found one of the following occurs. Have any of these happened to you?

1. Numbers are produced by finance and presented in documents, but at the individual level a leader does not feel personally committed to delivering a number and has already in their mind set up reasonable reasons why these will not be achieved.

2. No explicit 1-on-1 conversation is held to discuss what both parties think is an achievable number or deadline – “Can I count on you?”

3. Deadlines and other commitments are made and accepted without sufficient risk anticipation and mitigation occurring.

4. Intentions are confused with promises – “I’ll try.”

5. Factors that might cause non-performance are not sufficiently discussed, and then are given later as justifications. For example, do you expect your team to have contingency plans in place for if a competitor slashes prices, or will this be an acceptable reason for non-performance?

6. Factors which are outside of the individual’s control are taken credit for when they are favourable but accepted as excuses when they are unfavourable. e.g. market changes, or contributions from other parts of the matrix.

7. People are told what to deliver and don’t feel safe to question for fear of not being seen as good enough.

8. When someone does question the achievability of a goal, the leader doesn’t use it as an opportunity to have an open, enquiring, coaching-style conversation.

9. One person (the boss) believes that a commitment was made, but the other person didn’t hear or understand what was being asked.

10. Details which become crucial later—such as a shared way of measuring whether the goal was delivered—are not clarified up front.

11. Teams sign up for goals, but individuals aren’t clear on what they have personally signed up to contribute. Shared KPIs blur accountability. At its worse, there’s avoidance or blame.
The more time is spent in honest, engaging, challenging, listening conversations at the start of the ‘accountability contract’, the more these issues are resolved. When your people make a true commitment, the later parts of the accountability contract become much easier:

• Both parties are clear what’s been committed to. No previous time wasted in debating it, nor how it will be measured.
• The individual’s sense of honour kicks in because they’ve truly owned the commitment.
• It’s easier to refer back to the commitment and enquire on progress or raise concerns.
• It’s easier to counteract that ‘reasonable reasons’ or justifications people may give when the deliverable is looking hard to deliver.
How do your commitment conversations happen now? Are there ways to improve your approach?
Image credit: ‘Conversation in Black & White,’ by Dimitris Papazimouris. ‘That Was Easy’ by Joe Popp. Both via Creative Commons.

How to make sure your "talk" does not overpromise

We chose our logo to represent the balance between “walking” and “talking” when building the culture you want.  And we wanted it to portray how the “walker” is usually hurrying to catch up with the “talker”.  It is common for the talk to be a little ahead of the walk, but in many cases it gets way too far out in front.

You build trust with your employees and your customers when you walk your talk.  There are two paths to closing the gap between these two.  One is to improve your “walk”.  The other to downplay your “talk”.  Ultimately, if you want a sustainable culture that will allow you to deliver on your promises, you need to improve your walk.  However, until you reach that point, there are dangers to be found in hyping up the “talk” too much.

Take a look at this article in the Harvard Business review.  It makes some excellent points about the additional burden BP as placed upon itself by its positioning of being ultra environmentally friendly.  It contrasts BP’s culture with that of one of its Brazilian competitors, Petrobras, where there has been deep, consistent work achieved to lay the foundations of a safe, environmentally aware culture.

It is tempting, when you hold a vision of having a great culture, to communicate this both to employees and customers.  How can you word your communications so they describe aspiration without making claims that you cannot fulfil?  From an internal perspective, communication that is worded as an absolute:  “We are customer centric, open and a meritocracy” will evoke cynicism if employees see a lack of investment in customers, an unwillingness to listen and non performers being given bonuses.  This will actually put your culture efforts into regression.  “We aspire to be customer centric, and we need your feedback and your help” evokes a very different response.

When it comes to marketing campaigns, the temptation to overpromise is often even more embedded.  And it may cost BP dearly right now.

In whose eyes must you walk your talk?

Today Lloyd Blankfein says he will review all practices in the light of recent events. We are all quick to point fingers at Goldman Sachs as we assess their behavior against our moral code and accuse them of lacking integrity. They have lost the trust of many, and fallen from their position as the golden firm of Wall Street.  What lessons can we learn from their situation?

Goldman Sachs was considered to have the strongest culture of all the investment banks.  It had (has?) one of the finest statements of corporate values I have ever seen – clear, provocative, inspiring.  The firm spent a lot of time and money inducting employees in these values, and did the same when it grew overseas and dealt with different cultures.  Those who did not fit with the culture were ejected.  I have never done any consulting work there, but often quoted Goldman Sachs as a company who really cared about culture.

As I listen to the CEO, I conclude that they did not believe at the time they were doing anything wrong.  I suspect that internally they consider that their actions aligned with their values.  This I find to be a common view of many executives when asked about their own behaviour or that of their company.  I personally have had feedback on leadership 360 that 'I do not live the values' when I felt I was full of integrity.  Sometimes I know I have stepped out of line – my conscience tells me that – other times my internal compass is saying 'fine' and others let me know otherwise.  (Or they think it, without letting me know).

I take one lesson from the Goldman Sachs experience.  Building your culture based on a set of internally shared values is not enough.  If customers and public opinion matter to your business, you need to check out with them how they see you measuring up against your values too.  At Walking the Talk we have identified three core cultural attributes which are essential in all circumstances where you are seeking to have your culture enable your business success.  One of these is open-ness.

Open-ness to feedback, open-ness to see the world from another's persepctive, to test your actions on others and ask them if they measure up to their standards.

Without this attribute, your culture can wrap you and your team in a bubble.  And sometimes, as in the case of Goldman Sachs, that bubble can wrap you in a self-perpertuating perspective which isolates you from those you serve.

Yesterday, Lloyd Blankfein said “We understand that there is a disconnect between how we as a firm view ourselves and how the broader public perceives our role and activities in the market. To address this, we need a rigorous self-examination”.  This promises well, it opens the first door to humility, listening and aligning corporate values with customer values.


Culture in a virtual team

Today a client asked me to help him think through how to build culture in a virtual environment.  The business unit he leads is spread across the world, and employees physically sit inside the country organization.  Communication is through email and phone calls, and meetings occur at most twice a year.  Many leaders face this challenge, including those who are leading a functional group (HR, Finance, Marketing) who sit in a local organization but should also have affinity with the larger functional team.  Working arrangements may mean that some team members may work from home, or spend much of their life at client sites.

Culture is so strongly influenced by identity, in the sense that individuals will want to fit in to the group they feel identified with.  Peers are an important influence on behavior, and in a structure like this individuals may be unclear who they really count as their peers.  Leading a virtual teams is like living without one of your five senses.  One element of human communciation, rapport building and influence – the face to face encounter – is missing from the equation.

And, as with those who do not have use of their eyes, or their ears, the other senses have to adapt and become much stronger to compensate.  What does that mean in practical terms.  Here are three simple ideas I have found help with leading virtual teams and building a common culture.

  • Meeting etiquette and format matters a great deal because it serves to bring people closer.  A ritual of having everyone say a few words at the start engages everyone (the “check in”).  Starting and ending strictly on time (we”ve all been left hanging listening to music on conference calls where the leader is late).  Asking people direct questions by name.  Having an agenda.  Being very clear on the purpose of each call.  I think of these as the equivalent of speaking very clearly to someone who is deaf.  Virtuality makes the nuance less effective.  Everything has to be more deliberate.
  • Be human on email.  Have you ever tried to read the emails you send out loud?  If they don”t sound like you when you talk normally, you are missing an opportunity to engage with your virtual team.  When email becomes the main form of human contact, it has to expand to show more of who you are.
  • Connect on Facebook.  People”s Facebook entries show the person behind the name.  For virtual teams, Facebook can become the equivalent to going out for a drink together.

Virtual teams who build strong cultures dedicate time to accentuating the mechanisms they do have available to them to build shared values, norms and connection.  Do you have ideas to share based on what has worked for you?