Effective executives usually work out their own unique form of performance appraisal. It starts out with a statement of the major contributions expected from a person in his past and present positions and a record of their performance against these goals. Then it asks four questions:
1) What has he or she done well?
2) What, therefore, is he or she likely to be able to do well?
3) What does he or she have to learn or acquire to be able to get the full benefit from their strengths?
4) If I had a son or daughter, would I be willing to have him or her work under this person?
a) If yes, why?
b) If no, why?
This appraisal actually takes a much more critical look at a person than the usual procedure does. But it focuses on strengths. Weaknesses are seen as limitations to the full use of strengths and to one’s own achievement, effectiveness, and accomplishment.
The last question (4b) is the only one that is not primarily concerned with strengths. Subordinates, especially bright, young, and ambitious ones, tend to mold themselves after a forceful boss. There is, therefore, nothing more corrupting and more destructive in an organisation than a forceful but basically corrupt executive. Here, therefore, is the one area where weakness is a disqualification by itself rather than a limitation on performance capacity and strength.Peter Drucker – The Effective Executive (from in The Daily Drucker)
…aren’t supposed to be easy.
The person you need to have the conversation with might be a peer, a friend, a long-term colleague.
The conversations are uncomfortable in the planning, in the preparation and in the aftermath – often because they highlight your own weaknesses or lay you open to charges of hypocrisy or favouritism, however hard you’ve tried.
But avoiding the conversation will put an even bigger strain on you, your team and your organisation – and possibly beyond. Your reputation, your work and your impact will suffer.
In short: this is your job, and you have to have the conversation.
Have it as close as possible to when you discovered the problem. Prepare, speak clearly and directly, and don’t run away from the uncomfortable feeling of calling someone out or confronting something that’s wrong. Instead hold onto that feeling as a sign that you’re doing you job.
Do your job.
If you’re not familiar with Steve Blank, start here:
The Principles of Lean
“No business plan survives first contact with customers.”
On Acting on Customer Discovery
If you’re going to go out and discover whether customers like your idea or not, this is not an outsourceable problem. The founders need to do this. Particularly, the people capable of changing strategy need to be the ones hearing good news and bad. … Getting feedback from customers is the most valuable thing you will do as entrepreneurs. It is not outsourceable.
The thing is to think as much in terms of developing customers as developing products. Once you’ve got the basic idea, watch all of this (long) video:
Some types of work that leaders do:
Foundational and Directional Work
This is the vision and values stuff – identifying needs, thinking through the “why” of the project, articulating its importance and sharing the vision and values with those both inside and outside the organisation. This is the work that keeps you and your team and partners focused and on the right track. It’s also often generative work, in the sense that it generates possibilities for your organisation and others, and also generates work for your team. (This can be good or bad depending on the work and the team’s capacity, but long term you can’t live without it.)
Strategic and Managerial work
This is getting into your organisation’s mission – making strategic decisions (or working with others to make decisions) to do with the “what” of how the vision will be achieved, with finding people who can do the technical work (including managing others) and with managing them as they do it.
Management work is also generative in the sense that it turns vision into specific work and jobs to be done (i.e. it generates work), and because good management generates capacity for the organisation. It does this because people are more productive when they are clear about the work that they need to do and supported to do it, and also because good management allows more effective and integrated specialisation, either by type of task or by project.
Executive tactical and technical work
Unless your organisation is big are big or you have a large personal staff, it’s probable that you also have a technical contribution to make: as a consultant helping your team to set up systems, or as a specialist doing a specific part of the team’s work on the ground. This might be outward focused (delivering training and working on products or selling them) or inward focused (things like recruiting, completing accounts and managing inventory in support of your outward goals). This work is executive in the sense of getting things done and shutting down possibilities. Tactical tasks can be ticked off as “done”. It’s generative to the extent that the quality of the work enables more and better work by colleagues or creates a reputation that attracts new partners to the organisation.
- What are you worried about? Why do you want this person or task supervised?
- How much time and effort will the recording and reporting cost the person being supervised?
- How much motivation and goodwill?
- Is the supervision actually going to happen the way you think? How much time and effort will reading the reports, checking the output, meeting with the person being supervised cost the supervisor?
- Who will supervise the supervisor?
- What other costs are there?
- Besides the supervisor knowing what’s going on, what positive things will come out of this?
Accountability is necessary, and supervision can be helpful… but a lot of the time it isn’t. And the cost of supervision is often far more than we think in terms of time, mental overhead and money.
If you can’t do it well, and if the benefits don’t significantly outweigh the costs, don’t do anything until you’ve found a better way.
No doubt about it: a sense of urgency helps us make get things happen and get stuff done.
The problems come when we’re urgent about the wrong things:
- We’re urgent as we approach big deadlines, but not about early thinking, or doing each of the little pieces that together make up the job;
- We’re urgent about handling the problems in front of us, but far less about fixing root causes;
- We’re urgent about about new projects or ‘initiatives’ (urgh), but not about running and maintaining the systems we’ve already got;
- We’re urgent about the crises other people bring to us – and so create crises of our own;
- We’re urgent about about one-off meetings and launch events, but not about the unglamorous rhythms of feedback and accountability;
- We’re urgent about financial targets and metrics for our impact (lag measures), but not about the day-to-day activities (lead measures) that make achieving them possible;
- We’re urgent about big events, birthday parties and anniversaries, but less about making sure that we spend enough good time with the people they’re about;
- We’re urgent about scribbling last minute notes a before a presentation, but not about connecting with the people we’re there to serve;
- We’re urgent about controlling our own workload, but not about helping our teams with theirs;
- We’re urgent about getting jobs ticked off, but not about improving communication and building skills;
- We’re urgent about work, and sometimes about exercise or leisure, but not about regular rest and reflection, and seeking peace.
Thanks to JG.
A particularly troublesome breed of little job are things left undone that hold up the work of other people – a decision that needs your input (or for you to decide), a design that needs your approval, feedback to your team from a key meeting, or a training you need to hold before your team starts a new project.
We usually want to empower our teams to make decisions and get on with things – but we’re also afraid of what happens if something gets rushed, or isn’t fully checked before being launched… and of course it’s important that we’re thoughtful in our answers to colleagues questions, and that we give their the attention it needs or deserves.
But however honourable our excuses, being a bottleneck causes all sorts of problems:
- It slows everyone down while they wait for you;
- Knowing that people are waiting for us doubles the burden of the mental overhead and nameless dread that the undone tasks often bring us anyway;
- It also creates frustration and emotional friction for team members who are waiting for us to get our act together and do what they need us to do – that is to say, the negative consequences of being
Some things that may help
- As JG suggested, getting these little jobs out of the way early in your day can make you feel lighter and more empowered as you get into the important stuff – although this can backfire if your answers generate emails with further questions;
- It’s often the case that the email you’ve been avoiding is a quick job after all;
- Finding the right people to join your team enables parallel processing in your organisation – removing yourself as the bottleneck;
- Helping your team become the right people is just as important. This will need training, which itself will need you to have…
- Clear, well formulated and well communicated principles and policy about what to do in certain situations – as simple as an FAQ list, or a blanket decision like allowing all staff to spend a certain amount to fix a customer’s problem without checking with anyone – can help your team do their good work without waiting for you, making it easier tomorrow for everyone;
- Recognising the problem, apologising and talking about bottlenecks – and asking for ideas to fix or mitigate them – is never a bad thing;
- Giving away authority is often the right thing to do, as long as (1) you share key principles clearly (see above); (2) you keep an eye on what’s going on; (3) doing so will take less time than doing the job yourself, even if at the cost of additional short-term effort; (4) the cost of failure isn’t catastrophic (really, it rarely is).
- It often comes down to trust – trusting that your colleagues can do it; trusting that their ‘good enough’ now is better than your ‘perfect’ later; trusting that the more you trust them and the more they get on with things, the better they’ll get.
- Go back and read the one about Who’s Got the Monkey.
If you ask most people who run a factory, or an organisation or a sports team, what they’re looking for is a taut, firm connection between and among everybody: everybody busy all the time. The reason that a bucket brigade is so much more efficient than people running back and forth and back and forth to the source of water is that it’s easier for people to efficiently pass the bucket from one to another than it is for them to run back and forth. You will put the fire out faster.
If you’ve ever seen an efficient juggling troupe or bucket brigade or a hockey line-up that’s passing, passing as it works its way down to the goal, it’s a thing of beauty. And so what we seek to achieve is that idea of synchronisation. But I’m here to tell you that you cannot maximise system efficiency by eliminating slack from the system. It feels like you should, but you can’t. And the reason you can’t is because of variability. Variability says that someone might be five minutes late for their appointment. Variability says there might be a custom order coming through that’s worth it for the organisation to take on. Variability says that some customers need to be treated differently from others. And when a system like that exists, when you have removed all of the slack, then when switching costs kick in, the whole system falls apart.
What’s the alternative? The alternative is a fire department with firemen who eat chili for three hours, waiting for the alarm to ring. If you were trying to get rid of slack what you’d do is say, “Let’s have exactly the right number of firemen so that when the average number of fires are happening, all of the fires are being addressed.” Which works great – except when the above number of fires show up. And when the above average number of fires show up, you don’t have enough firemen to go around.
And so what we have the opportunity to do as we organise our lives, as we dance with these systems, is to intentionally build slack into our systems. A buffer. A cushion. To avoid the emergency. Because in that buffer, we can work on the long term stuff. The firemen aren’t really eating chili… they’re using their downtime in a slightly productive way. But mostly what they’re doing is standing in reserve, waiting for when the emergency shows up so that they don’t have to say, “Oh, sorry your house burnt down.”Seth Godin – Akimbo Season 4 Episode 20: Systems Thinking
A friend shared this great analogy* for how teams work at different project phases.
Early phase: Golfing Buddies (2-3 players)
In the early phase of a project you and a partner or two (if you have any!) do all the work. You do a lot of your work together with quite a lot of crossover, share tools, might carry each other’s golf bags. There’s camaraderie, little need for planning or job descriptions, and most things you face can be worked out informally as you go. You need to do the work of compensating for your weaknesses yourself.
Intermediate (small) phase: Basketball team (5+ players)
There are more players and each has a position and you start to benefit from specialisation but you interact a lot and in many ways are still basically interchangeable. Plans and strategy matter, but tactics are king. You’re fast and responsive.
Intermediate (large) phase: Rugby team** (15+ players)
The team is getting bigger. Everyone still plays together but there is definite specialisation and team members stop being able to cover each other’s positions. Communication and chains of command become increasingly important and plans become harder to change. Danger of silos and factions.
Mature (large) phase: American Football Team (40+ players***)
There is very deep specialisation and there are clear teams-within-the-team – whole sets of players can play in the same game but never play together. Planned plays and frequent stops for communication are the norm. Management and support structure becomes increasingly important – and expensive. Danger of suffocating bureaucracy.
***I’ve been a bit fast and loose with the numbers on teams: basketball and rugby teams will have substitutes that take the number of players higher, and American football teams only field 11 players at a time, but have separate offensive, defensive and special teams that all play during different phases of the game.
The basic principle is that when you’re recruiting, you should be seeking to raise the average of your team, bringing in people who increase the level of energy, skill, and possibilities available – and who raise the bar in terms of commitment to your aims and values.
This is a helpful rule of thumb, but there are two problems with it:
- The more successful you are at raising your average, the harder it’s going to be to keep doing it.
- As you get better at what you do and grow as a team, it’s also going to get harder to find people who raise the average in what are presumably key areas.
So it’s inevitable that you’re going to lower some averages, some of the time, if you want your team to grow. It’s doubly inevitable if you’re seeking to build an organisation that increases the average, both internally (as individuals learn and grow and as the team works better together) and in the workforce (as people move on and take what they’ve learned to make a contribution elsewhere).
I think the answer is to make sure that you’re clear about which averages are non-negotiable, and which of the others are most important at a given time:
- Values and integrity
- Enthusiasm / energy
- Commitment to your vision
- Maturity – consideration and care for others
- Skill in a key area. This could be something you deliver, like training or a technical service you provide for your clients – or a support function like accounting or managing infrastructure.
- Readiness (and ability) to learn and grow
It’s worth being clear first about the non-negotiables of values and attitude (that is, character) – and the energy that you need a new team-member to bring to the team.
You also need to know which missing skills you’re seeking to add to your team from the outset, and whether you expect these to arrive fully formed (how will you tell?) or are going to help your new teammate acquire them (you need a training plan, and you need to make sure that you carry it out).
Beyond that, a lot depends on the stage of development of your team, and whether your priorities are growth into new areas (finding people to create possibilities and help you do things that you can’t already do), increasing capacity (adding people to help you do more of what you already do) or consolidation (adding people who will help you do what you already do better). It’s worth bearing in mind though, that the two types of growth create a need for consolidation, and consolidation creates the potential for growth.