“What is the most important thing you have learned about leadership?”
Leadership is a skill, the mastery of which takes many years. Don’t assume you’ve learned it. This is particularly true for “natural born leaders” who are most susceptible to thinking they have it covered.
When people say someone showed great leadership they usually mean one or all of:
- A person set a great example for others to follow.
- A person made a tough or even courageous decision to change something for the better.
- A person was able to motivate a group of people to cooperate and achieve something substantial.
It is true that some people will naturally exhibit the first two points above. Some will even perform some of what is needed for the third point by force of their personality. But, I am yet to meet someone who possesses all of the skills out of the box to get people to cooperate to achieve something substantial. Some people get a head start because of their competence, courage or social skills. But it takes time for anyone to learn how to lead well.
I’ve previously written about some of the most important aspects of leadership. As a person progresses over their career from team lead to senior leader, new skills and levels of capability are required. Read leadership theory, certainly, but seek out those who have done it successfully and learn from them.
One of the most effective learning experiences I have had is regular formal catch-ups with other CEOs where the more experienced help the less experienced understand how to handle specific situations. In these discussions there are normally a number of options put forward by the different CEOs. From this, the person learning is able to choose their path. But once the path is chosen, the learning hasn’t really taken place until it’s put into action. Once done, positive or negative reinforcement will tell the CEO whether to take the same action next time or try an alternative route. Much of leadership is learnt this way. Theory provides a foundation. Natural ability provides a partial foundation. But true learning takes time and a myriad of experiences.
There are two elements to this answer.
One is the desire to be a leader. The other is possessing some of the skills needed to be a leader.
The motivation to be a leader can come from a number of places. The desire to collaborate with a group of people is a good starting point, but not enough on its own. Couple with a drive to help people, pass on your knowledge/experience and influence people to be able to achieve more and you have a good starting point. Later as you encounter tough problems, you’ll know whether you want to stay a leader.
Next are the technical skills needed to be a leader. A survey of over 300K people identified 7 key skills needed:
- Inspires and motivates others
- Displays high integrity and honesty
- Solves problems and analyzes issues
- Drives for results
- Communicates powerfully and prolifically
- Collaborates and promotes teamwork
- Builds relationships
You need a number of these skills and be on the way to developing the others.
A friend wanted to be a school teacher. Luckily, early on in her training she experienced a classroom environment and her first real introduction to teaching. This experience provided her with the insight to know that teaching wasn’t for her. Getting early experience in leadership can be equally valuable in helping you answer the question.
In my last article, I gave a run-down of three talent management trends that I thought would be particularly influential in the new year. Though I briefly summed up my thoughts on each one, I’d now like to go in-depth on performance management (PM).
Across public, private, and government sectors, elite organisations share a common understanding: performance management is what fosters employee excellence. It’s what makes a good organisation into a great organisation.
So, needless to say, I think it’s worth doing a deep-dive when it comes to the study of performance management. Which is where an important article, “The Impact of Performance Management on Performance in Public Organisations: A Meta-Analysis,” comes in. Published in the Public Administration Review by Ed Gerrish, Ph.D., it offers us some valuable insights into separating the wheat from the chaff when it comes to maximising effectiveness of PM processes.
Dr. Gerrish saved us a lot of reading by reviewing 49 studies of performance management and synthesising the results with what’s known as a “meta-analysis.” His findings are conclusive and critical to any successful organisation: the efficacy of PM is entirely dependent on the system used to institute it.
Keys to success in performance management
1. Simply measuring isn’t enough
Don’t just measure performance. Treat your data as actionable intelligence. We’ve all been involved with stagnated organisations that simply “go through the motions.” They usually don’t last very long. In the case of PM, this might mean tracking performance, but only taking superficial measures to correct problems. That’s not going to cut it. Measuring performance without managing performance has a negligible effect.
Performance measurement works best when integrated with best practices and strong organisational culture. Important steps include clear – and clearly stated – goals, using performance data as a basis for strategic planning, and incentivising strong performance. Gerrish’s meta-analysis shows just how important best practices are when it comes to PM: organisations tying those best practices into PM are up to three times more effective than “average” PM systems.
2. Benchmark your way to success
One technique that the analysis shows to be quite effective is benchmarking – comparing performance to industry leaders and ensuring year-over-year improvement. I’ve long been a believer in benchmarking, and have seen employees, teams, or entire departments re-energised when given a clearly stated goal. It’s also a clear way to identify both high-performers and underachievers – a logical starting point in performance management.
With an appropriate frame of reference, outstanding employees can be properly acknowledged and rewarded and under-performers can be correctively trained to improve their performance. On a larger scale, departmental budgets or autonomy can be tied directly to clear benchmarks so that teams know exactly what is expected of them.
One example of where benchmarking works as a determinant of budgeting is in local government. A comprehensive study of over 300 county and city governments in the US found that the “greatest applicability” of PM through benchmarking is during budget development.
3. Survival of the fittest PM
Organizations are subject to the same Darwinian laws as living organisms. As a result, they are constantly adapting to survive and thrive in their environment. Performance management systems are one of the most important tools an organization can use to survive change. This is why “Second-generation” PM systems, defined by Gerrish as those which have been in place for longer than two years and are significantly different from their first-generation predecessor, can make or break an organization.
The most effective second-generation PM systems are those that do more than pick low-hanging fruits. A key to success is thinking proactively. It’s easier to build a fireproof house than put out a fire. For instance, if an organization recognizes that a department is underperforming, it’s not enough to cut funding. A first gen PM system might recognize a problem. That’s good. But a second gen PM system should both recognize, react to, and safeguard against future problems.
Xerox, the American copier manufacturer, saw its stock plummet from $70 to $5 a share within 18 months at the turn of the century. Looking overseas at Japanese competitors, Xerox found that their product took twice as long to produce and at three times the cost. With the help of an outside consulting firm, Xerox was able to make real structural changes that have sustained them in the 21st century like just-in-time inventory, quality control improvements, and emphasis on leadership training.
Using PM systems and benchmarking, Xerox identified the areas they were failing in. As an established firm, Xerox certainly had second gen PM systems. These systems were then used as a launching point to react to shortcomings and make strategic decisions that would prevent the organization from repeating its mistakes.
The right way to manage performance
Be mindful of the following steps to keep your organisation on track:
- Remember that measuring is only the first step – there’s no benefit to gathering data if it doesn’t lead to action. A strong management team will use performance measurement to start moving in the right direction. Your stakeholders want results, not a case study.
- Put everyone on the same page with benchmarking – it’s easier to communicate when everyone is speaking the same language and understands where they stand in comparison to their peers. Differentiate high- and low-performers and make corrections accordingly.
- Be aware that PM systems change with time – identify ways that your second-generation PM system is different. Did you make necessary and proactive changes or just react to immediate problems by picking low-hanging fruit?
- Step outside of your organisation for a new perspective – there’s more than one way to skin a cat. Oftentimes solutions can come from an entirely different field or industry. Don’t fall into the trap of “this is how we do it because this is how we’ve always done it.”
If you’re a leader hoping to spur change in your organisation measuring and benchmarking can be effective tools, but they’re powerless until you’re ready to follow them up with necessary heavy lifting. Put data to work for you, don’t be afraid to see how you stack up to the competition, and don’t be reactive. Be proactive.
Performance Management can be hard without systems and experience. Let us help.