We often think of the need to hold others accountable in the context of those who are not executing well or fully on their KPI’s and deliverables. Yes, for sure, accountability mechanisms and finding ways to support improved outcomes for this cohort is critical. This is a complex endeavor. It can take a lot of work for management to find out what is underneath the lack of execution. Further efforts are required to find the right levers to get around resistance, motivate and then get better productivity.
However, holding high performers accountable is a whole other matter. Yet, it is just as important and perhaps even more important, from a retention standpoint. If you don’t have the right joint accountability mechanisms in place for your highest achievers, you get a range of other problems too long to list. The main one though being you won’t hold on to them. High performers relish accountability. This doesn’t mean being asked to report minute by minute on their achievements. Nor does it mean being watched over. It is a different type of accountability and requires different processes and mechanisms.
I am typing this on the heels of a coaching call with a business owner, who has been working hard over the last 9 months to become a more effective leader. At the start, one of his chief personal complaints was that he was struggling to know how to lead effectively in getting his senior management to perform. It’s been a lot of hard work on his part over this time period, and now he has transformed in many ways as a leader. He is leading far more effectively, and his senior team is performing at a high level. This is resulting in a lot of great outcomes.
In our call, we talked about the leadership qualities from our psychometrics that he would need to draw on most in the next few months with his senior team. He confidently chose two good ones and had great justification as to why, at this time, they are needed most. Then we reflected on how he’d continue to hold his senior team accountable. At first he was a bit confused, as he figured he had already completed that, now that they were performing as A players. He’s now paying them more, has significantly increased a range of benefits and voila…now it’ll just go like clock work, right?
No, not so much. Joint accountability has to continue. Recognition and reward are part of that. Here are a handful of ways to advance accountability for high performers. With each level, I am going to give a simple example of a child coloring a picture, to illustrate the advances in the levels.
Level 1 – Acknowledgement / Praise for High Performers
This one is easy and should happen regularly. Remember, the most powerful form of reinforcement is intermittent reinforcement. Even high performers need and enjoy acknowledgement or praise. Even though it’s not needed everyday for survival like it sometimes is for our lower performers.
Example – Son, what a great picture you colored
Level 2 – Recognition for the High Performer
Recognition is next level, as it not only gives praise, but it goes deeper into unpacking and fleshing out in a more detailed way what is noticed. At this level, you demonstrate your noticing and your understanding of the “how” and some of the ways the high performer achieved. It’s more than good job, it’s good job because you….and you….and you…
Example – Son, what a great coloring job. Daddy really loves that you chose blue here, and you did such a nice job of staying in the lines over here and the way you were so creative with the lines and the dots is neat. I sure notice the details.
Level 3 – Inspiration for the High Performers
Here do what is in the first two level and now link the achievement to the company’s strategic direction. This is where you acknowledge which quarterly or annual priority the achievement is helping us execute on broadly. You may also do this by pointing out how the way in which the achievement was executed aligns with company core values. You could also outline how this is getting us closer to our BHAG. If you these achievers to stay high achievers, ensure they understand that they are actively helping work towards achieving broader outcomes on a macro level.
Example – Great painting son and I can you see you becoming better and better all the time. You are showing so many great skills like an artist. For a four-year-old, your coloring is so great, and you are learning so many new things that show me your are becoming a really big boy. I am so proud of you.
Level 4 – Advancement for a High Performer
At the advancement level, this can mean a range of things. Most importantly, this is about advancing the achievement, the creation, the innovation or whatever value add has been realized. We can advance this in the organization through a strategic dialogue around how to take this good practice and disseminate it to other areas of the business to replicate.
We can also do advancement by putting it on display for others. This might be by highlighting it in a report to the board or boasting about it on our website. Advancement can be used in business development as an example of how the company creates and adds value. We can do advancement by asking the question, “what can we learn from this that can help us advance our strategy into new areas?”
Finally, at this level, advancement can literally be the “advancement” of the high performer into greater levels of delegated greater accountability, authority and broad influence. Sometimes advancement leads to a promotion.
Example – Great job coloring son. Wow, I bet your coloring is just going to keep getting better and better. This makes me want to get you a new coloring book where you can keep doing what you do so well! Would you mind if I take this to my office and pin it on the wall? Maybe we could frame it and display it in our family room to show all of our friends when they come over. I wonder if one day you will have a job where you need to be good at being creative. You are the most creative four-year-old I’ve ever known.
These levels of accountability responses reinforce achievement and drive even greater achievement. They also tend to encourage lower performers to performer better, in some cases. You don’t always have to be at level four with every achievement that your high performers complete. However, you should consider where and when you want to utilize each of these levels along the way.
Cameron’s Call to Action
Start by identifying your high achievers and what, in particular their recent greatest achievements have been.
Review your recent practices in terms of the mechanisms you use to reinforce joint accountability, pertaining to your high performers
What level do you meet them at? How are you doing in terms of ensuring you are grabbing from all four levels periodically. Be certain that you are leveraging their excellence at level 4, when it matters most. This benefits the firm related to their contribution. This also goes a long way to reinforce a culture of high performance and accountability throughout.
This past week an executive on my coaching roster and I drilled down into some of the seasonality of work for her and her team. She runs an entity with significant global reach and their demands throughout this pandemic has had incredible impact.
I also work with this exec’s team on strategy; with whom we are half-way into our 90-day sprints. At the end of the 90 days we’ll reconvene to update and refresh the strategy. The executive and I acknowledged together this halfway point and we reflected on how one of the main quarterly priorities for the organization for July, August and September was for each executive to take a break, rest up and catch their breath. There was a collective recognition as to how exhausted everyone had become after pivoting through Covid and not only surviving but also thriving.
One thing that bothered her is that in the first half of this year, while they were tracking and meeting their objectives, they had not experienced a great deal of growth. I reminded her that this past spring was their “Go time” and not their “Show time.” This executive became the CEO of this organization just over two years ago. For the last year, she’s been making a lot of changes, including changes to her senior team. These were changes that had to be made. She also brought in a lot of new processes, systems and accountability mechanisms. She also had to establish rhythms that had not been in place prior.
What is Go or Show?
So, what is Go or Show? I use the metaphor thinking back to a time I was in a fitness session with a personal trainer. This trainer taught me about the “Go” muscles and the “Show” muscles. The Show muscles are those ones we hope look good when we take our shirt off at the beach; the abs, big pipes, shoulders and pecs. Growing up as a male, I recall so much emphasis on these show muscles. But to be healthy we need go muscles as well. They are the ones that help us get up and go, so we can show! Things like our back muscles, our glutes and our hamstrings. A lot of stuff that doesn’t get seen first or may not be noticed at all. However, if we want to be strong, we need to build our Go muscles.
In business, we want results. We want our shareholders to be happy with how our execution and the profits we are driving. We want to Show! Yet, without strengthening our Go muscles we cannot truly Show. My client and I focused on teasing out and naming all of the achievements for the year to date; many of which were absolutely necessary if the team is going to have the finish to 2021 they want to have. Beginning in the first week of September, it is big time execution time for this group, with some launches, campaigns and significant events. It will be Show time, and everyone will have to execute with excellence literally right until Christmas Eve. Show time begins in just a few weeks. There has been a lot of Go time so far this year and that has included resting up.
Are you in the execution season? or the building season?
Every team and entity goes through various seasons in a business year. Depending on your business cycle and your industry, you’ll have some time periods where building capacity, systems and infrastructure need a little more attention. You’ll also have some time periods when its all about execution, sales, growth and profit. It’s important to know the difference and to have a language around the differences.
Cameron’s Call to Action
First, make sure that you include rest in whatever your Go season looks like. Likely your executive team has never been more exhausted mentally than they are right now. Be sure everyone is getting a summer break.
Discuss Go and Show with your leadership team. What has this year held for you and what is to come? What percentage emphasis needs to be placed on building your infrastructure (Go) this fall and what percentage on execution (Show)?
Don’t forget to take seriously the advice I offered in our last article regarding building culture intentionally along the way.
So many conversations are underway, throughout all kinds of workplaces, regarding returning to the workplace for those workers who have been working remotely. When considering how to return to the workplace, there are many considerations that go way beyond health and safety. One of the realities is that an extensive amount of change has been taken place in workplace teams since the start of the pandemic. Many workers have moved on or moved to new sectors or employers.
Certainly, some employers and teams have remained primarily intact. However, even where personnel have not changed, the way people work has; and how these staff want to return to the workplace is significant. This has meant changes in processes. There have been changes in accountabilities. The ways in which individuals’ interface on joint responsibilities where cross-department or cross-role collaboration is necessary has changed. I purport that in almost every team, with few exceptions, a post pandemic return to even an approximation of normal, is like starting over. When the pandemic hit, workplaces had to rapidly pivot. Some did this very well and learned things that will forever improve productivity, outcomes and the bottom line. However, some pivots led to painful realities, losses, strained relationships, and costly stress.
Return to the workplace well – be planful and thoughtful
My best advice to our clients currently, is to be thoughtful and planful regarding any kind of return to the workplace. You don’t have to be abrupt and rapid like the pandemic pivot. Take your time.
You could greatly benefit from taking the perspective that you are actually creating a brand-new team and new team culture. No matter how much you can approximate the previous normal. No matter how stable your workplace remained throughout the pandemic – it’s a brand-new culture. And you need to actively and intentionally build and create a culture. Culture will exist and it will create itself organically. Or you can get out in front of it and intentionally create the culture you want going forward. The biggest mistake you can make is to just assume it’s all going to be like it was.
Return to the workplace well – be intentional about culture creation
The ongoing strategy versus culture debate will never go away. During the early stages of the pandemic, I believed strategy was more important than ever. While strategy remains important, I believe culture is now most important. If you didn’t have at least an okay strategy in the last 18 months you didn’t make it. However, as we ease out of the pandemic, your culture now matters most. We know that a massive amount of workers want to make a change. This is in part because the reality of the pandemic caused them to entirely rethink what work is about in their life. It’s getting harder than ever to recruit and retain good talent in any sector. If you want to recruit and retain, you must be intentional and create a culture that people want to be part of.
There are all kinds of important action items associated with culture building, but here are a few:
For years I’ve delivered workshops on a whole range of topics related to mental health; resilience, managing stress, building healthy relationships, resolving conflict and the like. Prior to the pandemic, we were seeing more and more interest in these topics. The realities of the pandemic, has brought the interest level up for these topics and discussions, exponentially. I have many conversations about how significant mental health issues are due to the pandemic. While it is true that there is an increase in reported mental health challenges, we were well into a mental health crisis in Canada long before the pandemic. What the pandemic has done, is focused more attention on an already major issue.
Mental health can be better understood
Calls for workshops and interventions on mental well being topics have increased. We’ll deliver yet another one tomorrow, teaching leaders how to support staff experiencing mental health challenges. One of the things we really want workshop participants to be able to do, is to make an honest assessment regarding their own mental health. Mental health is a thing, just like physical health is. You don’t have to be a physician to do a general assessment on your physical health. You know what it’s like to feel healthy, and you know what it’s like to feel ill. Similarly, from a mental health standpoint, you know what it’s like to feel healthy, and what it’s like to feel ill. The gap all to often is that individuals just don’t have a language to use.
The mental health continuum
The Mental Health Continuum is a tremendous resource that you don’t have to be a clinician to understand. When we workshop the mental health continuum, I lead participants in the room, through an interactive exercise, to populate the continuum. They don’t realize that is what they are doing at the time, but later I reveal the continuum and point out that there is not one single sign or symptom at any point in the continuum that they don’t recognize or understand. Just like you don’t have to be a medical doctor to know the signs and symptoms of a cold or flu, you don’t need to be a therapist or psychologist to recognize signs and symptoms of poor and declining mental health or a mental health problem.
The stigma of mental health issues
Stigma of course plays a role as well, as too often individuals are reluctant to talk about their mental wellness due to fear of judgement or reprisal. Fortunately, as much as we have a long way to go in combatting stigma in Canada, we are making huge strides in a positive way, reducing stigma and creating more space for open honest dialogue.
A main point I want to make in the piece, is what I state in the title; it’s okay not to be okay. Reality is, we can move from the left (green) to the right (red) on the continuum. However, we can also move from right back to the left, with the right support and treatment. However, it starts with you recognizing you’re not in the green and that it is okay. It is okay to have a cold, it is okay to have another illness and it’s okay if you’re not okay from a mental health standpoint. Your response and reaction is likely a normal reaction to a set of abnormal circumstances.
Be willing to really do an honest self-assessment to determine where you are on the continuum. If you’ve moved off of green, it’s okay. What’s not okay is to ignore it and not take action. There are all kinds of things we can actively do to help us stay in the green in the face of challenges, as well as to move back to the green more quickly, if we’ve moved to the right. One of the most important ones is to be careful not to self-isolate. We have a tendency to pull away from others and become less socially active, when our mental health is declining. Yet, this is the time we need social connectedness more than ever.
Cameron’s Call to Action
Review the continuum, and notice there is nothing on the continuum you don’t understand. There is no clinical or diagnostic language at all.
Do an honest assessment for yourself and notice where you are at.
If you are moving to the right on the continuum, remember that’s okay, but it’s not okay to ignore it.
If needed, at very least reach out to someone in your network, and possibly even a professional.
As a leader, seek to observe and become aware of where your staff are on the continuum, so that you can take steps to support them and promote help seeking if needed.
Over this past year, many workers, at all kinds of organizational levels, have dealt with a range of changes to their work routines and schedules. Clients continually express that the opportunity to work from home has revealed new insights. These workers have developed a new awareness of their work habits. Many report their productivity has increased.
Just one of the many areas in which this new awareness has become relevant is related to productivity. Over and over and over I hear people talk about how much more they get done when working from home. I believe it. It is interesting to encounter corporate leaders that question this. Some become concerned that if people are working from home, they will not be working as hard. My thoughts on this; if you have a staff person you don’t think will execute when not being watched over, then the problem is not with the staff person, it is with you. That’s right, if you can’t trust the employee, then its more likely you have a leadership problem.
On your marks
If you have hired someone and don’t trust them, it may be that you have not built in the right accountability structure. Alternatively, when you were recruiting, perhaps you didn’t do a thorough enough job of topgrading to ensure the individual is motivated, trustworthy and will perform. If; all of a sudden; because the person is working from home, you are not confident the employee will perform, you’ve missed building the right system of performance accountability. This has nothing to do with the employee and everything to do with the leader(s).
Naturally, working independently, whether from home or elsewhere, is not necessarily a good fit for everyone or every job. Some individuals thrive more in an office team type of environment. However, many people really do perform their best when they have the flexibility to work from home and they are able to take more ownership of their time and have fewer distractions.
Calls to “return to the office” are happening. As a result, I am having a lot of conversations with clients around how to do this well: how to build in future flexibility and how to support individuals to have more choice as to where they work. One of the sub-topics within this is how to set boundaries and protect time in the office setting so as to reduce / eliminate interruptions. A reality of traditional office type settings is that there can be a lot of interruptions which create high switching costs. High switching costs and lower productivity. A double whammy!
Go! …..but stop too
I received a picture yesterday by text, from a client who has needed to set boundaries, in a small office setting where he otherwise is continually interrupted. This picture shows a stop sign posted. This signals to his office mates that it is independent work time and he is not to be interrupted save for emergencies. Several weeks ago, he (as Operations Manager) and the company owner both built daily and weekly schedules. These schedules include protected independent work time. These schedules are posted at the office. The accompanying stop sign reminds others to respect the need for focused independent work. It also encourages his office mates to build in their own independent work time.
I have had similar discussions with other clients over the years. I have seen the stop sign work in many instances. It doesn’t have to be a stop sign, it can be something else (see graphic examples below). The key is that the workplace culture needs to be one that makes it okay for individuals to focus. Such a workplace will incur significantly less switching costs throughout the day. Ultimately, the bottom line improves.
Cameron’s Call to Action for Increasing Productivity
Undertake a thorough discussion with your team members about what; if any; a return to the office looks like post pandemic. Remembering and reflecting on how you (as a great leader) have grown throughout this past 16 months.
Consider where there are opportunities to offer and support greater flexibility for your employees.
Not confident in the ability of your employees’ to work more independently? Not comfortable including the possibility of working remotely some of the time post pandemic? Recognize you either don’t have the right people on your team or you haven’t built a culture of joint accountability. Address this gap!
Consider where there may be value for you, or others on the team, to be able to protect parts of their day/week to focus on independent work. During this time you are not to be interrupted unless there is an emergency. Then watch your productivity increase.