A New Leader’s Pocket Guide to Improving Performance

Sorry for the lack of posts, tweets, and support (comments and RTs) for my blogging friends. I was on a family vacation – here, here, and here. Good times.

Back to work, with a question from a reader:

I am looking for some tips and best practices that new leaders can use to boost performance in employees whose performance has plateaued. I have had a discussion with this leader about competency development using FYI, Good to Great, conducting effective 1×1’s, but am also looking to see if you have a list of tips that would be helpful; almost a back pocket resource that could be kept handy for leaders.
Thanks and keep up the great work!

I love questions like this one, because it’s so real and typical of what new (and old) leaders are asking for. They want pragmatic solutions to everyday challenges. They all don’t have the time and inclination to read volumes of textbooks.

While we all know leadership & management can’t be distilled down to a pocket guide, there are probably only a limited number of proven ways to squeeze (err, “inspire”) more performance out of people.
So here you go, A new leader’s pocket guide to boosting performance (you have to make your own laminated cards), with links, stories, exercises, and resources for more depth:

1. Review and clarify expectations
Here’s an abbreviated version of one of my favorite stories on the power of clarifying expectations (unfortunately, I don’t remember who I heard it from, so I can’t give credit):
A consultant was hired by a CEO to “fix” one of his managers who was about to be fired. The consultant asked the CEO to write down all of his expectations for this manager. When he met with the manager, the consultant gave him the list. A few months later, after the manager’s performance had dramatically improved, the CEO was congratulating the consultant for his brilliant work. “How did you do it?” he asked. “I gave him your list”, said the consultant. The CEO slammed his fist on the table and said, “I knew it – you cheated!”
Try using the same exercise with your employees. It’s even better if you both create your own lists, then get together to compare.

2. Agree on goals and measures
While clarifying expectations is a great way to improve performance, agreeing on specific goals and measures is even more powerful. Here’s a quote from Steve Kerr, courtesy of Derek Irvine: “If something isn’t measured, you can’t give people feedback about it, so they can’t improve. You can’t reward the people who are doing it well, and you can’t improve or admonish people who do it poorly. Measurement also signals that something is important; if no one is tracking it, it will take a backseat to things that are being scrutinized. … Things that aren’t measured can’t be rewarded and they very likely won’t get done.”

3. Discuss development needs and create an individual development plan
See “How to Write a Great Individual Development Plan”. A career discussion is part of this process.

4. Provide ongoing, authentic, constructive feedback (or feedforward)
We can’t get better if we don’t know how we’re doing. It’s especially important when we have behavioral “blind spots”, and no one has cared enough to point them out.

5. Provide ongoing coaching
There’s a reason the coaching field is hot. It works. Managers can learn to coach too.

6. Provide training opportunities
Another classic training story:
Once upon a time there was a woodcutter who was very busy cutting a tree with an axe. He seemed very tired and exhausted, the tree was big, but he was a great worker and not wasting a minute of his time was focused on his job of cutting the tree. Another wise woodcutter was passing by and he noticed this woodcutter at his work. He said “Hello there, good morning.. I see that you are working hard at your job, why don’t you take a break for a while, sharpen your axe a little bit” To which the wood cutter said “I don’t have time.” and continued to work harder at cutting the tree.
Make sure you allow and encourage your employees to sharpen their tools.

7. Provide recognition and reward
Everybody wants – and deserves – a little praise now and then. Try asking everyone on your team to write down what kind of recognition and reward means the most to them. Then tailor your approach to each individual. There are over 1000 ways to do it, and almost as many excuses for not doing it.

8. Delegate and empower
Most people thrive when faced with a new challenge. However, make sure it’s true delegation, not dumping of some mundane task you don’t want to do.

9. Ask for input
It’s more of a short-term shot in the arm, but it’s energizing when your manager asks for your opinion on some high level issue or decision.

10. Provide a mentor or coach
A mentor or coach can provide a fresh perspective and help someone get over that hurdle that’s holding them back..

By the way, none of these options will be very effective if a person doesn’t really want to improve their performance. Does your employee think that maintaining the same level of performance is OK? Because it’s really not. In today’s rapidly changing and competitive world, not improving is not an option. As the bar continues to rise, performance needs to keep improving, or today’s acceptable performance can become tomorrow’s poor performance. It may be necessary to have this heart-to-heart talk first, and then follow-up with any or all of the above.

Readers: is there anything you would add to this pocket guide?