Thursday, July 8, 2021

As a Leader, How Are You Investing Your Time Helping Others Succeed?

How do you define the success of a leader? Individual accomplishments are certainly
important, but shouldn't team performance be the primary measure? Indeed, leaders have a special opportunity to multiply their impact through the efforts of those they lead. Yet many unfortunately focus far more attention on their own efforts than those of the people under their charge.

Often, this misplaced emphasis is actively, if inadvertently, promoted by the firms that employ these leaders. For example, I've worked with several A/E firms that expect senior leaders to maintain high personal chargeability rates. These leaders are often commended for their heavy project involvement even as their business unit, office, or department languishes from their inattention.

I once was participating in a monthly managers call for a midsized engineering firm when the president began criticizing one of the branch managers for his low personal chargeability. "Wait a minute," I interrupted, "John's office has the highest utilization in the company, eight points over their budgeted goal. What difference does his utilization make?" After a prolonged pause, the president admitted he was focusing on the wrong thing.

Knowing John's tendencies as a leader, I suspected his office was outperforming the others in large part because of his lower utilization, or more specifically, how he spent time helping his people succeed. His example illustrates one of my most valued pieces of leadership advice—what I call the Time Investment Principle.

The essence of the Time Investment Principle is that leaders multiply their impact on the organization by investing time helping others be more productive and effective (see the diagram below). As a leader, if you spend your time simply "doing the work," your impact is measured only by your individual contribution. If, on the other hand, you divert time from doing the work to helping others do their part more effectively, your impact is multiplied.

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So how could you better apply the Time Investment Principle as a leader? Here are a few suggestions:

Appropriately distribute work assignments between yourself and your team. I know senior leaders who busy themselves largely with routine project work that could be delegated to junior staff. Clearly, they would be better served to unload much of that work so they could devote more time to being an effective leader—including boosting their team's capability to perform the work. What if the project work you do is highly specialized and not easily delegated? Well, perhaps you don't have the time available to serve as a real leader (there is a certain time commitment required!). Or maybe your firm needs to hire someone who can share part of that workload.

Dedicate a specific portion of your time to invest in your team. Your role as an engaged leader helping others succeed is too important to consign to leftover time. As with project work, you should determine how much time is needed to effectively lead your team and then budget and schedule it. Treat it you would project time. If there's a conflict, don't just drop it, reschedule it! And beware of overloading your calendar with tasks that are less important than your leadership responsibilities or that could be performed by others.

Start your day by helping others prepare for theirs. When I was serving in various regional and corporate leadership roles, my office was a snare. Go in there and I found myself easily entrapped by the lure of my task list, paperwork, emails, voicemails, inbox, and incessant interruptions. Sound familiar? What I learned was that one of the best ways to assure I spent time investing in others was to do so at the start of each day—before I stepped into my office. I would compile a list of people to talk to the day before, then the following morning spend a little time helping them get ready to make the most of their day.

Commit to coaching and mentoring others. Some people need a little guidance, others need more hands-on instruction and encouragement. Those of us who are sports fans recognize the benefits of good coaching, but rarely consider such an approach as leaders in our respective firms. But coaching holds tremendous potential for improving performance both on the field and in the office. Whereas coaching is more real-time, on-the-job with a performance focus, mentoring fills the need for more offline, career-oriented counseling.

Measure your success through the growth of others. An important leadership function is helping others grow and improve. This not only enables you to get the organizational results you need in the short term, but to build capability for sustained success. As a leader, your performance metrics should be largely centered on what your team accomplishes. The usual lagging financial metrics are useful, but I'd recommend adding some leading indicators such as specific behaviors, measurable improvements, and intermediate milestones. Of course, use these to celebrate success with your team.

My description of the Time Investment Principle may seem, well, a little too time intensive for some. But that's not usually the case. You should allocate your time for others in proportion to the dynamics of your particular leadership role. That includes determining what time investments in which people would likely yield the greatest benefits to the team's performance, and how much time you can reasonably devote (after optimizing the distribution of work assignments).

The main point is that leaders at all levels need to be wise in how they allocate their time, being careful to reserve adequate time to invest in enabling their team to succeed. Like any investment, you have to give up some now (in this case, your time) to reap a substantial return down the road (that is, increased future capability and productivity). But in my experience, you don't have to wait long for some ROI to be realized. Usually, the benefits start becoming evident within only a few weeks. It's worth the investment!


Monday, July 5, 2021

How to Close the Knowing-Doing Gap

I have a client with a common problem: The firm has implemented a sophisticated quality management system but many people aren't following it. Sound familiar?

Substitute any number of corporate activities and directives—from making sales calls to implementing strategy to filling out time sheets—and in all likelihood your firm has experienced the same problem. Employees aren't doing the things they're expected to do. They know what to do, they're capable of doing it, they're even motivated to do it in some cases. But it's still not happening.

Stanford professors Jeff Pfeffer and Bob Sutton call this predicament "the knowing-doing gap" in their popular book by the same title. They conclude—and I would concur—that the biggest difference between companies is not what they know, but how well they're able to put what they know into action. Best practice insights are a commodity these days, but implementation acumen is a rarity.

I'm a strong advocate for the use of positive reinforcement and other strategies from behavioral science in managing performance. Let's apply that wisdom now to the challenge of getting things done. Most firms take a familiar path in trying to solve problems like my client has. They step up the pressure, tweak the process, reassign responsibilities, do more training, modify goals.

These steps are all antecedents, things that come before and set the stage for action (or behavior). Antecedents are important, but they're not effective in sustaining behaviors over time. Unfortunately, most managers rely almost exclusively on antecedents in trying to change behavior. There's a better way. Let me outline some key steps in closing the knowing-doing gap in your firm:

Define the specific desired results. Sometimes firms launch initiatives without clear objectives. For example, if you implement a new quality process, what do you hope to accomplish? Improve quality? That in itself is not a very helpful goal (by the way, most quality programs fail to significantly improve quality). How much improvement do you expect? In what specific areas? How will you measure it?

I don't think I need to review here the qualities of SMART goals. You're undoubtedly familiar with the concept. Yet I'm surprised how many firms I've witnessed investing substantial time and money in various strategic efforts that lack explicit performance goals. That makes it much harder to change behaviors. Which do you think works better: Ask an employee to work harder or tell her specifically what more needs to be done? Review your goals and see if they meet the SMART criteria.

Seek to understand why. If people aren't doing what they should, start by exploring the reasons for this. Certain antecedents may be a factor, but you need to consider the consequences of behaviors as well. While positive reinforcement is a powerful motivator, it's important to recognize that it can work both for you and against you. If workers aren't doing what is desired, that contrary behavior is undoubtedly being reinforced in some way.

For example, failing to do a quality review saves time, is easier, may give one the sense of fitting in with their fellow noncompliant colleagues, or could even earn a compliment for finishing the work on schedule. These individuals may not be aware that these consequences are influencing their actions, but you can uncover likely sources of influence through some inductive reasoning and asking good questions. Once you have a better understanding of why people do what they do, you're able to take more effective steps to support behavior change.

Address antecedent shortcomings, but don't stop there. We're all accustomed to the usual fixes—new or revised programs, policies, procedures, action plans, tools, reorganizations, trainings, etc. These can all be part of the solution, but usually are insufficient in closing the knowing-doing gap. Sometimes the "fixes" even exacerbate the problem of inaction.

The important question is always: How do these steps help people do what needs to be done? Be persistent in pursuing the answer to that question. Most "structural" solutions to organizational problems are incomplete. New processes, of course, can only be effective when followed. Technology investments require a corresponding change in how people do their work. Training rarely is effective unless reinforced over time.

Changing behaviors is almost always part of the solution. And it's usually the hardest part. So let's talk about that next...

Identify specific behaviors needed to achieve your desired results. This requires a step called pinpointing, determining those few behaviors that are most critical to achieving your desired results. Don't get overly ambitious. This is the problem with most corporate initiatives—like implementing a quality management system—where firms try to tackle too much behavior change at one time.

A better approach is to phase in change, guided by staged objectives. Don't attempt full compliance to your quality procedures at first, for example. Instead, pick perhaps 3-5 pinpointed behaviors that will have the biggest impact on quality (or whatever your goal is). Once those behaviors become commonplace, then add a few more and so on.

Use effective metrics. There are two types of measurement associated with pinpointing solutions: (1) leading indicators that typically measure behavior and (2) trailing indicators that measure results. Obviously, the later is far more common in business. But measuring behavior enables you to better evaluate your progress and to target course corrections where needed.

How do you measure behavior? There are two primary ways—counting and judging. Counting, of course, is more objective and should be preferred where possible. Having identified pinpointed behaviors, such as completing a discipline-specific technical reviews for all multidisciplinary projects, you can then count how often that occurs when it is called for.

For behaviors that don't lend themselves to counting, you should consider judging. Because it is subjective, this kind of measurement should come from more than one person. For example, you could have project managers anonymously grade how well department heads support them in getting buy-in from technical staff for the firm's new quality process. The composite grades could then be tracked over time to look for improvement.

Metrics work best when oriented towards providing positive reinforcement. Unfortunately, many firms use metrics for negative reinforcement. Whenever you have the choice, choose to measure desired behaviors versus problem ones, then favor rewards over punishments. Rewards, by the way, need not be material; compliments and recognition go a long way.

Provide regular feedback and reinforcement. Imagine your favorite college football coach giving instructions to his team on how to conduct the prescribed practice drills. Yet in this case, he sends them off to practice on their own while he goes to his office. "You can come to my office if you have questions," he tells them, "But I'll wait to give you feedback until after the game on Saturday."

Obviously he wouldn't last long in the coaching profession, because that approach clearly would not succeed in getting top performance from the team. But did you notice the familiar ring to that illustration? It's how most business managers direct their teams. "Here's what you need to do. Let me know if questions come up. I'll give you feedback only after you've finished (if at all)."

If you're going to provide effective feedback and reinforcement, you need to periodically observe the pinpointed behaviors. The more frequently, the better. Too busy for that? Maybe you should reassess how you allocate your time if you serve the role of manager. The manager's first priority, in my opinion, is helping the team succeed.

What's the difference between feedback and reinforcement? Feedback is sharing information that enables one to adjust their performance. Measurement can be an effective tool for providing feedback. Reinforcement involves creating or leveraging consequences that cause behavior (in this case, the desired behaviors) to increase.

Any solution that involves changing behaviors should include these steps. To review, these are the key questions you should address in closing the knowing-doing gap:

  • What are the desired results?
  • What's motivating people either to comply or not?
  • What are the few vital behaviors needed to produce those results?
  • How will we measure progress toward both the pinpointed results and behaviors?
  • How will we provide performance feedback?
  • How will we reinforce the pinpointed behaviors?

If you'd like to learn more about this approach to closing the knowing-doing gap and inspiring better performance, check out related articles by Aubrey Daniels and his associates at this website. I also found his book Bringing Out the Best in People extremely valuable.