Performance Metrics For Leadership - HIGHER HUMAN PERFORMANCE Podcast Episode 282

282 Performance Metrics For Leadership

Performance Metrics For Leadership - HIGHER HUMAN PERFORMANCE Podcast Episode 282

You want what you want. There are traits and characteristics that matter to you. And there are some other qualities you don’t much care about one way or the other. Every top leader has preferences.

Sometimes it’s personality. It may be a certain communication style. It could even be a specific university credential you find more valuable than another.

Biases. Preferences. Inclinations. Tendencies. I don’t much care what you call them because we’ve all got them. And they transfer up and down the chain of our organization when it comes to our expectations of our leaders, too. We prefer what we prefer and we want what we want. Often without giving it too much thought.

You’d Better Think

courtesy of Flickr user @H. Michael Karshis
courtesy @H. Michael Karshis*

Aretha’s big hit, RESPECT, started with that admonition and it’s wise for every leader to follow it. We’d better stop and think about what we expect and the ways we’re measuring leadership in our organizations.

I intentionally call them “performance metrics” for a reason – they should be based on actual performance instead of simply our personal preferences. The military leaders have an expectation of their leaders. Drill sergeants are expected to produce a specific outcome – soldiers prepared to defend the country. But they’re also expected to produce those results in a specific way, with a certain demeanor and persona. I suspect the branches of the military don’t allow much wiggle room for a drill sergeant tasked with training new recruits much latitude in devising his own program. Strict, regimented protocol is the order of the day, every day. They do what they do because inherently they believe it’s the best approach. History and performance show military what works. They value what they value and who can argue with it?

Now look inside your organization or team. Part of thinking involves figuring out what you most value. The military mostly values compliance and obeying orders, especially in new recruits. If you can’t accept being told what to do, there’s no place for you in the military. By the way, that may be true in many other endeavors, too. The military needs men and women devoted to learning and getting it right 100% of the time. Errors can result in death. Instinctively knowing what to do and when to do it is crucial in their world. The training is designed to bring that about in the men and women who serve. It’s for the welfare of each team and each team member. As a result, the performance of the entire military hinges on it.

What’s most important in your organization?

That’s entirely up to who you are and what you do. And how you want to do it. For example, there’s a new online video streaming social media platform called Blab. You can check out my profile at The other day they did a live streaming tour of their 25,000 square foot headquarters in San Francisco. This is a start up that’s been live for a matter of months. They have under 20 people working for them. They operate like many tech startup’s. It’s a holocracy kind of set up, with people coming and going at all hours of the day and night. Everybody is working a ton of hours, so the traditional work environment doesn’t work for them. Instead, this small team of people is doing the work of a much larger staff because they’re working almost non-stop, round the clock, but they do it from their offices, from home, from little nooks and sofas around the office, from the park — or anywhere else they happen to be (or want to be). The work is more important to them than having butts in seats at desks in the office.

Blab, like many of their technology counterparts, have a trust in their small team. They trust the team to dive in and do what must be done regardless of what the clock or calendar says. Their top leader said the only important thing to him and to Blab is that people get their work done. The tour is about an hour long. It’s recorded at Blab and you can watch it here.

Other organizations operate very differently. Some want all their employees at their desks promptly by 8am. They view butts in chairs as a performance metric. If somebody isn’t where they’re supposed to be by 8am leaders see it as slothfulness, lethargy or worse. They believe that people need to be at a certain place in order to do the work. Blab doesn’t. I’m not judging the rightness or wrongness of either – it just displays the vast difference between two cultures based on their beliefs. And those beliefs determine what gets measured and how performance gets judged.

We need to start with our own thinking because, as with many things, we can fall into traps thinking we’re judging the right things when we’re really not. The company that judges butts in chairs assumes two basic things: 1) people can only do their work from their desks and 2) people can’t be slothful while at their desk. Sure, we all know both assumptions are faulty. To be fair, I guess that first assumption could be correct if the person’s job is data entry, speed dialing prospects or answering phones in a call center, but most tasks aren’t just restricted to a single desk. And even those who are restricted to a single desk can certainly be abused with lethargy, poor work habits and distractions that cause poor performance. It’s just not as simple as making sure people are where you think they belong.

What’s Most Important To You?

one thingLet’s start here instead of diving headlong into specific behaviors because it’s important for us to think about WHY we do what we do, and why we want what we want. Blab wants exponential growth and user adoption. They want high user engagement. And they’re getting all of those things because they’re out front listening and responding to user feedback. They’re engaging the early adopters of the platform because they know these are the people who will fuel their growth. They also clearly want technical proficiency in the platform. That is, they want Blab to work and well.

There are currently about 316 million active Twitter users monthly, according to Twitter. In order to log onto Blab you need a Twitter account. I don’t know how many people are on Blab currently, but I suspect it’s changing every second. I’m sure it’s well into the millions and yet their team is under 20 people. Blab isn’t the first small team to show us how effective and efficient very few people can be. People speculate (I don’t know for sure how to find out) that the US military SEAL teams consist of 16-man platoons. A small group of highly trained, well equipped, highly disciplined and highly motivated people can do big, big things!

Are sales and acquiring new customers the most important thing to you? How about serving existing customers better, maybe that’s the most important thing to you? Is doing world-class work (it could be anything from managing an entire city government and all the moving parts that entails, or it could building skyscrappers) the most important thing? What matters the most?

This is where people often misstep by saying, “All of it is important.” In essence, they say, “We don’t have ANY priorities.”

Yet, I’ve never seen an organization that didn’t have priorities. Some may not think about it as clearly as they could, but when you press hard enough you find out every team, every organization has A priority. They have one thing that matters more than anything else. The problem is they don’t talk of it often enough. They don’t focus on it often enough. They allow themselves to be distracted with all the other stuff that may be involved in the pursuit of the priority.

I began my career as a hi-fi sales guy because I loved listening to music. My priority was the music though, not the gear. Without the music, I wouldn’t have cared one thing about the gear. As a sales guy I mostly want to connect people with the right gear to enhance their experience with the music they wanted to hear. Not everybody had my taste in music. No problem. I was well versed in what the gear could do and I developed the skill to help a person who loved classical music get the best system his budget would allow. Then, I could do the same thing for the guy who mostly listened to metal. Different set up in all likelihood, but same exact goal and purpose – to give the customer the system that would best suit their listening preferences.

I could have been distracted with the specifics of every piece of gear just for the sake of loving the gear, but the gear had a purpose. To deliver the listening experience most suitable to the customer. What specifics are you getting caught up in that are distracting you from the primary purpose or objective of the work? Think about it. Carefully.

One thing. Narrow it down to one thing.

This needs to be the one thing that everybody on your team knows to be true…so you can’t fake it. Here are some examples, but these are generic for our purposes in this conversation. However, each one has a more specific goal based on the organization.

• Customer acquisition (this is about leading the space by having the most customers)
• World-class design (Apple is an example, focusing their design on the best user experience possible)
• Low cost provider (think Wal-Mart)
• Fastest service (a local plumber who claims 2-hour response time day or night)
• Best selection (Whole Foods takes pride in having a great selection of organic items)
• Remarkable client service (Nordstrom’s has crafted legendary service)

It’s not a mission statement or a statement of philosophies. It’s the over-arching thing you want to get done! It’s what you want to be known for.

You need everybody in your organization to be on board with chasing it as hard as they can. You can’t afford people to lose sight of the priority. Sure, Apple, Blab and other technology companies need crack engineers to make the technology work, but Apple’s commitment to design is world-class because they focus on user experience. That means Apple doesn’t just care about the feature, but they care about how the feature works and feels to the user. Everybody and everything in your organization should be able to point back to the one thing that matters most. The whole team pulls in the direction of that one thing – and that’s what makes your organization unique, remarkable and special. It’s your edge!

How Are We Going To Get It Done?

…but how?

There are many paths toward a single thing. Whole Foods isn’t interested in having the biggest selection of just anything. They’re known for organic, hence the name, “Whole Foods.” They pander to a specific shopper willing to pay premium prices for the best organic foods available without driving to a farmer’s market. Convenience, nice, clean, well-organized and well-lit are all part of the Whole Foods’ experience, but those aren’t their ONE thing — those are ways they accomplish their ONE thing. Your organization will need these details in place, too. It’s your answer to the question, “HOW?”

It’s not possible to chase your one thing without caring how it gets done. Lots of teams stumble here as people wonder (often aloud), “Why do they care how we do it? Shouldn’t it be good enough to just get it done?”

It does matter how things are done because they need to be congruent with the ONE thing. Apple engineers could likely incorporate some features customers might want, but until they can do it in a way that delivers superior user experience, Apple isn’t going to incorporate them. World-class design is the ONE thing, but killer user experience and interface are mandatory. You’ve got your own mandatory things, too. It’s important that your entire organization embrace the methodologies that are important to your ONE thing.

Every member of your team needs to be taught why HOW matters. You do that by helping them see how their work contributes to the number one, most important thing. From the top, most highly compensated to the seemingly lowest, menial job on your team – everybody’s work must be seen in light of the biggest priority. Without that, you’ll never be able to duly impress on people why HOW matters.

Again, when you consider Apple, it’s the HOW that makes all the difference. Apple may “think different” but they execute different, too. They don’t do it the way others do it. They produce the most intuitive technology on the planet because their big thing is driven hard by how they accomplish it. Your organization needs proper focus on HOW in order to make the work remarkable. Remarkable work is the goal of every high performing – or would be high performing – organization I’ve ever worked with. And because you’re reading this or listening to this, it must mean you’re interested in growth and improvement. It’s the sign of a top performer, constant learning.

Take something as mundane as budgets. Every organization creates a budget. Some small organizations may just have an Excel spreadsheet consisting of a single sheet. Others can produce a massive document with hundreds of pages and a fully indexed appendix. “Just prepare the budget,” is a bad order for any leader to give. What’s included, how it is included, where does it belong, how much is enough, how much is too much, where to put resources, where to remove or lessen resources — these are important issues that speak to HOW the budget will be crafted. Budgets can be done poorly or they can be done well. HOW determines the outcome. It can’t be a “just get it done” ordeal.

Sometimes I encounter people who oppose a designated HOW approach to leadership and measuring performance. They may cite how McDonald’s has processes and procedures for every little thing, but they have no creativity or innovation. First off, I can’t speak with any authority that McDonald’s doesn’t allow creativity or innovation. Do they allow people to craft burgers any way they’d like? No. It’s regimented. Likewise with all the other things they prepare. They have a precise way of doing things and the demand – much like our military – is that it be done that way each and every time. Delivering predictable, successfully replicated food time after time is what McDonald’s does. They don’t claim to have the best hamburger in the world. They just promise that you’ll get what you’ve come to expect. It doesn’t matter if you’re in Shawnee, Oklahoma or London, England – you’re going to get what you expect because they follow a process (their HOW). When you visit McDonald’s you’re happy about that, too.

That doesn’t mean that McDonald’s isn’t listening to their people who may have suggestions on ways to get better. It doesn’t mean they’re not innovative in finding new items their customers might want. It just means in the context of delivering products to customers, they take no chances. They do what they know works. It’s not so much a lack of innovation or creativity as it is about proper time and place. When I’m in the drive through waiting on my McDonald’s burger and fries, I don’t want somebody trying to trick it up with an innovative idea. I came there with an expectation. I want that expectation met. I don’t go to McDonald’s for a speciality meal. Nobody does.

A common question I’m asked is, “How can we focus on HOW and predictable results and still have innovation?” Easy. You have to separate some things, namely the moments in time when innovation is allowed or fostered and the times that it’s completely inappropriate. Depending on your organization it can be easy or hard.

I had to visit the Apple store a few months back for a technical problem with some hardware. I made an appointment online through their website, then went to the store at the appointed time. I’ve done this before. I know the drill and how it works. When I arrived at the store I gave them my name. They explained that their computer system was down. They asked me the time of my appointment, trusting me to tell them the truth. I did. They made note of it and directed me to a line back toward the Genius Bar. It went just like it would have done had their system been up, except they were having to improvise. They were having to innovate on the fly due to a technical glitch. But I’m sure they huddled or pre-prepared what to do when this sort of thing happened. It was out the norm, but they did what they had to do. It worked because they were all on the same page, executing the same plan. If the guy who greeted me at the door had decided he’d innovate and do things differently, my experience would have been less than stellar. Wrong time to innovate. The time to innovate was whenever they got together to craft an emergency plan on how to handle incoming customers when the computer system goes down.

How is your organization any different? It’s not. There are times to embrace and foster creativity and innovation. For most of us, it’s not during execution — especially execution with customers. Protocol, processes and workflows require creativity and innovation. Make sure you have times and places built in to let the best ideas bubble to the top. After the decision is made, demand faithful execution to the product or service delivered is always spot on.

Judging The Performance

You want what you want. That priority – your ONE thing – and how you get it done is entirely up to you if you’re the top leader. It’s your responsibility to teach it, train it and expect it (which means holding people accountable for it). Whenever I’m serving a client I’m in no position to architect these things. My job is to serve the leader by helping them elevate their own leadership performance and the performance of their team or organization. Sure, my work mostly is done with organizations congruent with my view of leadership, but all these specifics of the work aren’t my responsibility. Yes, sometimes I’m asked – in fact, I’m often asked – to offer my opinion to a top leader, but I would never contradict what top leadership wants. Rather, it’s my role to ensure that top leaders grow in their effectiveness to establish their priorities, set up how they want things done and hold their people properly accountable for getting the work done.

Leaders have to judge the performance of the people on their team. How will you know if they’re getting these things right? Well, it hinges on how they value things – and what they value.

I focus on performance. That’s why that word is part of the title of the podcast. It doesn’t diminish the importance of the HOW, but it does put the emphasis where I think it belongs – the quality of the work done. So much of my work is concentrated on what the world calls “soft skills.” People skills. They matter because there are people capable of produced high quality work, but they can’t get along with others. Just recently a team leader told me about being short a person because he parted with a high achiever. Fully expecting to hear about how it was putting him behind schedule or some other constraint brought about the loss of a valued team member…instead he told me how much more his short-handed team was accomplishing. When I asked how that worked, he went on to tell me how disruptive the high achiever was. Turns out this person did good, even great work, on his own, but he brought down the productivity of everybody who had to interact with him. He was suppressive, even oppressive to the rest of the team. Now, with him gone, the rest of the team was happier and vastly more productive. So how would YOU judge that high achiever? Based solely on his own performance or based on his overall impact on the team’s performance? I agree with his leader.

Stepping over dollars for dimes is common place in many organization, especially those who can’t seem to focus on their ONE thing. But the rest of us can be prone to do it, too. Something can irk us that may have little or nothing to do with performance. We like what we like. We believe what we believe. Maybe it’s based on evidence. Maybe not. Go back and listen to the last episode about evidence-based leadership (#281). Let me encourage you to lose whatever biases or world views you’ve got that aren’t based in evidence. I do that because I know it can destroy your performance measurements. You can’t establish good metrics for performance if they hinge mostly on what you like or dislike. Those can swing wildly like a person’s mood. And they ruin people who are trying desperately to figure out how to please you, and do good work.

But be careful about measurements that don’t take into account the things that really matter to you. For example, our high achiever who destroyed the productivity of the entire team could have passed an annual review with flying colors. He could have been scored using a dashboard that viewed mostly what he got done and be seen as an A+ player. But such a scorecard wouldn’t have been accurate. It wouldn’t have told the entire story. So craft your dashboards with care. Make sure you weight the actions and activities that properly depict what you want done, how you want it done and when you want it done! See the big picture and all the details, too.

Some Final Tips

  1. Carefully craft your number one priority – your ONE big deal. What do you most want to accomplish?
  2. Figure out HOW you want to get it done. Embrace creativity and innovation to come up with the most efficient, compelling way to get the work done.
  3. Don’t ignore onboarding new team members, and don’t neglect to train and indoctrinate the current staff. They need to fully embrace the one big priority and how you’re going to get it done. They also have to be trained to understand your expectations.
  4. Set and expect high performance standards. Create dashboards or scorecards that give you the most accurate (evidence) picture of how well people are performing. Make sure you’re measuring the things that will accomplish what you want, when you want and how you want.
  5. Coach it up. When people fail, make sure they really understand how to deliver the results you want. If they don’t, retrain them. If they do, don’t tolerate any lack of willingness to do what you want done (that includes doing it how you want it done). Compliance, once the system is built, is a must.
  6. Foster input and feedback, but don’t ignore the established workflows. And don’t allow deviations from the agreed upon processes unless that deviation is due to extraordinary circumstances AND it takes the organization forward with dazzling customer experiences (i.e. Apple’s behavior when their system is down in the store).
  7. Reward all the best performers. Focus on the people doing the very best work. Give them what they need to do even better.
  8. Correct poor performers. Coach them, train them and correct them. Don’t live with them if their status quo isn’t cutting it. You can’t soar by leading to the lowest common denominator. You win with star players!
  9. Celebrate victories. Reward the performance you most want to achieve. You can train dogs with treats, not with beatings.

Your performance metrics are the ones that best serve YOU and your organization. Just make sure they are serving you and not distracting you from the primary objectives you’ve established. Measure the stuff that really matters. Don’t sweat the stuff that has no bearing on the objectives you’ve established on your organization, keeping in mind that “no bearing” means stuff that doesn’t negatively impact your work, your culture or your processes.


* Photo courtesy Flicker users H. Michael Karshis

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