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First of all, don’t ignore and hope things will improve. Avoiding a problem isn’t a wise way to solve it. The sooner you jump on it, the better. Speed is key.
This means you have to see reality quickly. Your measurements – whatever dashboard you have – need to be speedy and accurate. There’s no excuse to not have real-time data today. There’s no excuse to say, “I don’t know” when it comes to the critical measurements that show whether you’re moving forward or not. I’m talking about the key performance indicators necessary to operate your business.
It’s foolish to manage the work with knee-jerk reactions. You miss your targets one day. That doesn’t mean you burn down the processes, hammer all your people or some other foolish reaction. A day doesn’t a trend make.
First responders are people willing to go in first. Fire fighters. Policemen. EMT’s. Soldiers. As the leader of the organization, you have to be a first responder. This means you have to be the first person whose curiosity drives you to find out what happened, what is currently happening and what is planned to happen. Curiosity is manifested with questions. Your job in tackling performance and growth problems is summed up in one basic activity, asking great questions.
“The quality of our questions determines the quality of our business.”
As the top leader asking questions – great questions – it’s important how you ask. Tone matters.
Harold Geneen, the tyrannical leader of ITT, arguably the first conglomerate, was notorious at berating and asking such difficult, challenging questions he could reduce top executives to mush in front of their peers. It would seem that much of that was intentional. He was successful. But I’m not prone to argue against success because it is what it is. What I may argue – and usually do – is formed as a question, “How much better could he and ITT have performed?” I’m always focused on what could be, searching for the potential to grow. To improve. To be better.
You know you can gather the troops in a conference room and start bombarding them with very challenging questions. You’ve got the right. My question is, “Why?” Why do that? If you answer, “Because I’m the boss,” then okay. True. You are. And don’t the people in that room already know that? Are you so insecure you have to remind people, during times of trouble, that you’re in charge. Honestly, I’d rather remind them when things are great. 😉
So often, when things aren’t going well, leaders form a posse to find the culprit – the person who messed up. I understand mob mentality. And the blame game. I just don’t understand how that helps us solve our performance or growth problem.
Over the course of operating multi-million dollar businesses since I was 25 I’ve never once experienced searching for an answer to the question, “Why?” and had it fail to reveal any potential human lapses. Simply put, there’s no need to find out who is at fault when you can find out WHAT happened and figure out a whole lot more than just the people side of the problem.
Be confrontational. Be rude. Be angry. You’ll shut down the people you need to find out the details of the problem, and the possible solutions.
Foster safe, open dialogue. Make people comfortable to openly discuss the problem. Make it safe for people to own their possible contribution to the problem.
By putting all the attention on the problem’s solution. Focus on the source of the problem is just like focusing on the person who can most be blamed. It’s too one-dimensional. It doesn’t accomplish anything positive. It may feel good, but the net result is empty.
People will instantly know where you’re putting the attention. They take their cues from you. What you think is important is what they’ll think is important. Make sure THE SOLUTION is what matters most.
You won’t be able to find the solution without deep investigation into the problem. But the context is completely different when finding a solution is the goal.
Remember, speed is key.
Use another approach, with a different agenda, and you’ll slow the process. You may not even be able to get to the root of the problem so you can find the best solution.
Instead, you’ll foster covering your butt behaviors. People will deflect. They’ll excuse. They’ll look for others to blame. It’ll kill the accountability you need to have a high-performance organization.
This isn’t about neglecting challenging questions. You must ask challenging questions.
Tone and intent matter. If you have the right intent, you’re tone will be right.
Let’s say sales are trending down slightly. Here we are on Thursday, day 19 of the month. We’re headed toward a month-end revenue number that’s going to be 7% below our projection. Is that a problem? I don’t know. It will be if we miss our mark by 7%, but since we’ve got time before month end…we may make it up. So what does that conversation sound like? Jim is our VP of Sales.
“Jim, I notice we’re on pace to come in about 7% below our projection. I wanted to get your input on what I might be able to do to help.”
I’m not threatening Jim. I’m not pitching a wild-eyed fit. I want Jim to talk to me about this. By just having the specific conversation you and I both know Jim is feeling some heat. Appropriately so. But he also knows I’m here to help him. Jim’s a smart guy. He also knows I’m removing any excuses he can have at the end of the month IF we fail to hit our target. I’m using speed to solve the problem, not to catch Jim. But my speed will in effect put positive pressure on Jim to do whatever he can with the remaining days of the month. Isn’t that the point? It is if you want to solve the problem instead of something with far less pay off.
Jim may tell me about pipeline activity I don’t know about. He could tell me about a deal that’s going to hit the dashboard next Monday that will put us 3% over projection with still more month left.
Jim may remind that the seasonality of the projection, based on the last 5 years, has been that 35% of the total month’s revenues are generated in the final 5 days. When that seasonality plays out Jim commits that we’ll easily hit our projections.
There are any number of things Jim can say. I need Jim’s help. He’s tip of the spear in sales. I need Jim to own the performance, along with me. I can help him do that, or I can make him run scared looking for others to blame, or circumstances to blame.
Performance and growth problems can be simple, or complex. The questions tend to get better the deeper we go into the conversations to find solutions. That’s appropriate. We help our people ramp up toward the best solution.
Remember a time when you engaged in a conversation that didn’t start off very well. Ten minutes later it was going swimmingly. What happened? You likely read the situation and started having true dialogue. The other person (or people) began to open up. It got easier. More productive. Foster that inside your company.
In summary, put people at ease to own their part of it by focusing all the attention on having them help solve the problem. Ask great questions. Get great answers. Don’t accept just any answer. Encourage your team to not accept just any answer. You need truth, accuracy and reality. As you puruse the solution, pursue full accountability. It begins and ends with you. Invite your team to join you by making sure they know you’re a first responder to every problem. Celebrate their contribution to the solution. The blame will come out in process. It’ll be whatever it is. You need to intentionally praise and celebrate the effort and ability to figure out the solutions.
Be well. Do good. Grow great!