Leaders Set Expectations High–But How High?

Compare the philosophies of two leaders.

“I say the sky is the limit.  I ask my team to do more than what they are capable of doing because I want to get all that they have to give.”

“I try to be reasonable.  I don’t expect my staff to be super humans, but I do ask them to do what I know they can do.”

More than six in ten of my workshop participants think the first leader gets better results.  Considerable research and my personal experiences suggest the second leader accomplishes more.

Before employees commit to going all in for some leader’s high-flying vision, they must believe there is an eighty to ninety percent chance of success.   Unrealistic pipe dreams do not fuel sustained employee effort.

If a team historically performs in the bottom ten percent of an industry metric, I can assure you neither the team members nor the leader has a clue of how to become Number One. Figure out how to get into the top half.  When top-half performance becomes reality, the leader can adjust the expectation to “let’s take aim on the top one-third.”

While moving from a top one-third position to industry leader is hard, members are more likely to buy in because, from where they are, the expectation seems realistic.



Leaders Don’t Get Too Far Ahead of the Herd

Because the firm had been performing like an eighth-place team in an eight-team league, the board fired the president and hired Eldrin Wassermann.

Mr. Wassermann, who looked, dressed and talked like a leader announced in an all-hands meeting, “Our goal is to be number one in our industry.  We have a plan for increasing sales by twenty percent next year and we are going to double our revenue in three years.”

Wassermann refurbished facilities, ordered new technology, redid the landscaping, painted everything and transformed meetings into motivational speeches.

Year One sales increased only five percent; Year Two sales increased three percent.  Midway through Year Three, the board removed Wassermann.

Wassermann had a dreamy and unrealistic view of what he could accomplish.  Pie-in-the-sky visions are not enough for success; reality engulfs them in a beat down.  No matter the enthusiasm or the charisma, leaders cannot perform miracles simply by announcing they are going to perform a miracle.

Leaders who try to go from worst to first overnight get too far ahead of reality.  The team soon loses focus and commitment wanders.  Frustration follows.  Bickering, blaming and covering up sap energies.  If you are in tenth place, figure out how to get to ninth place and then learn how to be a little better the next year.

As the late Will Rogers said, “If you are riding ahead of the herd, take a look back every now and then to see if it is still there.”


Is It High-Structure or High-Freedom?

structure-freedom-17Malcolm, a successful manager says, “I run a tight ship.  We have standard operating procedures for how we perform our work and specific work rules for attendance, safety and social media.”

Employees who work for Malcolm comment:  “You know what is expected.”  “All you have to do to be successful is follow the rules.”  “It’s pretty efficient.”

Louella, who is also very successful, operates differently.  “We don’t have a lot of rules.  We train our people on how to do their jobs.  We do track outcomes religiously but we have very few rules or required processes.”

Louella’s employees say:  “She is easy to work for.”  “No one is looking over your shoulder all of the time.”  “If I wish to rearrange my work day, I can do it.”

Malcolm’s work environment is high-structure; Louella’s approach is high-freedom.  Which is better?

Both approaches may work.  Each culture requires managers to recruit employees who fit their styles.  High-structure fits some people like a glove.  For others, tight controls are suffocating.  Self-monitoring employees work well in high-freedom cultures; less conscientious employees act out like rebellious kids in junior high.

For the long run, I favor an approach that recruits and develops employees to function in a high-freedom environment—not complete freedom, however.  Expected outcomes and a few core values should be clear to all.

Companies that establish high-freedom cultures tend to have better success retaining good employees, providing better customer service, and earning reliable profits.  And managers spend less time watchdogging, patrolling and sanctioning.

How Much Do You Value ‘Effort’ Versus ‘Outcome’?

outcome-effort-17Two managers are discussing which employee they should select as project manager for an engineering team.

One of the managers said, “When complex challenges arise, we always turn to Article.  He consistently gets us focused on the right things.  His mind is exceptional.”

Another manager who supported Marcus said, “True, but Article doesn’t work very hard.  He never misses a break and I think he spends a lot of time on social media.  If anyone comes within ten feet of him, he starts taking—usually about whichever team won last night.”

Marcus’ sponsor continued, “I understand that Marcus does not have Article’s skills, but he makes up for it with perspiration.  It may take Marcus a little longer but he sets the standard for hard work.  I think we need to reward effort.  Look, no one here matches Article’s IQ.”

Both employees are well-liked, respect the team’s core values and are dedicated to the company mission.  It’s just that Article, with God-given talent, achieves specular outcomes with less effort.  Marcus, being blessed with high energy, gets results.  He’s just not the genius talent.

No doubt, most of us would be delighted to have either employee as our leader.  I chose Article.  As much as we value “effort,” it is “outcomes” that determine our success.