Read an Excerpt
Building Block I
Does every employee understand where your business is going?
Are the steps necessary to reach each goal plain to see? Is there a good line of sight between your company’s mission and what your people do?
Finally, does your team support the direction of the business?
Forty-eight percent of the 12,000-plus top executives, middle managers, and front-line employees surveyed for WorkUSA 2002– Watson Wyatt’s annual research report on employee attitudes– could not honestly answer yes when asked those questions.
If Wyatt’s research report accurately reflects the American workplace, almost half of all employees feel they are working without a sense of clear direction. No wonder it’s so tough to make sure what’s expected gets done. It’s the simplest of all business calculations–if people don’t understand precisely where they are headed, it’s only sheer luck that will get them to where they need to be.
This failure to create a clear sense of direction is not from a lack of trying. “We work longer and harder now than ever before on making our messages [about strategy and direction] connect,” a vice president from a major financial services firm said. “Truth be told, however, we still probably miss half of the time . . . or at least it feels that way to many out and away from command central.”
Why? Providing a clear direction these days is difficult.
• People are vague.
Customers, coworkers, investors, and even many top corporate executives–the very people who insist that your business unit follows through and meets all their expectations–are often unclear, contradictory, and inconsistent.
• Time is short.
Over three-quarters of all managers are making more decisions per day than they were in 1997. But only 15 percent of those managers have been given any extra “think” time.
• Processes are flawed.
Two-thirds of all day-to-day directional issues–about new products, staffing, policy changes, price increases, etc.–are determined using decision processes prone to fail.
In the next three chapters, you’ll learn what to do to overcome these obstacles and consistently give your associates a clear direction.
First, in “Clear Expectations,” I’ll offer a prescription for how to turn vague, general, or conflicting expectations into clear, specific, and coordinated targets–even if you’re the manager stuck in the middle between headquarters, staff, and customers.
Next, in “Read Between the Lines,” I’ll show you how to quickly connect the dots between what people say and what they really want, without them telling you in an overt or explicit manner.
Finally, in “More Accurate Assessments,” we’ll hammer out a system for thinking things through more thoroughly (even under tight deadlines) and fine-tuning your directions with tactics prone to succeed.
One day, executives at a multinational company presented their annual operating plans (AOPs) and budgets to the top brass. The CEO then followed up with a critique of their plans and a list of his expectations for the upcoming year. Here are some excerpts:*
• “We need an ambitious plan for productivity that overachieves the target.”
• “Our quality problems are disturbing. Continue to work to improve quality.”
• “Good work on reducing past-due shipments. However, past-dues are still among the highest in the company, so opportunity remains.”
• “Cost reduction is a big opportunity for you. One point of cost will take you from an uncomfortable position to a comfortable one.”
• “[For next year] build a plan that allows you to react to different scenarios, given the high level of economic uncertainty.”
The memo went on like that for seventeen bulleted points. A few focused on products: “We need to drive better results out of product line Z”; a few on people: “Work with executive A to crisp up your plans”; and the remaining ones on company initiatives: “Put more focus on Six Sigma.” The CEO concluded with a thank-you: “Overall, you had a great AOP presentation last week.” He suggested the executives meet with him in ten days to “discuss the specifics of how we will achieve [each of the] targets.”
The author of that memo is Larry Bossidy, the former CEO of Allied-Signal and one of the best of the best CEOs. Bossidy knows a lot about getting things done, a skill he’s demonstrated many times at Allied-Signal and through his best-selling book Execution. Undoubtedly, Bossidy wrote this memo to make sure each manager clearly understood what he expected so their follow-through would be flawless.
But does his memo really spell out just what’s expected?
Linda Lockwood ofCharles Schwab and Company, Inc., reviewed the excerpts and asked herself that critical question. Lockwood is a vice president and chief of staff at Schwab. In her fourteen years in financial services, Lockwood has also built a great reputation for getting things done–and in the last few years she’s worked especially hard on the skills and disciplines for starting every initiative with crystal-clear expectations.
“No,” Lockwood said. “I would say most managers would look at this and quickly dismiss it as the same old corporate gobbledygook.”
• Our quality problems are disturbing. Continue to work to improve quality. “Where’s the bar?” Lockwood asks, wondering how any manager could tell when they had achieved his objective. “And what’s the connection between quality problems and the preceding directive, ‘We need an ambitious plan for productivity that overachieves the target’? Could productivity and these ‘disturbing’ quality problems be connected?” she added. “I wonder how thoughtfully each of these goals was integrated?”
• Good work on past-due shipments. However . . . opportunity remains. “This is a completely mixed message,” according to Lockwood. “An employee reading this would feel momentarily good, then bad and then confused–never knowing exactly what was expected.”
• One point of cost will take you from an uncomfortable position to a comfortable one. “This one is hilarious! A comfortable point for me is on a sailboat leading the pack,” she said with a smile. “Seriously, uncomfortable is subjective. The reader would have no idea how to measure the specific outcome.”
Call them goals, targets, objectives, key results areas, it doesn’t matter; management’s expectations must be like a lighthouse, a bright and focused beacon that guides the team’s follow-through, signaling which direction to head in. If those expectations are vague, confusing, or incompatible (“corporate gobbledygook” in Lockwood’s words), the next level of managers and their associates are more likely to make the wrong turns at critical junctions or simply, in bewilderment, stop following through.
In this chapter, you’ll learn the essential disciplines for starting with clear expectations. Moreover, I’ll show you how you can take a boss’s vague, general, or conflicting directives and make them clear and focused.
Lockwood has seen many vague, general, and conflicting directives over the years in her company. That’s what motivated her and others at Schwab to develop a prescription for making sure that expectations are clear and capable of guiding follow-through.
First, Lockwood said, “Each goal needs a crisp, measurable definition of success with a timetable and point person or department responsible for the follow-through.” It’s not good enough to give people fuzzy or universal pronouncements like “we need to improve customer satisfaction.” Satisfaction must be deconstructed into all the little pieces that add up to a satisfied customer, and then each element must be made measurable.
Second, “The manager needs to look over what is expected to weed out conflicts between one objective and the next. For example, if the team sets ‘ambitious plans for productivity,’” Lockwood asked, “can they also be nimble reacting to different scenarios?”
The best way to discover if these two goals conflict is for the manager and the team to brainstorm all the ways they might improve productivity and what it takes to be nimble. Then the manager and some coworkers should imagine where the two goals might clash.
For example, one answer for greater productivity might be to cut the cost of production by using the least experienced (and therefore lowest-paid) person to do a job. But being nimble may require that someone with higher skills (and a higher salary)–such as the ability to improvise or to anticipate different scenarios–should do the work. Maximum productivity could conflict with maximum agility.
“If two expectations clash,” Lockwood has learned, “then priorities must be clarified and set.” Finally, Lockwood concluded, “Every expectation needs check points embedded in the goal to make sure things are getting done, and if not, to give the team a chance to adjust before time expires.”
Lockwood’s common sense approach to starting with clear expectations isn’t news. For years, experts in goal setting have suggested managers use the acronym SMART as a checklist for issuing clearer goals and targets. SMART stands for specific, measurable, accountable, realistic, and time-bound. Managers who check every expectation to make sure it’s SMART could avoid giving their people any corporate gobbledygook.
But equally important as making expectations SMART, Lockwood believes, is managers who ensure that everyone on the team gets the message.
“There needs to be a sophisticated, cascading communications plan for each manager,” Lockwood said. Her group at Schwab uses these four guidelines to make sure their expectations are clearly communicated:
• Divide big ideas into palatable bites. “Goals must cascade [flow] throughout the organization,” Lockwood said. They can’t be communicated the same way to everyone. Clear expectations require a manager to break complex goals into palatable bites, appropriate to the mind-set of each team member.
“Everyone is not a gold-medal performer,” she continued. “Companies need the silver- and bronze-level players to follow through as well. Even nickel players are required, so leaders must make sure what they expect is explained in a manner that can be understood by every level of associate.”
• Get feedback. “Executives can easily lose sight of the various levels of employee thinking/knowledge/perspective,” Lockwood observed. “They need effective mechanisms for staying in close touch with their employees.”
To clearly communicate expectations at a big company like Schwab, the top brass relies on a tightly integrated team of corporate communications, public relations, and human resources experts. Those communications specialists in turn rely on carefully constructed and constantly updated employee surveys to get feedback from everyone at the front lines.
In smaller companies and those without in-house surveys, a leader needs to find someone who can give them honest feedback on their communications. It can be as simple as asking a teenage member of your family, or a friend’s son or daughter. One executive recalled how he got help from a sixteen-year-old: “She read what I wrote and said, ‘Sometimes I think you say certain things just to show how smart you are.’” The executive realized how this kind of frank and candid critique could help him communicate more effectively. He asked the young woman to read his entire memo and mark every sentence that struck her that way. Her honest feedback made a huge contribution to the executive’s clarity.
• Be a hands-on executive. Staying engaged is essential to ensuring that expectations are clearly communicated. “So often they [executives] delegate too much and lose the pulse of the business,” Lockwood said. “I still delegate, but I balance that with my need to keep connected. “
At first blush, people might think, ‘Oh, this is a harder person to work for than one who’s more hands-off.’ Actually, in my personal experience,” Lockwood explained, “it is more rewarding and, in the end, easier to work for someone who is engaged and demanding accountability because you know where you stand and you are better armed to succeed.”
• It’s not what you say but what you do. Executives must communicate what they expect through what they do, demonstrating their own command of the details and a commitment to consistent follow-through to their teams, according to Lockwood. “This means more work, but that’s why executives get the big bucks,” she said. “There’s nothing like follow-up by an executive, if it’s the right follow-up on the right objective. It’s incredible what respect and desire to work harder are generated when an executive demonstrates these behaviors to their employees.”
Setting smart expectations and disciplining your communications plan so each goal is clearly understood will guarantee you are giving your people clear expectations. But curing your own lack of clarity isn’t enough in the vast majority of organizations. Eighty-eight percent of all employees work in enterprises with more than one layer of management. These multiple layers make setting and communicating clear expectations more complicated, especially for the managerial leader stuck in the middle.
STUCK IN THE MIDDLE
“How can I give clear direction to my team when my organization’s senior leadership is fuzzy [regarding what they expect] and the big picture doesn’t get communicated?” Pat asked, frustrated. Ever since a big international conglomerate purchased his business unit, Pat has been stuck between his desire to meet customer, coworker, and corporate expectations and the lack of clear and consistent direction from the top layers at headquarters.
• “We want you to respond faster to local needs. Prepare your yearly budget and as long as you are meeting your targets, you are free to run things as you see best.” Yet even though his teams hit their budgets, the next level of management above Pat con tinued to intervene in his decisions and micromanage the team’s efforts. “Do they want us to wait for instructions and their blessing before we do anything, or do they want us to be fast and autonomous?” Pat wondered.
• “Tell your people to talk honestly and directly. We want open communications.” But when one of Pat’s managers tried to be honest and open during a company meeting, Pat said, “those same senior managers branded the guy a negative person.” That branding got back to the manager during a performance review (when he asked why he was turned down for a promotion) and sent a mixed message to everyone in the unit.
What’s a manager like Pat supposed to do when he or she is stuck in the middle between the need for clear expectations to drive the follow-through and vague, confusing, or inconsistent direction from the top? I would argue they have three choices:
• Let things from headquarters fall through the cracks. One manager in Pat’s situation said he just ignores all the confusing directives he gets from headquarters until somebody calls to yell at him about something. “That’s the only way I can figure out what they really want out of all the stuff they ask me for. Honestly, 75 percent of the time I never hear another word.”
• Tell the boss straight out, “Your directives are ambiguous.” “I’ve gotten frustrated and done that,” Linda Lockwood admitted. “My manager at the time didn’t miss a beat. ‘Hey, it’s your job to figure that out,’ he told me,” and Lockwood was left where she started.
Or you can:
• Take charge–and get the clear direction you need by negotiating your boss’s expectations.