If you’re looking for robust feedback, research suggests you should ask your boss – and your peers, direct reports, Board members…perhaps even key clients. Nowadays, the vast majority of Fortune 500 companies use a 360-degree feedback process to assess managerial performance. Here at Vantage, many of our clients also use the tool to aid in their employees’ development, and more rarely, to help make important selection or promotion decisions. We also use 360s internally as part of our own development planning. No matter the purpose, the primary goal of any 360 process is to provide the recipient with information about his or her strengths and development areas. While there are numerous other tools that also offer this type of feedback, a 360 adds real value in its use of multiple perspectives from various stakeholders. Each of these sources can provide unique insight into an employee’s behavior and performance, and collectively offer a fuller picture for the participant.
Unfortunately, not all 360 feedback processes are created equal, and when implemented improperly, they can be demotivating, confusing, and sometimes even lead to a decline in performance for the individual receiving feedback When we work with clients to launch 360s, we follow a few key guidelines to ensure the information is valuable, accurate and actionable. While not all-encompassing, here are some research-based tips as you think about using (or improving) a 360 process at your organization:
Align the 360 with Your Organizational Goals and Criteria
Our clients often find 360s to be the most valuable when the content is derived from the organization’s strategy and integrated into broader talent management initiatives, such as leadership development and training. Therefore, we try to gain a deep understanding of our client’s competency model, expectations, and values prior to creating or implementing a 360 process. While an off-the-shelf tool can provide useful input, rooting a 360 in an organization’s reality ensures that the tool asks the right questions, is reliable, and provides relevant, specific feedback. This also helps our clients ensure that subsequent behavior changes are aligned with the values, competencies and/or strategies of the organization. We partner with Management Research Group to provide 360s that are comprehensive, insightful, and customizable for each company.
Avoid Going Overboard
While it may be tempting to obtain as much detail as possible through a 360, research shows that that the tool is more impactful and accurate when it is focused and simple. 360 raters should be asked a limited number of questions, all of which are directly tied to the organization’s competency model. Questions should be specific, to the point, and use clear/actionable language. A common mistake is to create items that use double-barreled language (e.g., asking a rater to respond to the item: “This person is relationship-oriented and influential”). These types of questions can be confusing for the rater and make it difficult to interpret results. In the above example, it would be hard to say whether the final rating was in relation to the target individual’s skill at building relationships or ability to influence (two related but distinct concepts).
Translate Awareness Into Action
Perhaps one of the most common pitfalls of a 360 process is lack of behavior change once feedback has been delivered. A 360 can be a valuable tool for self-awareness, but it also begs the question: “What’s next?” It’s important that the organization reinforces the behavior change and provides a supportive environment for employees to work on their development.
Use goal-setting theory to help participants synthesize results. They should be encouraged to identify key takeaways, establish core goals, and create a tangible action plan to address their goals. Also remind participants that it’s important to identify ways to reinforce and leverage strengths.
Hold participants accountable for progress by instituting regular follow-up and check-ins (either with an external coach or internal manager). Recognize participants for positive changes and provide continued advice for development.
Seek senior management support to create and maintain a feedback culture that creates awareness coupled with accountability for change. As noted above, consider integrating the 360 process into broader talent management initiatives.
Consider repeating the 360-process one to two years later. This creates a mechanism to evaluate progress and make adjustments as needed.
How does your organization use 360s? What are some best practices you have used in the past to ensure a successful 360 process? We’d love to hear from you in the comments.
I have an unfortunate chronic ailment: I am a Chicago White Sox baseball fan. I believe the biologists would say that I am the victim of imprinting; when I was boy, soon after I discovered baseball, my team went to the World Series. They lost, of course, but my brain was forever branded with love for a team that swung between exciting and horrible for the next 46 years, until 2005. That glorious year they not only returned to the World Series – they won it and became the World Champions!
What, pray tell, does this sad story have to do with Talent Management? Twice in my lifetime the White Sox went to the World Series. Both times they demonstrated great baseball fundamentals: they could pitch, field, and run. (They were not distinguished by hitting at all. In fact, the 1959 Sox were called “The Hitless Wonders!” The 2005 World Champions hit just well enough to win.) Now, I pay attention to teams that can execute baseball fundamentals. Pitching and fielding together will make any team highly competitive.
Talent Management (or TM), when applied with rigor, is a powerful tool for business success. Consistently focusing on the fundamentals will assure that an organization has the leadership talent and the organizational capability to execute its strategic plan, achieve its goals, and compete to win in the marketplace. It is not rocket science – but it provides “rocket fuel” for any organization!
So what are the fundamentals of Talent Management?
Assessment Aligned To Business Strategy
Formal assessment of talent is crucial to business success. Assessment to what? We recommend that leaders be assessed to a formal Model which is aligned to the business strategy. Essentially, the Model should identify the key leadership capabilities necessary (beyond the functional skills) to implement strategy and achieve high-level goals. Developing this is a C-Suite task, usually facilitated by Human Resources and/or a Talent Management consultancy. Don’t underestimate its importance: a carefully-designed Success Profile or Leadership Model will ensure the right talent is in place to drive their strategic plans.
Keeping the Bar High – No Matter What
Most companies need best-in-class talent for key roles in their organization. Obviously this applies to CEO succession, but it includes a number of other important roles upon which the success of the business depends. It is crucial to set a discerning standard when assessing for these roles. We find that one of the most common challenges for organizations is to keep the bar for their competencies very high. In fact, with the speed of change in business, and increase in complexity, the requirements are continually going up. The temptation for companies to lower the bar to accommodate the talent already in place is a very common error and one doomed to result in failure. Rather, someone – usually Human Resources – must maintain a high bar and insist on realistic assessment. Clearly seeing where the gaps in talent lie will allow the company to make the necessary decisions for success. Leader courage is particularly useful in having the discussions required to keep high standards for talent assessment.
Making Leaders Accountable
TM is strengthened or weakened substantially by the sense of ownership leaders feel for their team’s bench strength. If TM is primarily an HR-driven process, you can expect it to ultimately fail. Business leaders, both operational and functional, need to be held accountable. Rigor here needs to be driven from the top of the company. Leaders’ rewards and opportunities for advancement should be aligned in part with the strength of their teams. Thus, TM should be considered a performance criterion for leaders. Nothing will drive successful talent management like leader accountability.
For example, Vantage met Drew Fraser, now CEO of Method Products, Inc. when he was a young General Manager from Clorox. We were struck at how strong his Talent Management skills were in his early thirties, and inquired, “How’d you get this way?” Drew told us that his manager (1) showed him how to manage talent, and (2) held him accountable for the strength of his team. After four years, he was world-class in his talent identification and cultivation skills. The formula is compelling: demonstrate TM to your direct reports, then hold them accountable to have very strong teams.
Regular, In-Depth Talent Reviews
Rigor in TM is most often demonstrated in Talent Reviews. Active and productive reviews can be the “playing field,” the organizational venue for TM presentations, discussions, and decision-making. The timing and frequency of these reviews is important. Vantage believes that a calendar for Talent Reviews is a simple tool critical to driving outcomes. For CEO succession and C-Suite talent, at least twice annual reviews are necessary (and quarterly are suggested). Typically, Board reviews are required at this level, and provide a good opportunity for executives to share their designated Key Succession talent and discuss the strength of the succession pipeline.
For business and functional teams, quarterly reviews are good, monthly are better. The goal is for talent to be managed routinely, like revenue and profitability. Consistent with accountability, the leader drives these processes, typically partnering with HR, who can provide the data, tools and facilitation skills. With this kind of rigor, a number of key aspects of TM will be developed:
Calibration and increased accuracy of assessment, including collective understanding of what is required
Key talent gaps identified
Development actions created and their outcomes observed
Decisions taken, i.e., advancement, development, exiting from the company, recruiting new talent
A nine-box tool is often employed by companies during Talent Reviews to identify relative capability and potential of personnel. This tool needs to be action-oriented. Movement is expected, e.g. development required for advancement, or improvement needed to avoid exiting an employee. Vantage has observed a lot of value-neutral nine box discussions. TM is not a spectator sport. Reviews should result in plans and decisions, with clear accountability identified.
Champion sports teams rely on the consistent execution of fundamental skills. Those 2005 White Sox players demonstrated amazing pitching and defense on their way to a championship. Developing rigor in Talent Management takes trial and error. Calibration regarding talent can only be accomplished by doing it and committing to continuous improvement. TM is a strategic capability which, when rigorously developed and practiced, can fuel great organizational performance and sustainable competitive advantage.
Let’s start with a story. This is a Zen parable about a woman staying in a mountainside retreat, located high above her beloved fishing village. She is staying in a beautiful house she built herself and has decorated over the years. As she looks out into the ocean, she sees a dangerous oncoming wave. It is some distance from shore, but she can see it. The people in the village have no idea that they are in peril. There is no time to run down the mountainside to warn them. They can’t hear her from where she’s at. They need to evacuate, and time is of the essence. Our heroine is the only one who knows of the impending disaster.
Let’s leave her there for the moment.
In our work at Vantage, we get to meet some inspiring individuals. We also get to know impressive organizations who overcome challenges and accomplish things they might have once thought to be impossible. This got me thinking: Where do they find the strength to persist in the face of adverse circumstances? What is the source of their commitment to their mission? And, most importantly, how do they overcome self-doubt? I realized the most dynamic individuals and organizations fit the archetype of the hero.
One of the most beloved stories in all of literature is the hero’s journey. This tale is told over and over again in mythology, sacred writings, and both great and popular literature, featuring protagonists as diverse as Harry Potter, Neo, Hercules, King Arthur, Anne Frank, Abraham Lincoln, Superman, and Davy Crockett. Some of these figures are mythological, legendary; others are real. But, despite differing in scope, their stories all share the same formula.
Heroes are born in humble settings, and their birth is often marked by special circumstances (sometimes a near brush with death).
They show early promise.
They leave home on a noble quest in search of something of importance.
On their quest, they encounter great challenges.
They overcome the challenges and achieve their goal.
How Organizations Practice Heroism
One thing I know for sure is that organizations and the people within them experience – or at least have the opportunity to experience – the heroic. Every organization has a story, which means there is always the opportunity to tap into the energy of the hero’s journey.
I recall observing an orientation program for new employees of a telephone company. At one point, several retirees told their “war stories,” particularly about how they and their co-workers would rise to the occasion to restore service after a storm. Their anecdotes spoke of long hours, days away from home, danger, ingenuity and perseverance. One said, “You are starting a job and joining a company, but in a larger sense you are part of a continuing story. You will learn how people in this company look out for one another; how we do whatever it takes to take care of our community; and how hard work under difficult circumstances strengthens a person.” He did not use the word “hero,” but every person there knew what he was talking about and wanted to be a part of it.
A heroic perseverance can also be seen in budding entrepreneurs. The popular podcast “How I Built This” recounts some of the most fascinating journeys people have taken in founding companies. Jim Koch started a microbrewery phenomenon with Sam Adams. Sara Blakely reinvented shapewear with Spanx. In both these cases (and many others), aspects of the hero archetype are evident: humble beginnings, early promise, a quest filled with setbacks, and ultimately, success.
So how do you define a hero?
Decisive, Thoughtful Action
Back to our heroine and the endangered village. What does she do? She decides to set her home on fire. Those in the village see the smoke and run to her aid, thereby saving themselves from the oncoming wave. The moral of this story? There is no substitute for action. Heroes are not hand-wringers. Starting on the heroic quest is about taking irrecoverable action: leaving all that which is familiar and comfortable, and stepping into an uncertain future. The parable is also about sacrifice – the willingness to give up what one has for a better purpose. In a way, it is also about trust that others will recognize the step that has been taken and join the effort.
The Real Test
The challenge the hero faces on the quest, whether it is a dragon to be slain, an ogre blocking the road, or facing Lord Voldemort, is often presented as a physical test. It is really a test of the spirit. The hero must find within him- or herself the strength to face their own fear. So the real challenge to the organization which aspires to be heroic is not the uncertainty of the marketplace, but fear of failure and self-doubt. Action in and of itself is only part of the story. What makes the action truly heroic is that it occurs in spite of fear.
The Value of Quiet Persistence
The hero does not act once and then rest on his or her laurels; the hero persists. This is especially true in organizational life. “Persisting” as a concept does not sound heroic. I sometimes think that organizations can develop a fascination with crises not because they are emergencies, but because when the disaster occurs it reveals to the members how much they are needed. Be careful – this is an addiction which can be hard to kick. Many businesses were once enamored with the FedEx story of the delivery man who rented a helicopter to get a late package to its destination on time. FedEx says they do not want that kind of heroism. They want to extol the employees who work so consistently that they never have to hire a helicopter. The Zen maxim for this is “Chop wood, carry water”: the need to do the little, necessary things each day. The wisdom of substituting methodical discipline for the mighty effort.
The hero also inspires those around him or her to lay claim to their own heroic potential. Lately, I have seen the emergence of collective leadership, something which many organizations wish for, but few actually achieve. It is expressed in the shared responsibility for the mission and the goals of the organization, in the substitution of “we” and “us” for “I” and “me.” It is identifiable in the unfailing willingness to roll up the sleeves and pitch in. Collective leadership offers people a chance to make a difference not as junior partners, but as full partners. This is how the heroic dimension of the organization meets the heroic aspirations of individuals, resulting in the opportunity for everyone to be a real part of the action.
The Paradox of the Hero
The final aspect of the hero’s story is the classic outcome: an even greater discovery than the hero could have originally predicted. The hero begins the quest with a goal in mind – often a sacred, prized object which has magical properties: the Golden Fleece, the Holy Grail, or the Ark of the Covenant. In the end, however, the hero realizes that the real prize is not the object, but the transformation of his or her spirit which has occurred: the revelation of the hero’s true self. What we have then is the paradox of the hero – the reward is within the sacrifice; the destination is the quest itself.
Bringing Heroism to Leadership
At Vantage we focus on leadership – how to identify leadership potential and how to accelerate its development. In talking with really effective leaders, it becomes clear that they have learned how to tap into the archetype of the hero. They may not use that language, but when they call on individuals and the organization to serve customers with integrity, push boundaries to develop products, and achieve extraordinary levels of excellence, they aren’t just asking people to put in hours – they’re asking them to join a heroic quest.
A while back, I was having a conversation with a potential client about his organization’s leadership challenges and corresponding development needs. As our discussions continued, he asked for examples and testimonials from some of our past engagements. In particular, he asked us to include ROI (return on investment) data for leadership development from these clients. In other words, he was requesting evidence that the investment of money, time and resources in leadership development would produce tangible organizational performance improvement. This request was not unreasonable or unusual, but it is difficult to prove.
It is not hard to measure whether a leadership development intervention can enhance an individual’s leadership capability. 360-degree feedback processes can be repeated to assess improvement in key competency areas. Developmental plans can be monitored to ensure execution. Engagement surveys provide ongoing collective insights on whether important leadership behaviors and traits are advancing. Extrapolating whether any of this translates into improved individual, team or organizational performance, however, is a bit trickier.
So How Do You Measure ROI?
As most of us do these days, I turned to Google for an answer. “Can you measure ROI for leadership development programs?” I queried. It produced almost 3 million hits – proving, if nothing else, that the leadership consulting business is quite healthy. There were plenty of formulas, studies and frameworks claiming that Leadership Development ROI is provable. Several came from credible sources such as the Harvard Business Review and the Center for Creative Leadership. However, as I dug into the articles, I found it all either too obtuse – or, to use a technical term, a bit “squishy.”
I came away from this fact-finding mission with an apparent confirmation of my hypothesis: that it is difficult, if not impossible, to draw a solid line connecting leadership development and a performance ROI. So then, you ask, why invest in leadership development at all? I think it comes down to a matter of faith; namely, the belief that engaging with enlightened and positive leadership principles will inspire people and organizations to reach their potential.
If you subscribe, as I do, to this leadership philosophy, you probably have read Daniel Pink’s book on human motivation, Drive, and agree that his findings make sense. Perhaps you found yourself acknowledging that Chicago Cubs manager Joe Madden’s intangible leadership skills were the critical factor in helping the Cubs claim their first World Series title in 108 years. Maybe you simply remember working for someone who brought out the best in you, allowing you to perform at your highest level.
The Investment Is the Payoff
In our Best Boss study (conducted by myself, Toni Pristo, and John Furcon in partnership with Vantage Leadership Consulting), we heard amazing testimonials to leaders who elevated the performance of all those around them. Consider this quote from a participant in our study:
“I have never worked harder or had more challenging successes than when I worked for [my Best Boss]. I gave him and the organization 150%, if not more. When I failed, which I did, I was harder on myself than he was. He only wanted to know what he could do to help me succeed the next time.”
Can you develop leaders to embrace the kind of characteristics and behaviors that drive this kind of performance? Sure.
Can you prove it on a spreadsheet? Probably not.
Given this, let me make one suggestion. Ask some people to tell you about the best bosses in their life and just watch their faces and listen to their responses. I promise you this will be all the evidence you need for investing in your leaders.
This thought-provoking question comes to us courtesy of the philosopher Karl Popper. While he used it to advance his thinking about the philosophy of science, we can also apply it to more practical challenges. Put simply, it tests a person’s willingness and capacity to examine his or her own thinking. For example……
It’s All in How You Ask
Sometimes, posing Popper’s question directly – How would you disprove your point of view? – can come across as critical or confrontational. To mitigate this, you can build a small bridge leading to the question, as with the consultant above. Ask the person you’re speaking with how he or she came to hold this point of view, express understanding, and then ask how the perspective might be reconsidered. The bridge makes the question sound less argumentative and avoids attacking the other’s beliefs.
Another variation is to ask, “How would a really smart person attempt to disprove your point of view?” In this way, the person is given some psychological distance from the task. They are not being asked to challenge their own belief; rather, they are putting themselves in the shoes of a hypothetical intellectual who disagrees. This removes the stigma of feeling they have contradicted themselves. We still get to see them wrestle with the question, but in a less ego-involved context.
Now, it’s your turn to try a little experiment. State an important belief you hold about work or your business. Some examples might be:
“Our staff is sufficiently diverse to advance our business in the current marketplace.”
“Our services are as good as or better than our competitors.”
“Our decision to keep up with our competition by being a ‘fast follower’ is working.”
Now, ask yourself Popper’s question.
When people make an honest effort to disprove their own viewpoints, they notice a few things:
It’s hard to do. An individual might start with good intentions, then abandon the effort. Mostly, people are well-practiced in how to prove their point of view – not disprove it.
By wrestling with the question, a person can name assumptions which may previously have gone unchallenged.
It sharpens a person’s grasp of the issues and helps them distinguish between what they really know and what they believe (often without much evidence).
In my work as an assessor and coach, I use the question to test a client’s willingness to challenge his or her own thinking, and to gauge the rigor with which they go about it. It can be a very telling part of an assessment interview.
Battling Confirmation Bias
The opposite of being able to use Popper’s question is the tendency to engage in “confirmation bias.” A frequently-cited example of this is in how people watch the news. By choosing a particular news source, people may be seeking information which confirms their pre-existing point of view. Such behavior only skews their opinions and makes Popper’s question more difficult for them.
Confirmation bias also occurs in the workplace. For example, people read and forward information which supports their perspective, typically eschewing material that runs counter to their thinking. If they do read the latter, it is to find fault with ideas which challenge them: “See! I knew I was right!” People also often seek guidance from those with whom they already agree, often unconsciously. They may think they have engaged in a rigorous process, when that’s not really the case.
It is very difficult to see the flaws in our own thinking. This is why the use of an objective third party improves decision-making, whether it is about hiring, promotion or any number of choices that surface in the operation of a business. Often, we see this as part of the value an outside assessor or coach can bring to a business situation.
We believe people function best when they open their thinking to the possibility of disconfirmation. Karl Popper’s question has served me well. It might do the same for you.
Humans are inherently bad at making judgments about themselves and others In light of this, the “assessment” field was developed to try and bring greater objectivity and predictive power to these evaluations. The manner in which people are assessed varies greatly, but the goal is to synthesize information and gain a thorough understanding of someone’s personality, capabilities, or both. In organizations, assessments are used to make any number of decisions about people. Assessment can be a valuable tool to inform talent management practices, and useful at any point along the talent life cycle. I’ll let you in on a little secret—assessments can offer much, much more. The problem with focusing on assessments solely for decision-making is that you aren’t inherently getting enough bang for your buck from your investment.
Figure 1: Talent Life cycle: Assessments can be utilized to aid in decisions at every stage of the talent life cycle, but organizations get the most value by utilizing insights continually over time across all talent management practices.
So what can organizations do to increase their assessment ROI? Below, we offer five ways to get the most out of your employee assessment practices.
Train Your Bosses
We have a long-standing client at Vantage for whom we complete hundreds of hiring assessments a year. One of the hiring managers I often work with, Susan, heads a new business unit. She has hired a dozen or so individuals over the past three years, and she worked one-on-one with assessors to understand the candidates’ testing and interview results. She is now so well-versed in the psychometric tools we use that she utilizes the terminology found in the test results to create a common lexicon for the team. She does this by referencing different styles and behaviors described in the testing in team meetings, references each team member’s results to help peers understand how to better work together, and sets expectations for performance based on where she believes her employees will fall on the assessment metrics. Susan is quite a savvy user of our assessments results, and she’s consistently finding new and interesting ways to incorporate this information into her day-to-day. But this is not by her company’s design—Susan is simply curious and resourceful. Imagine an organization where every manager is that invested! Training management on what an assessment is, what information it provides, and how it can be used is critical to keeping the results from sitting in a filing cabinet. Even better, organizations can provide resources and timely reminders to help leaders incorporate this information into how they manage their teams.
Ask: How Does This Benefit the Employee?
Many organizations use assessments the same way the Department of Education uses standardized tests—ask people to do some (often grueling or uninteresting) activity to get what you need. Historically, there has been very little emphasis placed on what the person being assessed might need or how they might benefit. Not only is this approach simply outdated, as it gives the impression that the organization’s needs trump the employee’s (essentially you’re taking employees for granted), but it also resigns assessment results to be a one-off tool to help a decision maker in a specific moment in time. Instead, it is best practice to provide feedback based on assessment results and help the person understand what they can do to continue to advance their skills.
Create Accountability for Development
Once the manager knows how to use results and the employee understands what their results say about them, the pair is well-prepared to take action. Engaging in development planning or goal-setting to shore up any gaps revealed in the assessment is the logical next step. Many, many organizations leave this process up to the participant. Unfortunately, that means that only the highest caliber employees do anything with their results. Others treat it as a “nice to know” fun exercise in self-reflection, but do not actually adjust behavior. There must be some sort of accountability in place to ensure everyone takes action on their results, particularly because the people who are most in need of behavior change are often the least likely to see the need to do anything differently. Wondering where to begin? Here are some tips for creating an actionable, effective development plan.
Don’t Let Results Gather Dust
Nearly every client we have is trying to “do more with less” and squeeze additional value from the proverbial stone. This is why it is mind-boggling to me when organizations do not take the time to map how assessment results can inform all their talent practices. For example, when recruiting, you gather a wide variety of information on your candidates. How often are individuals’ specific results utilized to assist in their onboarding? Unfortunately, not often. Leveraged to determine who should be on a succession plan? Slightly more often, but still not enough. In the Age of Information, we should be finding new ways to unlock the power of our data, not shelving it.
Believe it or not, one of the most frequent questions I receive after assessment feedback sessions is, “Will I be reassessed?” These participants inherently know that if they want to demonstrate change and growth, they’ll need feedback on their progress to help guide their efforts. And, assuming they make progress against any developmental needs, they want to be recognized. Additionally, just knowing that you will be re-assessed creates some accountability for change. It’s one of the reasons we strongly recommend re-assessment for any leadership teams that go through our High Performance Teams process—people are more likely to do what they say they’re going to do if they know they’re on the hook for it. This is a particularly critical component of getting the most from your assessments when it comes to external hires. A year later, you should be evaluating whether or not the person is a good fit, how they’re performing, and how they’re fitting into the culture. If you don’t, you open yourself up to flight risks.
How does your organization use assessments? How integrated are assessment results into the talent management life cycle? How savvy are leaders in maximizing assessment insights? We’d love to hear from you in the comments.
As the new year approaches, many employees are preparing for the both the holidays and 2018. This is an infamously popular time to self-reflect and devise development goals for the upcoming year. We all know that setting strong goals can reap positive benefits for both an employee and an organization, including increased worker motivation and performance. However, when applied inappropriately, performance goals can backfire, resulting in decreased quality of output, increased risk taking, and reduced cooperation. As such, when thinking about your own growth as a leader, it is important to keep in mind that not all goals are created equal.
This begs the question: what can you do to ensure your goals for 2018 are robust and impactful? This is something we think about not only internally here at Vantage; it’s a central component of our work with clients. Perhaps the most influential approach comes from goal-setting theory – one of the most heavily researched and utilized theories of work motivation in the field of I/O Psychology. To begin: what does a good goal even look like?
While this will vary greatly depending on the role and organization you are a part of, here are some examples to provide context:
If an assembly line worker is interested in increasing productivity, a good goal might be “To increase the number of units produced per hour by 5 percent between each semi-annual performance review”. You’ll notice this is specific and challenging.
A personal development goal for someone struggling with conflict might be “to decrease the number of negative confrontations at work between each performance review until no confrontations arise”; or, if they are working on public speaking, a goal might be “to speak up and contribute in all team meetings during a specific project.”
There are four main conditions at the heart of goal-setting theory to keep in mind when working on development goals:
Make Them Motivating
According to one study, a whopping 92% of people don’t achieve the goals they set for themselves – so how to overcome the odds? It’s not surprising that people perform better when they are committed to achieving their goals; that is, when they create sufficient motivation for themselves. This is why it is better to allow people to set their own goals, rather than establishing goals for them. Consider if your significant other set a target for you to lose 10 pounds. You might buy in and start that diet, but you might also drag your feet, feel put-upon, and even actively ignore the goal. In this regard, the goal must be yours. Others can tell you that your objective should be X, and there might be unanimous agreement around that need. But if you do not see the behavior change as necessary, you won’t feel motivated to do anything differently. This also goes for goals you undertake half-heartedly or out of obligation (i.e., “I really should lose those extra 10 pounds this year”). Goals without drive are simply wishes; you’re not actually making progress towards the desired end state, you’re just hoping to end up there. As a leader, it’s key to keep this in mind when designing objectives with your colleagues and direct reports. Goals tend to have the highest levels of commitment when:
They are linked to important outcomes. For managers, you might set a goal of improving your coaching skills and link it to the important outcome of your team’s engagement scores in next year’s survey. For executives, you might set a goal to spend more time strategizing and link that goal to the important outcome of your department’s revenue.
The individual setting the goal has the confidence they can attain the goal (even if it is challenging).
The goal is committed to publicly. Public commitment without action can lead to social disapproval, and as social beings this tends to motivate us to act if for no other reason than to save face. Announcing your goals publicly (i.e., to your team, select peers, your boss) helps hold you accountable, and also offers an opportunity to solicit feedback from others.
The Development Is In the Details
A goal must be specific and measurable. It should answer the who, what, when, where, why, and how of the expectations of the goal. Setting parameters provides an external frame of reference (such as time, space, increment, etc.) to gauge progress, whereas vague “do better” goals are ambiguous and often have little effect on motivation. Removing ambiguity allows one to focus on precise actions and behaviors related to goal achievement. Research shows that the more specific the goal, the more explicitly performance will be affected. This inherently makes sense because if you don’t have a specific goal in mind, how will you know when you’ve reached it? This is where it pays to create SMART goals, and leverage available tools to help you narrow your focus (such as Live Wire’s list of best goal setting apps).
Stretch Yourself – But Not Too Far
Difficulty is a key component of motivation. Goals should be set high enough to encourage top performance, but low enough to be attainable. This balance is crucial for effective goals. Aiming too high – to the point of unrealistic – conversely causes performance to suffer. The greatest motivation and performance is achieved with moderately difficult goals (somewhere between too easy and too difficult). Think of Goldilocks and the Three Bears—it’s important to find that sweet spot that is “just right.”
Ask Others: “How Am I Doing?”
Without proper feedback channels, it is impossible to adapt or adjust behavior. Obtaining feedback on short-term objectives helps to sustain motivation and commitment to the goal – and without it, goal-setting is unlikely to be successful. Feedback is most impactful when it is provided on the strategies being used to pursue the goal (in addition to the final outcomes achieved), but this is not always how people think to provide input. Consider the last time you earnestly asked a colleague how your presentation went and what they thought you could improve, but were met with a generic, “It was great.” You might need to provide some guidance to others when seeking feedback on your progress; don’t be afraid to ask for specifics on how your approach is working. Here are some additional tips for mastering the art of asking for feedback.
Although the four conditions presented above are not all-encompassing, they should provide a strong foundation as you begin planning for the new year. A well-honed development plan can start you off on the right foot and provide tangible benefits throughout the year. What are some goals you have been considering for 2018? How can these tips help you take them to the next level?
Do you feel frustrated in your efforts to make a difference? Are you concerned you don’t have the right team in place? Are you tired of inheriting poor performers?
If you answered yes to any of these, ask yourself: what’s in your way?
Working in the field of leadership development, we find that all too often people complain about working for a bad boss. In fact, more individuals have had a “bad boss” experience in their careers than a “good boss” experience. Moreover, despite the billions of dollars spent in the leadership development industry (through interviews, training programs, modules, coaching, etc.), this trend doesn’t seem to be reversing. Unfortunately, it’s rare for us to hear individuals boast about working for a great leader.
Additionally, employee engagement rates have hardly budged since 2000, according to a Gallup research study. Only about 33% of employees in the US reported to feeling engaged in 2016 – only a modest 3% increase from 2012. This is not surprising, given our clients’ consistent concerns with keeping employees invested in an increasingly complex environment.
So, what’s to blame?
Perhaps the landscape in which we live is increasing in complexity, scope, and change – so much so that it’s difficult to keep up and focus on maintaining employee engagement and enthusiasm.
On the other hand, perhaps as leaders, we are applying the wrong tactics to our teams and followers.
While there is no simple solution to improve employee engagement or enhance the employee/boss relationship, one place to start is by looking at common pitfalls or mistakes you may make as a manager.
Here are five things NOT to do as a leader:
Giving a Select Few the Biggest Investment
Given that most organizations tend to operate on a lean basis, it is typical for leaders to manage a large team of direct reports, often making it difficult to devote sufficient time to each person. We have found that many of the leaders we interview spend too much time on their top performers and focus their effort on developing those select few. As a result, they devote very little time to the remaining team. On the opposite side, there are those leaders who focus primarily on their under-performers, while minimizing the investment in their top and middle performers. Although you don’t want to practice a “one-size-fits-all” mentality, it is important to consider how to best engage and motivate EVERY person on your team; otherwise, it will only be a matter of time before they start looking elsewhere to feel valued.
Getting Too Comfortable with “Good Enough”
Ask yourself: how well is your team performing? Is everyone on the team executing to high standards, or is their performance simply satisfactory? Often leaders can get comfortable with “good enough,” as long as the team is meeting expectations and not ruffling any feathers. While some individuals may feel happy being “left alone” to do their work, our research shows that employees actually appreciate a boss who stretches their capabilities beyond what they thought possible. It shows them that their boss believes in their skills and sees the potential in them to take on greater responsibility.
Failing to Show Emotion
Effective leaders care about their employees – their career goals, aspirations, development, and personal needs. Going through the motions of these behaviors, without displaying genuine care, does not produce the same result. Rather, most people tend to feel devalued working for a boss who comes across as disingenuous.
Not Providing Room for Mistakes
As a leader, there is so much experience and knowledge you can share with your employees. There may also be a tendency to provide an answer immediately in order to meet a tight deadline or deliverable. Unfortunately, this style will not only hinder your team from taking on challenges, but also take away from their ability to learn on their own. Take a step back and consider what learnings a direct report can gain from a particular situation, even if it might lead to him or her making a mistake.
Not Giving Immediate Feedback
You give your employees freedom and autonomy to do their work, and they should feel engaged as a result, right? Wrong. Although your employees will value your display of trust, this approach needs to be balanced with consistent feedback on their performance. In particular, employees appreciate transparency in their boss and clarity on what they are doing right or wrong, on a regular basis. If you wait to surprise employees with feedback during the end-of-the-year performance reviews, it may come too late for the employee to implement, and can lead to him or her feeling admonished, rather than constructively advised.
Surveys show that a key to retaining top talent – and creating a great company culture – is cultivating best bosses. As such, it is important to consider common derailers or mistakes you can avoid as a leader to improve not only the engagement of your team, but also your ability to get the best out of each of your direct reports. As you reflect on your own leadership style, ask yourself: What can you do differently with your team? What are typical pitfalls you should avoid? How can you be a role model for others? What can you do to be a better boss?
Our firm’s mission is to be the best partner for selecting, integrating and developing world-class leaders. To this end, we have hosted a series of round table discussions with various clients and colleagues. The purpose? Creating a shared understanding about what is required to successfully “lead into the future”; that is, how to stay ahead of the curve on the future challenges, opportunities and requirements facing today’s emerging leaders.
Millennials will soon dominate the management landscape, so we are keenly interested in what will influence their career choices, as well as how to best prepare them for what’s coming down the road. Recently, we hosted twelve high potential undergraduate students from the Ohio University Emerging Leaders Program. These students were all driven, insightful, mature beyond their years – and a lot of fun to be around. As part of their education, they are being exposed to a number of established businesses, start-ups, and industry thought leaders across the Midwest and beyond. They will soon be exactly the sort of graduates many organizations will be seeking to hire and quickly provide significant stretch opportunities to that, ten years ago, would have been uncommon.
During the round table, we asked these up and coming leaders just a few questions. For example:
What is going to matter the most to you in choosing how and where to launch your careers?
What was your earliest and most important experience of leading?
What are the big challenges and opportunities which will confront your generation of leaders?
What Matters Most to You?
Our students had ready responses to this question: clear expectations; being encouraged to voice one’s opinions; a work environment based on collaboration; and frequent, thoughtful, and constructive feedback. When someone mentioned “a strong sense of purpose,” a wave of agreement swept through the room, with all heads nodding in unison: “I want a job that helps me get up in the morning”; “I need to know how what I’m doing impacts the company”; “It’s most important to make a difference in someone’s life.” There was clear agreement that company values should align with their own; this group of high potentials also felt that the function one provides in a business may be more important than the industry itself. This surprised us, but reinforces the notion that young leaders value making a difference where they work more than seeking an industry that is well known for advancing the cause of humanity.
“A Boss Who Trusts Me”
When discussing what matters, we also asked the group what they most need in a boss. The answers? A boss who cares about them and their work and who trusts that they can be successful were strong sentiments. Additionally, our students mentioned approachability, commitment to fostering growth, the availability to solve problems together and being transformational with feedback (and its opposite, “don’t demoralize”). The group expressed gratitude for each other, noting “this is the best team we’ve ever been on, and it motivates us to give it our all.” This led to a shared recognition that they expect to work for someone who can assemble and lead cohesive, high-performing teams. When we polled the group, one third of them felt that they had already worked for a manager who had the touchstone qualities of a Best Boss, which suggested to us that they will have high expectations for the management skill of the person they report to early in their careers – and, by extension, little tolerance for mediocre leaders who demonstrate “a lack of vision and direction” or “who don’t listen.”
What Was Your Earliest and Most Important Experience of Leading?
The students were able to quickly summon instances where they emerged as leaders among their cohort or peers, typically in the context of team sports. This observation sounds trite, but it is not. We have found that job candidates for front-line leadership positions often cannot readily come up with examples of leading, or convey lessons learned about their own leadership identity or potential. This strongly reinforces the value of participating in emerging leader programs to gain early exposure to constructive feedback, so as to build efficacy and tolerance for gaining self-insight and pursuing self-improvement in a meaningful and disciplined way. The second observation highlights the value of young people exploring early opportunities to interact with and serve others, whether it’s sports or other types of clubs (our group also mentioned business competitions and 4H).
The Group Gets Stumped
The team admittedly had difficulty reflecting on just one of the questions that we posed: What is the value of your leadership? Yet, with a bit of introspection, they were able to offer a variety of insights, ranging from “helping others achieve their potential” to “aligning a team around a common goal that helps the business succeed” – which, to our way of thinking, are pretty laudable answers.
How Do We Lead Into 2020?
As we finished the round table discussion with questions related to what 2020 and beyond would require of those who lead, we observed that the answers (i.e., stay focused, ignore distractions, manage an astonishing rise in the number of differing perspectives) resonated with current challenges we’ve encountered in the leadership sphere: increasing speed, scale and complexity. They commented on the need for constant learning, staying ahead of the curve and figuring out “how analytics tell a story about our ideas for tomorrow and then tell it yesterday”. They agreed that being better prepared for succeeding in a digital world was paramount, and that a lack of communication will be the biggest obstacle (“If you aren’t on social media, you are left out”).
Other issues affecting leadership culture that came up in our conversation included mass transportation, AI, facial recognition, and “privacy in a transparent world.” Of course, a major concern was understanding the next generation (“who’s after us and who will be our market”), including a focus not just on technology, but also people in order to “always be adapting to our changing needs”.
Where Do We Go From Here?
A key takeaway from our discussion with these young leaders was the value of ensuring that the career discussions occurring between Boomers, Gen X’ers and Millennials happen in a way that expands the perspective of what’s most important to each generation, including the customers we serve and the organizations we work for.
To this end, it is useful for anyone engaged in career conversations to write down a list of the Values and Value Proposition from three perspectives: ourselves, the organization for whom we work or may work, and the any other key stakeholders that we serve (customers, alliances and partnerships, civic and recreational groups). An individual or an organization’s values can be determined by asking two things: 1) What Is the need? and 2) What is the purpose?
Based on our round table discussion, the set of aligned values and value proposition may look like this:
Over the next two days, this classy group of students reached out thank us for the thought-provoking questions and for the novelty of the round table discussion format, in which we all got to share ideas and learn from each other. They also expressed excitement about continuing the dialogue around what it will take to lead into the future. Thoughtfulness, gratitude, maturity, purpose, commitment and curiosity: it seems like we are in good hands with our next generation of leaders.
We recently invited twelve HR leaders from a variety of industries to come to our offices for a spirited group round table. The topic? Conversations they are having in their organizations around leadership potential. We found that the challenges of identifying and unlocking potential are not unique to any one organization or industry, and HR plays a key role in facilitating these important internal conversations – especially when it comes to achieving diversity and inclusion goals.
What We Talk About When We Talk About Potential
To kick off our conversation, we asked each HR leader to describe how his or her organization defined and identified leadership potential. While there was a fair degree of alignment around what its indicators are, many heads nodded when someone mentioned that labeling a person with “potential” still felt subjective and a bit…murky.
Some organizations have succinct definitions – such as “ACE”, the combination of Aspiration, Capability, and Engagement – backed by specific behaviors to guide the assessment of potential. Others have done away with the word “potential” entirely, focusing instead on leadership “readiness.” Overall, our leaders agreed that having a well-defined leadership model with clear competencies is crucial for assessing talent.
Regardless of the definition you use, a variety of personal traits and motivational factors influence whether someone is perceived to be capable of expanded leadership responsibility. None will seem particularly surprising; the group mentioned things like intellectual agility, willingness to learn, humility, curiosity, team commitment, grit, and pursuit of excellence. Underlying this was the sense that someone needs to be a “good person” in order to be considered for bigger roles. What it means to be a “good person” is a confluence of EQ, self-awareness, humility and other aspects that need to be defined and linked to behaviors.
The group cautioned us that these elements do, of course, need to be tied tightly to good leadership. For instance, curiosity by itself doesn’t necessarily indicate someone will be suited to a larger role. Alternatively, an overwhelming drive to achieve can come at the expense of effective relationship management.
Of course, no conversation on potential can be truly productive unless you first answer the question “Potential for what?” It is nearly impossible to divorce the concept of potential from the organizational problem you are trying to solve.
“The Measurement Challenge is Huge”
Knowing the answer to the “for what” question may steer towards a more objective assessment of potential by clarifying what need you’re addressing, but measuring potential is still a challenge. Further, with performance management systems and ratings falling out of favor, having a concrete 9-box conversation is even harder.
Here are some tactics the HR leaders suggested to remove as much subjectivity as possible:
Have an outside partner conduct an objective assessment of your employee’s potential; use it to confirm or disconfirm the results of your 9-box or talent review processes
Create structured interview/ facilitator guides to elicit evidence that supports the assessment of potential as part of talent review conversations
Ensure managers have a clear understanding on the difference between high performers with high potential compared to high performers with moderate potential; this distinction can be a tough one but is incredibly important
To support the above recommendation, calibrate the definition of potential by using examples of real people to describe what it looks like in your organization
Ask your leaders to think of someone who kept getting promoted and succeeding until eventually they failed; consider what qualities may have caused that eventual gap and use that thinking to help frame potential
Ultimately, though, these techniques rely heavily on observation, not data – which has its drawbacks.
Diversity & Inclusion: Battling Unconscious Bias
Because so many of the conversations around potential are based on observation, the assessment of potential is highly susceptible to unconscious bias. Without intention of harm, one person may label the same behaviors differently when demonstrated by different people.
Our leaders shared best practices they use to make sure their organization’s conversations around potential is aligned with their Diversity & Inclusion goals:
Conduct talent reviews exclusively focused on diverse talent or the “unusual suspects”
Identify indicators for being inclusive; for example, one organization looks at whether people are open to forming teams with people different from them
Compare the diversity breakdown of succession plans/high potentials to that of the company
Parse engagement scores by key demographic breakdowns to determine what issues might need to be tackled or addressed for a particular group; for example, minority group members who are different from their manager may not be given as much feedback
Being intentional when it comes to diversity, inclusion and potential is key, and HR plays an important role in keeping this top-of-mind during any talent review. One leader suggested Diversity & Inclusion should be ingrained into leaders’ thinking and organizational culture as much as Safety.
The Challenges of Global Assessment
Cultural differences provide their own challenge in both assessing potential and judging performance for global firms. The behaviors linked to potential may be demonstrated, experienced or understood differently based on cultural norms, complicating measurement.
One company has found the Ravens Advanced Progressive Matrices – a critical thinking appraisal that relies on pattern recognition – to be helpful in removing the bias against those where English is a second language, allowing for a more effective “apples to apples” comparison
As with Diversity & Inclusion, awareness of difference is important in mitigating unintentional negative impacts that may be attributed to cultural differences
You’ve Identified Potential! Now What?
Of course, defining, identifying, and assessing potential are only pieces of the puzzle. Once you have a differentiated group of leaders to attend to, what do you do? Placing high potentials in new roles or providing stretch assignments is a common step, but the group encouraged patience and the appropriate amount of support.
Potential doesn’t disappear as a HiPo initially struggles through a stretch opportunity. Here’s what our group had to say about supporting these leaders.
Whenever possible, pair them with a Best Boss; this is key to unlocking someone’s potential
Assign a senior business leader and an HR partner to orchestrate the HiPo’s development plan; this increases visibility and accountability while also spreading the responsibility beyond the dyad of HiPo and boss
If using a mentorship program, focus on the mentor-mentee match and ensure the program is structured so it’s easy for both parties to be successful
Match mentees with a mentor who has passion around the mentee’s goals
Involve HR in the matching process, and encourage chemistry-check conversations between mentee and mentor
Provide the mentor with clear goals for the program, and outlines for helpful conversation to have at each meetings – not because senior leaders can’t figure this out for themselves, but because they might not have the time to
For HiPos further along in their careers, a few organizations have created Junior Executive Councils to give up-and-comers the opportunity to work on strategy projects and allow the organization to see how they work
Uber-Potentials and the Retention Gap
Near the end of our conversation, one leader raised a problem for the group to discuss: Her organization runs a program for what they call their “uber-potentials”. One of the expected goals of the program was that it would help keep this talented group in the company longer, but they’re finding it’s not impacting retention significantly. Why?
Throughout the morning, the group returned again and again to aspiration, transparency, and the need for ongoing career conversations. As one leader said, “a lot of assumptions are made about what people want – we need to focus on getting that out of them”. If you make a succession plan, you need to know whether the people you’ve put in the plan actually want to be there.
It’s also important to remember that the desires and personal limitations that impact the assessment of potential may change. For instance, if a leader isn’t willing to relocate for a position in the next few years, that doesn’t mean she’s never willing to relocate. HR has a part to play in removing the fear and risk that some otherwise-high potential leaders might feel about taking themselves out of the game by pulling back from a particular role for personal reasons.
Based on our discussion, there is no shortage of energy around this important topic, and clearly, there is no ‘silver bullet’ out there – otherwise, we would all be doing the same thing! Nonetheless, there seems to be a growing awareness that the early identification of leadership potential is a strategic imperative. Additionally, the increasingly prevalent business objective of diversity and inclusion suggests there is a need for more objective measures in assessing this quality. We are hopeful that the insight we gleaned from this session is just the start of further knowledge-sharing to come from the HR community. After all, enhancing our collective understanding of this important topic has, well…potential.