Leaders who are the most effective at managing the performance of their people keep two things in mind:
1 The big picture — why we are doing it and what matters about it? 2 The short term — what do we need to do now to move forward toward the larger goal?
An example of this process
I just finished some work with a fairly large organisation that has sixteen general managers. I asked if I could interview two of the GMs who were achieving the best results. Even though I interviewed them independently, their approach to goal setting was remarkably similar.
Both of these GMs set big goals and have clear expectations with their people that the goals will be met. They also stress the importance and discipline of a weekly Monday meeting to discuss with their team what’s in front of them this week, what they can handle, and what they need to do to accomplish the larger goal. They succeed in the long run by focusing on the short run and connecting the two. Successful goal setting is about resilience.
Rarely do things go exactly as planned. But too often when things go awry, instead of talking about what can be done to get things back on track, people come to a full stop.
My clients referred to what they call “mental toughness”: the ability to keep performing when things change, go sour, or take longer than planned. Early in the process, teams are primed with the mindset that things aren’t always going to go smoothly—and they are given ways to respond in the moment to achieve the best possible result. Goal setting is not meant to be static. If the team is stuck or heading in the wrong direction, the manager works with them to restate the goal and make adjustments.
When a team is focusing on something new or challenging, frequent check-ins with the manager are essential. As the team gains confidence and demonstrates competence, these meetings can be scheduled further apart.
In both our SLII® and our First-time Manager programs we teach that once goals are set, managers need to check in with team members on a regular basis to remind them what they are trying to accomplish and why it matters. Managers also need to take opportunities to have praising conversations when things are going well and redirection conversations when things deviate from the plan.
Over time, as people become more confident and trusted, the manager can delegate more and pull back on the frequency and intensity of these conversations. As people become self-reliant, the manager can turn over the responsibility for achieving the goals to the individual or the team.
Partnerships in action
When people think about their best manager, it was most likely someone who truly listened, was flexible, acknowledged their work and contributions, and made them feel like they made a difference.
It’s about working side by side with people—providing direction and support in a way that lets them grow into their autonomy. For example, when a salesperson is working for a sales manager, their goals are interdependent. As the salesperson demonstrates an increased capacity to achieve the goal, the manager can direct a little less and use more of a coaching style. Instead of telling, the manager is asking and listening.
All good performance starts with clear goals. They set people up for success, growth, and development. The goal should be written in a way that illustrates what a good job looks like, documents the milestones to mark progress, and stretches the individual beyond their current performance. Clearly written goals give people a chance to succeed, while vague goals can lead to trouble.
Setting goals is a foundation for success and having clear agreements about performance expectations, with regular check-ins, is the process for getting there. Obstacles that can undermine relationships and results are a lack of clarity and a lack of clear agreement.
When things really matter, effective managers make the effort to ensure the team is crystal clear on goals and procedures. This takes extra time at the beginning of a project, but it will pay dividends in the long term. Plus, it sets a process in place that the team can use on future projects.
People want to perform for a manager they know has confidence in them. Managers who acknowledge the person and maintain a respectful, positive regard for his or her contribution are building the confidence of the people they manage. It’s important to separate the subject matter from the person. Expressing confidence allows a manager to preserve a good relationship regardless of the type of conversation being held. Expressing confidence in the person builds self-assurance and enthusiasm.
That’s a win-win for everybody.