I asked a client to guesstimate the percentage of “exceptional”, “satisfactory” and “poor” contributors in a critical frontline role in his business. I was impressed by his claim that the business had no poor performers. The reason for this was, “We do not tolerate less-than-acceptable … underperformers are helped to achieve a satisfactory level of performance or are exited from the business.”
According to the client, the split of those in frontline roles was 70% “satisfactory” and 30% “exceptional”.
I then challenged him with the following question, “If two out of three rather than one out of three were exemplars, would that make a difference to the results?”
“Absolutely,” he replied. His company went on to achieve this change by doing the following five things:
ESTABLISHING A PICTURE OF EXCELLENCE
The starting point was to define excellence in the role; what does exceptional look like? Reflecting on those who were exceptional, a list of differentiators was drawn up – what was it about people in terms of ability, behaviour and mindset which made them exemplary or “stand out” in the role.
DETERMINING AND PROVIDING THE MEANS AND ABILITY TO EXCEL
The next step was to interview every individual in the role. The interview centred around three questions:
Generally people know what they need in order to make an above-and-beyond contribution – and it is typically not more money. The issues raised were primarily leadership issues and therefore, by definition, actionable. An action plan to address the issues was drawn up and implemented. In so doing, people were provided with adequate “means” and “ability” to do an excellent job. They were provided with a more enabling environment in which to contribute.
WATCHING THE GAME AND GIVING FEEDBACK
A leadership standard with respect to time spent “watching the game” was instituted which amounted to the immediate manager of the frontline employees spending a day every six weeks in the field “shadowing” his/her direct reports and witnessing them in the role. At the end of every visit feedback was given on what was done well and what, if the employees changed it, would improve their contribution going forward.
RAISING THE BAR ON BEHAVIOURAL AND PERFORMANCE STANDARDS
They incrementally but continually raised the bar with respect to both behaviour and performance standards. They put themselves in the shoes of their customers to determine what would make a customer say, “My expectations have not just been met but exceeded.” They then challenged people not to accept the current situation as “good enough”. They encouraged everyone to continually strive to be better than they were before in their roles.
HOLDING PEOPLE APPROPRIATELY ACCOUNTABLE
Lastly, they changed what people in the role were measured on and rewarded for. The focus shifted from results to contribution or what was in the people’s control to effect. What was measured was the quality of people’s work, their efficiency in executing their tasks, and customer service. Over time the portion of reward attributable to key performance indicators decreased. Those who made an above-and-beyond contribution were rewarded commensurately with contribution made.
The approach they followed was fundamentally different from what most organisations do in a quest for superior performance – which is to set stretch targets and incentivise people to achieve them. Choosing to rather enable people to make an above-and-beyond contribution takes longer and is more work, but it produces sustainable excellence in performance. It does so, I believe, because it is based on the premise that most people want to excel in the job that they do. It is the leader’s role to enable them to do so.