In my experience of corporations, middle and senior managers spend well over 50% of their time in setting, measuring and mincing about whether they and their subordinates are achieving the targeted results. In contrast, they spend far less of their time ensuring that their subordinates have the means, ability and accountability to achieve those results.
If the ratio was the other way round, better results would be achieved with much greater job satisfaction for all concerned.
Obviously the results are very important! Anyone who does anything seriously has goals and a strong desire to achieve them. And in any competitive environment, one competes to win, not lose. Mountaineers want to be the first to reach the summit, Olympic sports people want to come home with the gold medal, and businesses want to be more successful than their competitors.
The way to achieve the result
The essential way to achieve the result however is neither to focus on it nor to obsessively measure progress against it. A desire to stand on the top of the world and a determination of how far short of the top one is does not get the relatively few people who succeed in conquering Everest to do so. Similarly, a fixation on the score on the scoreboard, relative to other athletes’ scores is not what gains a winning score for the athlete. Nor does an ambition to progress up the hierarchy assure promotion to the desired position.
What determines whether or not mountaineers reach the summit first, other than luck (and luck plays a part in every result), is all that they did to get there; how well they prepare for the ascent; the choice of the right path to take; that they pace themselves correctly and then overcame the inevitable obstacles along the way.
All of these things are themselves a reflection on those leading the expedition – their ability to select high-calibre team members and then enable them both in preparation for and throughout the climb.
Similarly, “games are won by players who focus on the playing field, not by those whose eyes are glued to the scoreboard” (Warren Buffett). More accurately, games are won by talented players who have exceptional coaches.
Finally, what produces the desired organisational result is that people at every level in the organisation make the contribution required of them to produce the result. Enabling people to make the contribution required of them, to be the best that they can be, and prepared to go above and beyond in pursuit of the organisation’s objectives, is the job of those in leadership positions in the organisation.
A shift in the focus of attention is what is required
That excellent results can only be produced by excellent people, be they mountaineers, athletes or employees, is common sense. So too is the notion that the best route to sustainable organisational excellence is the relentless pursuit of human excellence in all those in the organisation.
Following through on this understanding however is far from easy. This is because it requires people to do something which feels absolutely counter-intuitive. For those in the front line in the business it requires a shift in the focus of their attention from what they want to “get” (the desired result) to what they should “give” to effect excellence in the task in front of them.
For those in leadership positions, it requires them to take yet a further step back from the results. That is, to take their eyes off the results to put their attention on their people. It requires them to focus on giving their people what they need (means, ability and accountability) to excel at the task and ultimately to realise the very best in themselves.
From observation of diverse organisations across the world it seems however that the focus of attention is largely on the result. A minority of the effort goes into defining the actions (by people) which will achieve the desired results. Even less time is given to determining and delivering the leadership actions which will enable people to perform the actions which will deliver the result.
When the results are not forthcoming, the typical managerial response is to increase the pressure/demand for the desired results as well as the frequency and detail of reporting up the line on the results. As one client said, “we are so busy forecasting and reporting on sales that we can’t get out to our clients to understand their needs and convince them of how we can help them address those needs”.
What is needed
What Legitimate Leadership is advocating is not an abandonment of goals/targets and scoreboards. On the contrary, we believe that goals (which are stretching but achievable) and a scoreboard (which informs those making a contribution what they need to do going forward to make a better contribution) are enabling of contribution.
What we are advocating however is making the setting and measuring/reporting of results only 20% of the focus. That leaves non-managers with 80% of their time focused on task excellence and to realising the best in themselves. Just like athletes who know that their real effort needs to go into making themselves a better athlete and perfecting their game – not to determining who they want to beat by how much and to tracking how they are doing against the competition.
Similarly, we believe that those in leadership roles should spend their time primarily on defining the value-added contribution(s) which need to be made by whom to achieve the desired result and then enabling their people to make that contribution.
Leaders, in short, need to dedicate themselves to the relentless pursuit of excellence in their people, not getting results out of them. In any case they have far more control over that than they do over the result. Ironically, by focusing on excellence in their people, they also increase the chances of realising a better result.