Results or People? Where to Focus If You’re Aiming for Excellence

July 25, 2017 - By Ian Munro, Director, B Bus Sci (IS Hons) M Com (IS)

“So, are you saying that in order to succeed we need to move from being results-driven to being people-driven?”

This was the question posed to me by a senior leader in a large multinational organisation. I wondered how long it had been since I had lost him. That wasn’t what I had been saying. It was, however, the inspiration for a talk I recently gave at a gala dinner event. And this article – in which we will discover sustained success isn’t about committing to results or to people; it’s about committing to excellence.

Imagine a continuum. On the one side, you have a single-minded focus on results. On the other side, a single-minded focus on people. In the middle; a balance between the two. If you were running a business, where should you aim to be?

Three people in the dinner audience I was addressing cast their vote on the side of results. Many more shouted “people”. An even larger group weren’t willing to commit to a side. It’s a balance they said.

Ok then, let’s start with “results”.

What happens when organisations focus single-mindedly on results?

The standard defence of this position goes something like this: “We aren’t here to make friends. This is business. We’re here to deliver. And delivering means getting results.” To an extent I am sympathetic to this point of view. We aren’t here to make friends: true. This is business: true. We’re here to deliver: true. And delivering means getting results: kind of.

For sustainable businesses “delivering” actually means “adding value to a customer”. But I digress. Even if I did agree wholeheartedly, the questions remains as to whether or not focusing on results actually delivers results (or value to customers, as mentioned).

Let’s take a look.

You start a new business. You and your team have the energy to conquer the world. Internal and external competition drives performance. People feel stretched and they get the job done and good performance equals good profits (other things being equal).

It’s all on the upward curve, because we are focusing on the results. The job is getting done and we only tolerate people in the business who do things to get the results.

But pressure to sustain and get result starts to show. External competition means that we become increasingly reactive in our actions and our decisions. We react on the short term because competition has intensified. Previously we weren’t competing with anyone; we were just giving it our best.

There are turf wars internally and externally. Trust declines. There is increased accountability for output, which means we actually worry less about accountability for input.

We become so worried about what is happening on the outside that we forget to worry about what is happening on the inside.

Stretch, which is fantastic for people, becomes stress. That results in insecurity. We end up with people creating their own key-man dependencies to safeguard their jobs. And we end up with good leaders who begin to search for purpose; they think it’s just not worth it any more – “this is not the kind of place I want work in.”

Results don’t improve.

A shift in strategy does not improve the situation. Because invariably a shift in strategy is something like “the current customer segment we are operating in isn’t working, we need to find a different customer segment”, or “we need to get the pricing on our model right”, or “our salespeople must stop giving such big discounts”. Strategy is unlikely to address the real problem, which is that people don’t want to be there. They are arriving at work to pay a home loan; they are not arriving at work to do a great job.

What happens when organisations focus single-mindedly on people?

So obviously what we have to do is have a focus on people. Because when we have this focus performance goes up … correct?

No, when we have a focus only on people, with no concern for the results that they produce, we get the same pattern.

Again we start with the energy to conquer the world. We are a great place to work. This results in collaboration and purpose, and together these drive performance. And we attract talented people.

Actually, at this stage of the cycle, we attract both givers and takers. But we’re not making any distinction between the two.

Long ago, I worked in an Internet start-up organisation. A massage therapist wandered around giving us massages on request. It was fantastic at the time, but where is the business today? It never made it past “start-up”. Some people wanted to make a contribution, but others just loved the free coffee.

So, we attract both givers and takers. And out of concern for their feelings, we are giving people a lot of positive feedback, and it’s all backslapping and “well done”. But we are diluting the real feedback which would grow, develop and encourage a culture of excellence. And some people start to abuse this “very nice” management style because they are not confronted on these things.

Performance starts to drop. Soon the people who are doing a good job experience increased workload and strain because the work shifts to them.

Long ago again, I consulted to a bank. One of the bank managers said to me: “Why don’t you come and work here? You’re getting this work done, this project is delivering. It would cost us a lot less if you were working here rather than being a consultant.”

I replied: “No, because the moment I work for you I will be just as ineffective as everyone else. The issue here is not me, it is you. Your best project manager has 15 projects; your worst project manager has no projects.”

They were taking top performers and giving them all the work and not dealing with the bottom performers. They were not prepared to confront this. When this kind of thing happens, frustrated performers start to leave. They say they can do a better job elsewhere.

And then customers start to wonder what’s going on, “What’s happening in the business? Why am I experiencing such mediocre service? You guys used to be great.”

Then customers start wanting to deal only with the founder or the person that they dealt with five years ago. Because the team is not as good as it used to be.

Finally, there is financial underperformance, restructuring and redundancy.

What happens when we balance our focus on people and results?

So, back to the gala dinner. By this stage the only people left smiling knowingly are the middle-grounders. Obviously you have to have a balance they say to the braver individuals who selected a side.

The problem with the “balance” argument is that it doesn’t hold water. Averaging out two failed journeys just gives you a better chance of average (as opposed to spectacular) failure.

So, what is the alternative?

To answer, we have to understand why the above scenarios failed. When leaders focus on the results, we are obviously mostly concerned with what we can get out of people. We are taking, and by implication we turn those around us into takers.

When organisations claim that they are people-focused, often what they really mean is, “We treat our people well so that they can give us a good result.” It’s conditional. They could more honestly say, “We treat our people well because we are not so stupid as to just look at the result. We treat our people well because they are a means to an end, in the hope that they give us the result.”

But people are not that stupid. They know they are being used to achieve the result. And so we get the same trend. Here we are also taking – just indirectly.

So what is the alternative? It is to focus on both of these things (people, and the results they produce) at the same time. Not in terms of what we are taking from them, but in terms of what we are giving to them. It is AND, not OR, and it is what leads to excellence. “I’m giving X this task because I genuinely want her to be excellent at it and I’m offering my help because I genuinely want to help her. And I’m saying ‘you can do it yourself’ because I genuinely want her to learn. I’m not doing it so that I can get something out of her. I’m doing it so that she can become a better software writer/rider of a bike – so that she can one day win the Tour de France.

When we increase excellence in the person, what happens to the result? Does it fall away? No, the result also goes up.

So, what is needed is a single-minded focus on excellence.

It starts at the same point – the energy to conquer the world. But when we focus on excellence, people start to see leaders walking the talk and they take notice. Leaders start doing what they say, not just saying it. They start meeting commitments and enabling people. Trust is built and becomes the norm.

They are not taking it easy on people. People don’t grow because we take it easy on them. But when we are tough, we must be so for the right reasons. Then they start trusting us more.

Don’t think it’s easy – growing people is not easy.

But trust has to build. If you want trust, if you want people to take decisions, they need to trust in the consequences of learning.

Excellence is evidenced when the bar is continually raised. And people have clarity on what needs to be done because leaders are taking the time to give this input. Clarity becomes a precondition.

Leaders don’t only assess, they also enable people. Underperformance is confronted – not only to get rid of people but also to help them become performers.

Then financial performance tracks people’s performance  (other things being equal). Outsiders then want to be part of it. Capacity and capability to take on opportunities plays an increasingly exciting role. We start to believe that we can do what we said our vision was. We start to believe that the impossible is possible: “Look what we managed to achieve when we were this size … imagine what we can achieve when we are bigger.”

But we can only do it when we are all committed collectively to this idea of arriving at work not just to do a good job but to do a great job – and we might as well because we have to be there anyway.

I’m not talking about longer working hours spent at work. I’m talking about while you are there, choosing to do what you say you are going to do, choosing to trust your colleagues, choosing to be trusted by your colleagues – leaders taking a role in that.

An executive team once said to me, “We are a fantastic executive dream-team, but we haven’t hit target in the last five years. ” I asked about the cause, and they replied, “It’s not us, it is them (their subordinates).”

I replied, “So why do they still work here? You have a lot to answer for in this.”

Ian Munro
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