Being a leader in any organization means taking complete responsibility for the results, regardless of your team size. Whether you lead a team of 10 or 1,000, you are ultimately responsible for their performance. As President Harry S. Truman famously said, “The buck stops here.”
There are two distinct leadership styles that CEOs and managers use when focused on strong results. The first is a compassionate style that aligns, inspires, and positively develops team members to enable them to achieve shared goals. The second approach is a results-at-all-costs style that micromanages, stresses, and demeans team members. Technically both leadership styles will get results, but the former is a healthier long-term solution. In the book The Speed of Trust, Stephen M.R. Covey summarized, “Leadership is getting results in a way that inspires trust.”
The ideal leader’s role is more like a coach than a dictator. The term “coach” is much more accurate than “manager.” Manager implies that a single person is responsible for controlling a team. The coach-style means that the leader is accountable for making each member of the team the best version of themselves while also creating synergy between individuals.
Imagine if the coach of an NBA team insisted on a team goal of finishing the season with a perfect 82-0 record, told the players exactly what to do for every minute of every game, while never including players in the process of creating plays. That basketball team would likely be a complete disaster, and the coach would be laughed out of the league. Yet, that’s what many leaders do in business.
Meanwhile, leaders who use a coaching leadership style understand how setting and communicating the right kinds of goals can inspire their team. The three most common mistakes I see leaders make when leading for results are setting misaligned expectations, setting unrealistic expectations, or failing to communicate progress.
Results and Goals Misalignment
All successful teams understand their objective. The first goal of a leader is to define the vision in a way that allows for the day to day activities of the team to be measured and compared to larger objectives. While this sounds simple, many organizations do a poor job of defining the vision. Merely stating a bottom-line result, such as achieving revenue or net income targets, will not work. Leaders must connect the team’s activities with the financial result in a way that they understand while also using a time frame that is relevant to their work.
Step one is to set a time frame that is relevant to the team. Talking about annual, quarterly, or even monthly goals has minimal impact on frontline team members if they can’t connect their activities to the goal. People need to know what they can do today or this week. It’s the goal of the leadership team to keep an eye on the longer-term targets. In my article, “Disconnect Your Accounting Rhythms from the Annual Calendar,” I talk in detail about the power of the weekly rhythm.
Everything about our lives is based on a weekly rhythm. We use phrases like “Working for the weekend!” and “How’s your week?” Inside of that, each day marks another rhythm that people relate to on a deep level. Even much of our biology operates on an internal clock responsive to the cycle of the sun. These rhythms are so ingrained that, although we are not always aware of them, they none-the-less shape our work habits. Connecting weekly and daily work rhythms to achievable individual and team goals is a significant win for any organization.
Step two is to connect the activities of the team to the result. Another way to say it is, “It’s the journey, not the destination.” Don’t focus on the destination (result); focus on the journey (activity). Instead of talking about achieving $10M in revenue, talk about the activities that will get the company to $10M in revenue. Break down the revenue goal into activities that can be tracked in small increments. Typically the activity will have two components: a quantity and a rate. For example, in a restaurant, the quantity of the activity could be the number of meals served daily, and the rate would be the average ticket price. Those two activities are easy to understand and controllable by the team.
Nick Saban, coach of the University of Alabama football team, says the key to his team’s success is that they are “process-oriented” versus “goal-oriented.” Saban’s teams have won five of the past eleven national championships by focusing on their processes instead of winning. Yet, most business leaders only set goals about revenue and net income, the equivalency of focusing on titles.
Setting Unrealistic Expectations
Another common mistake is setting unrealistic expectations. I define stretch goals as targets that the team has a 50/50 chance of achieving; Any goal that is more likely to be missed than achieved is unhealthy for a team. Neuroeconomist Paul Zak states in his research that setting achievable goals is essential to the biological health of the team. Zak states, “…managers should not set impossible goals. Threat stressors inhibit oxytocin through the release of a neurochemical called epinephrine. When we face threat stressors, we shift into a survival mode in which it is each person for himself or herself, just the opposite of teamwork. Impossible goals over the long run create chronic stress that not only inhibits oxytocin production but also adversely affects physical and psychological health.”
One clear example was the mood of the first quarterly planning meeting I attended with a manufacturing client in the northeast – the atmosphere was like a funeral. As the CFO went through all of the targets they missed, the team was sad and depressed. The team had missed almost every target, and most of them were missed by a mile. I thought it was no wonder that they had decided to bring in an outside coach.
But at the end of the CFO’s report, he made a surprising comment, “…and that was the best quarter we’ve ever had financially in the long history of the company.” As an outsider, I was perplexed. They just had their best quarter ever, but they didn’t hit a single target. Later I learned that the leader set unreachable goals every quarter as his way to “inspire” his team to over-perform. So instead of celebrating their best quarter ever, the team was depressed and demotivated. Team members confided in me later that they started every quarter, knowing that they could never hit the goals set for them. Until I could convince the leader to set realistic goals, I knew the team would never reach their full potential.
Failing to Communicate Progress
Imagine playing a basketball game without a scoreboard. How easy would it be for team members to make decisions? Are we behind? Are we ahead? Should we be throwing up three-pointers in an attempt to catch up? Or play lock-down defense and protect our lead? Without any information about the score, a team is unable to make proper decisions.
While playing basketball without a scoreboard may sound crazy, it happens all the time in business. If you approached any team member in your organization right now and asked if the company was winning or losing, would they be able to answer quickly and accurately? If you can’t answer that question, enthusiastically, “Yes!”, then you need to work on your communications.
Having already defined timely, aligned, and realistic expectations as discussed above, this should be the easiest step in your leadership journey. While there are tons of fancy dashboard tools that can display intricate graphics and charts in realtime on LCDs, the best strategy is to keep the communication consistent and straightforward.
Simple means that it could be a handful of targets that are covered during your daily huddle. (You have a daily huddle meeting, right? If not, read my article “The Leaders Guide to Implementing the Daily Huddle.”) Another straightforward approach is posting numbers on a whiteboard where all team members can see them. It’s not as cool as an 85” LCD, but it can be just as effective and cheaper. Or, you could communicate your scoreboard via email, text, or a Slack channel. It’s only important that you’re sharing progress in a way that the team knows the score.
The role of leaders in the organization is to set meaningful and realistic expectations that are tracked and communicated consistently. In this way, leaders inspire trust while motivating team members, giving them a clear path to success and keeping them oriented to the organization’s larger goals.
Rob Simons is a coach, facilitator, and storyteller – a unique fusion of skills that makes him uniquely equipped to coach entrepreneurs and business leaders to scale organizations. Using the Rockefeller Habits as his foundation, Rob has successfully trained hundreds of clients to build a culture of purpose, alignment, and accountability in organizations across a variety of industries. Contact Rob at email@example.com or 210-845-2782.