A funny thing happens practically each time I deliver Senior Leadership material in a workshop setting. Midway through the program, a participant raises his hand and asks something like, “Is my boss going to be learning this stuff, because he’s not doing any of it.” For a few raucous moments, the room erupts in a mix of laughter, annoyance and commiseration.
If you are one of the execs routinely grumbled about, let’s put a stop to that right here and now and consider what you owe your direct reports.
Set the broad context for the work. If you’re like most execs, you’re not sharing enough of what you know with your direct reports. Change that. First, pass along as much as you can about what you’re seeing and hearing in the C-Suite. Cultivate a bias for transparency. Obviously, there are always going to be matters you can’t mention, but you ought to be spelling out everything else. Consider what happens when you don’t. The talented and ambitious professionals reporting into your directs are constantly seeking and expecting relevant, actionable intelligence. When your directs can’t respond meaningfully, they appear weak and “outer-circle.” This is not good for them or you.
Next, be clear on expectations. The old saying, “there’s never enough time to do it right, but there’s always enough to do it over” could very well have been written about somebody’s executive manager. The antidote is “front-loading.” Rule of thumb: spend three times as much upfront time as you think necessary to impart everything you know about what needs to happen, available resources, key constituents’ needs and wants, hidden treasure chests and landmines, and what success and failure would look like. Yes, all of that. In detail. Solicit any and all questions. Ask your direct to confirm her understanding in writing and you’ll ensure alignment and even have a “contract” making accountability easier later.
Create the conditions for success. To be sure, it’s on your direct report to drive progress on her initiatives. It’s your job to make the “space” for that progress to happen. Start by managing the organizational boundaries. If your direct report heads Marketing, have you gotten your counterpart above Manufacturing on board? If not, when your direct engages your counterpart’s direct, she’s likely to encounter someone without much perceived self-interest in making the project work. You might not see her banging her head against the wall for a month or two as she unsuccessfully tries to schedule project-planning meetings and re-sends unreturned emails. Get ahead of this.
Second, you must manage your own team, i.e., this individual direct report’s colleagues. If team members sense vulnerability in one of their peers, what starts as positional jockeying could devolve into overt hostility. Remember when you learned about “Forming – Storming – Norming – Performing”? Well, what your professor may not have gotten to is that this curve starts all over every time the pecking order shows signs that it again might be up for grabs. When you see the pack closing ranks around a perceived weaker member, intervene in a big and unequivocating way. Demand equal treatment of all and repel all challenges to that principle.
The third Condition to secure is Resources. This used to be so obvious it went without saying, but you need to provide access to adequate financial, technological and human resources to get the job done. I say it “used to be” because as of late I’m seeing extraordinary risk-aversion as cash-rich firms are doing more with less. The demands on senior leaders to deliver on a shoestring are commonplace. Is it Budget season? Put on your combat gear and get battle-ready. Provide your people what they need. That’s your job.
You owe your direct report the unsentimental consequences of success or failure. Despite a generalized feeling of under-appreciation during this odd economy, most execs I know are quite happy to recognize and reward good work. You’re apt to be doing your share of that right now.
On the other hand, if you’re like most of your executive peer group, it’s probable you underperform at calling out underperformance. Predictable reasons include a reluctance to hurt feelings and demotivate an otherwise high performer and the perception that feedback is a touchy-feely time waster. Consider this. According to Towers Watson’s most recent Global Workforce Study, while employee retention hinges in part on their trust in senior leadership, employees doubt the extent to which these leaders have a sincere interest in their well-being. Giving good, constructive feedback that is helpful and actionable demonstrates commitment and interest. If you’re concerned with technique, you can’t go wrong with the Center for Creative Leadership’s gold standard, Situation-Behavior-Impact model.
Worse yet is when an exec will not own his own failure with the direct report. If you haven’t provided your direct with the appropriate Context and Conditions to date and if she’s struggling as a result, take your lumps, make good and fix it. The unsentimental Consequences apply to you, as well. Right?
Apply the three “Con’s” consciously, consistently and conspicuously (wait, was that another three?). Model the behavior for others coming up the organization. You will retain your top talent and drive a culture of opportunity and accountability.
Besides, it beats having your direct reports grouse about you to some consultant in a roomful of other senior leaders.