How to unlock the potential of your people?

If you’re reading this post, chances are, you have a team (big or small) reporting to you and you are wondering how to make them perform better. The subject is quite generic so let me be upfront on explaining why I believe that this approach works: It’s based on the presumption that ”everyone comes to work to succeed”. But somehow, people start facing barriers along the way and start to become mediocre. They lose their motivation, inspiration or lack a meaningful challenge. Sometimes, they have all the motivation but they lack the necessary skill growth to make a leap. Sadly, very few people get honest feedback to shed light on their mediocre performance.
In any case,  your job as a leader is to challenge them personally and change the story for them. Once they change their mind (not easy) to go on a self improvement journey, your next step is to guide them and keep them in balance towards a new state of high performance. Think about the following analogy: You can’t start driving an old car at 150 km/hour if it never exceeded 60 km/hour. If you do, most likely, you’ll break it. Yet, it doesn’t mean that 60 km/hour is its limit either. To understand it, first, you need to do a very detailed diagnosis of body parts, engine, breaks etc. After you fix and replace the broken parts, you may better test it gradually at 80, 100, 120 km/hour first before you are ready to stretch 150 km/hour. So you want to understand how good a leader you are? It’s all about how fast the car can go without breaking eventually, minus 60 km/hour starting speed. That’s your added value. Net, the success in achieving higher performance, comes from preparing the state of mind, skill set and energy to a new level first. So let’s get started by breaking the old mindset:

Get them out of the comfort zone. Challenge the status quo.

Human beings seek comfort as a natural result of their evolution, because body and mind consumes the lowest level of energy at optimum comfort level. Brain and body seek predictable patterns, routines and outcomes. They achieve it through self-perpetrating mechanisms. Whether you like it or not, the day starts with coffee and chat with colleagues, emails are cleaned regardless of their priority order and meetings are pushed towards the afternoons and to the end of the week. Big and important work is postponed to avoid the anxiety of dealing with it. When coupled with a corporate culture where risk taking is discouraged and goals are set to average levels, the status quo prevails and there you have the perfect conditions for spreading mediocre performance. Excuse the analogy, but it’s just like warm temperature and moist, creating the ideal conditions for growth of bacteria. Unfortunately, mediocre performance spreads just the same.

So I prefer to smash this culture by rejecting existing goals, results and performance as unacceptable and replace it with a new spirit such as inspiring champion-like goal, high performance culture and well oiled collaboration to enable team level performance. If we go back to the analogy, it’s like shedding sunlight over the moist and opening the windows for fresh air. The sleepy eyes will not welcome this. Be it your new company, new department or new team, only you, as the leader have the power to set such goals and to unsettle people to get their attention. Why is it so necessary? Because your biggest opponent is not competition but the internal mindset in the organization. Until you break it, you can’t start competing outside. It will drag you like a chain whatever you try to do. Here is an example: Imagine you have been presented two growth options: Option one is staying as solid number 2 in the market with 10% growth and option two is being number 1 next year with 25% growth. The first option will easily be accepted by your team and shareholders. Whereas the second option present many challenges. It was never been done before. Your team will definitely resist it. If you set and don’t achieve it, you might lose your credibility with your shareholders. Which one would you chose? The first one is the easy option. I don’t blame many people who opt for it. Yet, this article is not for them. Because these methods will make them uncomfortable. So please read on, if you would like to opt for the second option.

Are you still with me? Good. It means you have something in you that makes you want to take risk and achieve more by putting yourself and your team out there despite the potential failure facing you.  This also means that when you start applying these performance improvement techniques, you will focus more on the effectiveness and results instead of questioning how it makes you or others feel about it. But we’ll get to that later.

So why the stretch target? Because it’s 10 times more inspiring to take over the market leader rather than contending as the second one. Because no new hire would opt for the first option given that they have nothing to lose. Because we have one life to live, and it’s better to make it count by achieving something meaningful at work as a result of the hours we put in it. If you don’t find meaning in what you do, in this case, I highly suggest you to change your job (or read Mojo by Marshall Goldsmith). But that’s the topic of another post. So let’s get back to our topic. You have to stretch your goals, otherwise, no-one gets out of their comfort zone. You keep driving at 60 km/hour even if you dream 150.

Identify personal strengths but more importantly, the barriers for personal growth

Setting new stretch goals is the easy part. It can be done without much support from the others. You need a little bit of courage and confidence combined with an ability to envision how far you can go. But now, you are being watched and tested by your team and shareholders. Will you leave up to your targets? Will you really deserve your reputation by creating another turnaround story? Will you take your people out of their comfort zone without losing their motivation or losing them altogether? Basically, can you deliver on the stretch goal that you set? This is the most precarious stage in your journey as a leader. Most leaders make huge mistakes by jumping into the business and start making changes on the strategy, process etc. I have previously outlined the rigorous process of ”How to turnaround any business?” in another post focusing on the consumer driven approach, but here, I’ll emphasize the organizational aspect. When it comes to taking early decisions, avoid the temptation to show-off your existing knowledge and step back a little bit to review the business with your employees. Get into the details with them. Ask many clarification questions. Ask why they do what they do. Observe what they are most proud of, it will lead you to their strengths. Observe what turns them on at work. Everyone has done something that they are proud of. Find it. It will tell you about their passions and strong skills. Validate if the individuals have those skills by asking feedback from others. Simple questions such as: ”What do you think John is good at?” While as a new leader, you can’t learn the weak points of your people with this approach, you can get a lot of insights to their strengths. Why? Because you are not trusted yet. So people will feel safe talking positively about others and hesitate to talk negatively. So  you need to take a different approach to identify barriers of the people to higher performance. It could be in 3 aspects: Attitude, Motivation or Skill-set. Most leaders, jump on skill-set assessment to try to grow their people for higher performance. I don’t recommend that. Because my favorite saying is: ”Attitude eats skills for breakfast”. I assess the attitude of the person before the skill-set. Because a person who has negative attitude is not good for Return On Investment. No matter how much time you spend coaching them, their attitude don’t allow them to open up and get out of their comfort zone. And unfortunately, attitude tends to be the most difficult to change. That said, if you identify negative attitude in anyone such as not acting with can-do mindset, acting cynical about common objectives etc, than you should confront the person very fast. Give them a choice to change their attitude or get out. If not corrected, their attitude can be poisonous and undermine your good work as a leader. But let’s say attitude is fine but motivation is low. This is an easier case. The best way to understand the motivation (or lack of it) of a person is to spend time together reviewing his or her work. I ask simple and direct questions such as: ”What motivates you etc”. But my favorite and most insightful question is: ”Why are you not leaving this company?” the answers that I get are more direct and tell me more about the individual’s motivational drivers vs company’s offering. Listen very carefully, because you will later use this information to create a total improved offering for the individual. Let’s imagine you want a certain employee to take a bigger role but he / she is hesitating. She told you that main reason she stays in the company is her job security and stable income. In this easy case, you can offer better compensation for increased responsibilities. But what if you don’t have a choice but to increase her responsibilities, then you can simply make the offer in the form of ”Take it or leave it” playing on the fear of losing the stability. I know this may sound a little bit harsh but you can’t pretend to offer a luxury that you don’t have as a decision maker. Think about the coach of a football team. He realizes he needs to change the position of a player but the player insists on playing the same. If the positive motivation doesn’t work, then the only choice for the coach is to change the player rather than losing leadership credibility against the whole team. Business is not different. Your job as a leader is to give everyone a chance to follow the new plan, using positive or negative motivation depending on the individual. Do you feel uncomfortable making people uncomfortable? Good, because it also means you are getting out your own comfort zone, not to become a mediocre leader. But please follow the fairness principle while doing this. If the individual can contribute to higher performance, it is always better to keep that person. If not, I highly recommend taking necessary action fast to form the team you want to run with. Remember the car? If the tires are not good enough to run faster and no repair will suffice, then it’s better to put in new tires before you start driving at higher speeds. Eventually, you are making a big favor to the person who refuses to adjust to your plan. Under your new management, they wouldn’t be happy, so better to save them from misery sooner than later.

Lastly on this topic, your employee may have all the positive attitude with a high level of motivation, but may lack skills. In this case, you need to focus on coaching for skill growth. In my experience, people with positive attitude and motivation rarely fail to grow their skill-set under proper coaching. However, if this is the case, you can use other solutions such as hiring a more experienced manager to coach the employee or changing the scope of the work of the employee to fit the skill set better.

Hit their heart and mind on the bulls eye, with an offer they can’t refuse

Now you have set the goal, understood your employee(s) much better and ready to execute your plan. What’s next? Execution? No… You’re still not ready, because you lack their commitment. Again, another moment of truth, where mediocre leaders fail. I call this ”Making an offer, they can’t refuse” – stolen from the movie: Godfather. So how does it work? It’s an individual approach. I recommend you to sit one-on-one with your employee, remind him / her the stretch target that you want to achieve together. Typically, you’ll get lukewarm reactions. This is the best moment to hit their heart and mind on the bulls eye and make your offer. First lay down your objective assessment of where they stand and why you think their results are mediocre. Share what stops them from achieving great results i.e. attitude, motivation or skill-set. This speaks to their mind because deep down, everyone appreciates honest feedback especially when they know it’s true hence it’s fair. This step opens them up to what’s coming next. Second step: Speak to their heart. I typically ask a question like: Do you want to continue being mediocre or do you want to challenge the market leader company and be part of the history? The latter option is challenging, requires personal growth, taking on more positive stress, potentially more rewarding but definitely getting out of the comfort zone. The former option is boring and will potentially lead to frustration with the new culture. Does this sound too directive? Please remember the main presumption of this method. ”Everyone wants to succeed”. In other words, I have not met anyone who woke up in the morning, looked in the mirror and felt a deep desire to fail at work. So yes, the question is directive but it demonstrates your commitment as a leader to unlock the potential of the person. It is a gift to provide an opportunity to take on an individual journey that even the individual is a little bit afraid of. So this question will give you the real commitment of your people. It comes from the heart. Now you know that you ignited their passion by touching deep inside their psyche. It’s honest, emotional and exciting.

Redefine the rewards, announce transparently.

Now you have a team made up of individuals who are ready to take on the challenge with you, or at least they want to give it a try. From this moment on, your actions will speak louder than your words. This is typically the moment, where you need to set clear rewards for achieving these goals. What will happen if we collectively deliver the dream? You need to calculate concrete incentives and share them individually. My favorite move is to increase the variable bonuses for higher performance or eliminate bonus ceilings altogether to create a new culture. Help the company achieve success and we’ll share the rewards together. I know this is not so easy to make depending your level in the organization but nothing stops you from rewarding your high performers higher and managing your low performers with less. By increasing the variable difference between high and low performance, you are creating a bigger value for the top performer and a bigger hurt for the low performer. It also shows that you are serious about sharing success as a leader, recognizing the contributions of the individuals who will help you achieve it. In case you can’t play with the bonus, or the salaries due to overarching company policy etc, nothing stops you from rating your high performers higher, recognizing them publicly or promoting them faster. If you also don’t have these abilities to reward your team, then question your own position or change your company. If you are not empowered to reward, you are not empowered to lead.

Recognize the progress, but don’t lower expectations. Avoid baby steps trap.

When you have a team full of motivation with positive attitude and clear understanding of the rewards waiting for them, things will get moving, but not as fast as you think. Some first steps will be slow or lousy. The atmosphere will be uncertain. The stress level will increase. This is another moment which will define your quality as a true challenger. You’ll face people trying to go in the right direction yet well below your high expectations. I know many leadership literature recommends to act like a paternalistic leader who encourages the first baby steps of the people. Yet, I recommend a completely different approach. Even if the people may take ”baby steps”, they are not babies. They are adults, who, under clear feedback can recognize if their actions deliver results against expectations. In other words, I don’t recommend you to encourage baby steps. On the contrary, you should let them know that baby steps are for babies. You need bigger and better results and your team has what it takes to deliver them. This is where the leaders make the ”empathy” mistake. It typically goes something like this: The team is pumped up, working very hard. Early results are incrementally better, but nowhere near the target levels. People start to get exhausted because they are never used to work this hard. Eventually the leader, observing the hard work of the people recognizes them for their great efforts which eventually spoils end goal. Because the only message that the people get is: It is OK to try hard and deliver incremental results. Instead, the leader should act like a doctor who needs to limit the empathy at this point and diagnose where people are failing and show it to them with full objectivity to program their mind for breaking old ways of doing business. ”Doing the same thing and expecting different results is a form of insanity” (Einstein). Your clear feedback and uncompromising attitude towards incremental steps will make a big impact on your team. Some will get frustrated, but some will try harder. Remember that you chose people with positive attitude? This is when you need them. Because now, your team will face the real challenge at personal level. They will understand that you mean business. It is the second moment of truth for them. Your goal is to make each of them ask the following question to themselves and repeat it over and over again until they deliver the breakthrough you need: ”What should I do differently?”.

Lead by example: Bust barriers, internal or external.  

When the going gets tough, the tough gets going. Now you have a team who clearly understands that they are expected to deliver breakthrough results with high level of motivation and commitment, but sooner or later they will face barriers. The first thing you have to do is to have very clear understanding of what stops them from performing great. It requires you to be well involved in their business, reviewing it in detail with them and re-articulating the problem clearly that needs to be resolved. If you are good in busting barriers, these could be your favorite moments to lead by example and show what you are made of. Colin Powell says ”Don’t ask anything from your soldiers that you can’t do it yourself”. Let me give you an example that I encountered: When I asked my team to grow our Pizza Delivery chain 5 times faster than the current speed, they faced the external problem of stores with not enough electricity to run the ovens we need. The only solution was to apply municipality to increase electricity capacity within 6 months. Yet, economically it wouldn’t make any sense to pay for rent for 6 months without opening the store. The problem was industry-wide and no competitor ever solved it. So I invited everyone together and started asking the necessary questions one by one. Can we get a rent break for 6 months? No. Can we increase electricity in 1 month? No. Can we use gas ovens? No. Basically, it seemed like a dead end until I asked one more question. Can we use less electricity to produce pizza with same quality? The answer was maybe. Long story short, we found the solution to fit in 3 small ovens instead of 1 big oven, saved on electricity consumption which made a breakthrough in our approach to open more outlets. The moral of the story is: If you can’t do it yourself, don’t ask them to do it. Front leading commanders win the battles, because soldiers are ready to die following an example. The history is full of these stories. Your team needs to see you in action. Don’t be a ”seagull” manager. They fly high, make a lot of noise and poo on others from the top. Instead, be an ”eagle”. They fly even higher, but they are able to see from a kilometer ahead and dive in fast to catch their prey with precision and able to carry a big load back to the heights where they live. If you want to achieve stretch goals, you can’t delegate your way through it. That’s why, despite your high level, you have to stay in touch with the reality and the market, watch your team carefully and deep dive fast when necessary to carry the big load.

Fail fast, learn a lot

Breakthrough and failure are twin brothers. If you are on a journey to deliver the breakthrough, you have to allow failures, otherwise your people will be afraid to take risks. As a result, you will not get the breakthrough results you need from your team. However, if they fail a lot and big, it might be disruptive to the motivation of the organization and put you off-track vs your goals. So what’s the best way to deal with failure? One of my favorite saying is: ”I didn’t fail, I just successfully discovered a way that doesn’t work”. It keeps me positive despite the negative aura of failure but more importantly, it keeps me focused on the key learning from the failure. I highly recommend ”fast fail” culture for ambitious organizations because it eliminates the ”analyses paralyses” syndrome and encourages the employees to take risks. How can you establish this culture? It’s not very difficult: set-up tests and give freedom to your employees to experiment with clear scenario planning. You can do it with two questions alone: How can we re-apply if we succeed? What do we lose if we fail? These two questions will help you to differentiate small risk, high outcome situations from high risk, small outcome cases. Once test is completed, if it’s a failure, make sure that the learning is organizational, not individual. Statistically, people learn more from their failures than their successes. So don’t let any failure go to waste. When combined with good understanding of the business, well set-up tests can open up big opportunities for organizations which struggle to make the quantum leaps. Only the leader can set the tone for failure tolerance in the organization, so use this capability effectively, managing risk and reward.

It is their success

Finally, if you succeed to follow this approach, at best you will deliver the stretch, at worst, you’ll deliver better than before. Either case, your shareholders will be happy. If you haven’t improved even a little, it means you missed one of the steps above. Anyway, you will mobilize your team both physically and emotionally, and make them achieve something beyond their perceived capacity that even they were not aware of. Committing stretch goals publicly with courage and delivering them with resilience will earn you a lot of respect and credit. But don’t let this success go to your head. The reality is that, your team did it. You just unleashed their potential.

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