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Harvard Business Review Leader’s Handbook (3. Getting Great People on Board)

I believe the real difference between success and failure in a corporation can be very often traced to the question of how well the organization brings out the great energies and talents of its people. – Thomas J. Watson Jr.

As a leader, you are the creator and steward of this social contract, whether for the whole organization or your part of it; thus you need to honor both sides as you make decisions about staffing, organizational structure, development, and compensation.

Good leaders don’t obsessively drive for performance goals in ruthless ways that leave a trail of bodies (or unhappy people) in their wake. But they also aren’t so concerned about making everybody happy that they avoid conflicts and hard decisions and end up not achieving the needed results. Good leaders thread the needle between these extremes so that the organization has the right people on board to execute strategy and get results – and they feel good about being part of the collective endeavor.

  • Finding the right mix of leaders and managers to work directly with you to execute the strategy and helping those people work together effectively, across functions and silos
  • Ensuring the your direct report get the feedback they need to either get better at their jobs or make the decision to go elsewhere, and that they do the same with their people
  • Creating opportunities for great people to learn, grow, and develop
  • Articulating an explicit incentives philosophy that motivates your direct reports and all of your people to do the right things, for both the organization and themselves
  • Combining these steps into an organizational or team culture that can enable strategic change

Assembling your leadership team

Every leader, at every level, needs to have a top-notch team to help develop and then execute strategy, and drive the organization forward. But direct report team is especially important because its work cascades down to everything else the department or organization does.

Sometimes you’ll need to recruit the team or part of it, but most of the time, you’ll inherit a team already in place. As Walker did with his leaders, you’ll need to make sure that all members of the team have the capability to fulfill their particular roles and collaborate with others as needed in order to achieve the organization’s goals.

Recruit the right leaders

As you consider your team of direct reports, you’ll need to create a list of critical attributes that reflect what you think will be most important for executing your strategy and getting things done.

You made a list that included technical excellence, vulnerability, the ability to communicate and develop people, time management, and basic people skills.

“Build Your Team and Coordinate an Organization of Teams”

We believe that two such skills are particularly important across sectors and industries at all levels: adaptability and emotional intelligence.

“21 st-Century Talent Spotting.”

Fernandez-Araoz argues that rather than technical sill or specific knowledge, the most critical characteristic that leaders should look for in selecting people is potential, “the ability to adapt to and grow into increasingly complex roles and environments.”

Emotional intelligence is also increasingly seen as critical for leaders across functions, especially as organizations become flatter and managing in a collaborative way becomes more crucial.

“What Makes a Leader?”, “Primal Leadership: the Hidden Driver of Great Performance.”

As a leader, you must mix and match talents, backgrounds, and tendencies (including your own) in a way that will allow you team to succeed collectively. So as you build your team, assess current strengths and backgrounds.

Make the tough decisions

As a leader, you need to be totally dispassionate about getting the right people in place in order to implement your strategy and get results, but still be personally compassionate about how those choices affect the individuals involved.

How solid is the social contract on your team?

As a leader, you need to look out for the warning signs of that happening so that you can take action as early as possible.

These warning signs might include:

  • People on you team worrying about getting credit or recognition for their contributions, which can signal that people don’t feel adequately rewarded.
  • Team members competing for plum assignments, complaining that they are not getting sufficient opportunities, or actively looking for other jobs, which may suggest a lack of development options.
  • Increasing backlogs of work without a clear sense of how to get it all done or problems with quality or ability to meet commitments, which may mean that some of your people are not up to the task or you don’t have sufficient resources.
  • Conflicts between team members, either openly or in passive-aggressive ways, which may indicate that the social and working environment is not healthy.
  • Withholding information others need to succeed or setting others up for failure, which can be signs of a toxic workplace.

As a leader, you can’t always make everyone happy while achieving your goals, but you can watch for indicators that the social contract isn’t working. So take a look at your team and ask yourself whether the social contract is being met or is showing signs of wear and tear.

Building, fine-tuning, and maintaining your leadership team is a continuous challenge. Strategies change, Customer needs evolve. Markets shift and new technologies emerge. And often people – at all levels of the organization – cannot adapt to the changes in their environment. Adjusting for this starts with the people who report to you.

Build your team and coordinate an organization of teams

Once you have the right people on your staff, you still have to put them together to form a team. Building a high-performing leadership team doesn’t usually happen by itself, however. You can’t just put a collection of talented people in a room, lock the door, and wait for a cohesive group to emerge. As a leader, you have to actively help your direct reports come together.

Most research shows that people’s satisfaction at work is determined not only by what they do, but also by whom they do it with – both their immediate supervisor and their coworkers, whether they belong to lower-level teams or more senior leadership teams. So having productive, supportive, and collaborative relationships between your direct reports is a key factor in ensuring that your people are motivated, engaged, and committed to your vision and strategy.

As a leader, you must do so deliberately.

“The Secrets of Great Teamwork”:

  1. Ensure that your team has one or more common and compelling goals that require everyone to contribute in some way.
  2. Create an agreed-on structure for how the team will work together, including norms of behavior, sharing information, when and how to hold meetings, communication patterns, and clarity of assignments.
  3. Provide the support needed for the team to succeed, such as education, access to resources, budgets, coaching, and the like.
  4. Foster a shared mindset and sense of identity with the team. Particularly in organizations where team members may be dispersed, traveling frequently, and connecting virtually, you need to encourage people to develop personal relationships and get to know each other beyond just the immediate tasks and roles.

As a leader, you need to ensure that the multiple teams that constitute your organizational ecosystem are functioning together as well as possible.

As a team or department leader, you should:

  • Encourage your team of direct reports to interact, share information, collaborate, and support other teams beyond those that report to them directly. Don’t assume that teams in different silos will naturally collaborate with each other, no matter how much they are committed to the goals and have the right information.
  • Reinforce to your team members, and have them reinforce to their teams, that all their individual decisions need to actively and directly help move the organization toward the strategic goals you have identified.
  • In addition to communicating your vision and strategy, push as much information as possible down to all your teams in order for them to make the best possible decisions.

The importance of thinking horizontally

Part of your job as a leader is to help your team members work horizontally with these other teams, even if they don’t report to you. To do that, you need to periodically ask yourself the following questions:

  • What other teams do we need to work with in order to have an impact and get things done? (To answer this, you might draw a map of your organization’s ecosystem and where your team fits in it and discuss this with your team.)
  • What do we need from these other teams and how does that fit into their priorities? Conversely, what do they need from us? How aligned are we in how to go about this work together?
  • What’s the best way to make sure we all get on the same page? Should I meet regularly with the leaders of the other teams? Should we bring the teams together in some sort of working session or Work-Out?

Harnessing performance feedback

Another key element in bringing people on board to execute your strategy is making sure that everyone knows how they are doing, so that they can continually improve and grow.

Get through with tough feedback

As a leader, your words carry extra weight, and if you are overly negative, you can crush a person’s spirit and self-confidence. So keep in mind a few principles:

  • The act of giving feedback is first and foremost a business activity that’s important for the health of the organization – to make sure people are doing the right things in the right ways.
  • Because feedback has a business purpose, frame the discussion as a problem-solving exercise rather than just telling someone what to do differently.

Team feedback

Leaders should give performance feedback to entire organizations at times, particularly about key performance themes or issues.

The point, however, is that feedback is essential not only for individual change, but for collective change as well.

Feedback throughout the organization

As a leader within that system, you need to meet the requirements of this enterprise cadence and also put your own stamp on it. That’s the difference between your team seeing performance management as an onerous corporate process and seeing it as one that drives real business value.

Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall describe this transformation in more detail in their HBR article “Reinventing Performance Management.”

The result of an intense, candid, and transparent feedback process during the course of the year is that staff throughout the organization, and your team specifically, know where they stand and how they have to improve.

Fostering learning and development

Giving your direct reports feedback and creating a system for feedback throughout the organization is one way to foster the employee growth you need to meet your strategic goals.

Put your time into top talent

One way to structure your involvement is by participating in the talent and leadership planning review process like Welch. Another way is by personally participating in special events, programs, and training sessions with your team members.

Leaders don’t need to spend all their time sitting through leadership development programs. But you should take a hard look at your calendar and at how much time you are devoting to the review and development of your department’s or team’s talent. For many leaders, business, customer, and competitive pressures often squeeze out the time for direct involvement in the development of their people. If you let this happen, however, you may end up with people who won’t be able to help you reach your goals.

Stretch your high potentials

Harvard Business School professor Michael Beer and his colleagues have pointed out for years that leadership training on its own – roughly a $350 billion business (as of 2015) – has little impact on real leadership performance (for more, see their HBR article “Why Leadership Training Fails, and What to Do About It”).

As a leader, you can create challengers for your direct reports, and if you are a senior leader, you can make sure that these kinds of opportunities are available to high-potential people throughout the organization.

You can create these kinds of experiences for your team members by:

  • Giving your direct reports tougher and broader goals.
  • Asking your people to work together to achieve something.
  • Moving people into stretch assignments.
  • Creating job rotations.

Sharing your incentives philosophy

Not all people are alike. They have different motivations for coming to work and different long-term career aspirations.

Your role as a leader is to articulate a philosophy of incentives clearly so that people know what it takes to be successful – whoever they are and whatever their goals.

Make your incentive philosophy explicit

HBR article “The Best-Laid Incentive Plans,” describes “the folly of rewarding A while hoping for B.” The classic case of this is when a leader rewards and promotes people based on achieving individual goals, while assuming (or hoping) that these people will work together for the greater good of the team.

Questions to ask

As you articulate your incentives philosophy, here are a few questions that you should address:

  • To what extent are you committed to making sure that your team truly functions as a meritocracy, where individual achievement is rewarded versus just tenure, loyalty, or personal relationships? (Some leaders talk about results being paramount, but then reward people differently.)
  • Is tenure rewarded at all (and if so, how)?
  • What’s the balance between individual achievement and collective achievement? In other words, should your team members be rewarded if they hit their individual goals, but the team missed its targets? Or should there be a portion of individual rewards that is based on the collective results – and that perhaps will differ for senior versus junior people? What about vice versa – what happens if the team or organization does well but individuals miss? Should they share in the rewards anyway? What is the weight on the individual versus organizational success?
  • What behaviors are critical for success on your team? How seriously will you assess and compare these with the achievement of goals? What happens if someone does a fantastic job of reaching their business targets, but falls short in the behavioral sphere? Will you follow Jack Welch’s lead and ask that person to leave despite the good results? Will you give them a second chance?
  • What kind of non monetary rewards can you provide as recognition for work well done? In addition to personal praise, to what extent can you use your communications channels to recognize people and make them heroes? Are there opportunities for managers and teams to present their achievements to others? Should you reward exceptional contributions through dinners, trips, or outings? What other ways can you make your team and top performers feel truly appreciated?

Your job as a leader is to make the principles of rewards and incentives as clear as possible.

The key point is that everyone in the organization needs to know the principles and how they apply to them. Even more importantly, once these principles are articulated, they need to be followed. If you and other leaders are seen as talking a good game, but not following through, it will damage your credibility and diminish people’s commitment to your organization.

Shaping a culture for executing your strategy

Jon Katzenbach and his coauthors explain in their HBR article “Cultural Change That Sticks.”

The main problem with managing culture, however, is that it’s invisible, implicit, and hard to describe.

Key aspects of culture

  • First, make your cultural goals explicit to your direct reports and their people.
  • Then, use elements already described in this chapter to move people toward those goals.

Define your cultural goals

To make your cultural goals explicit, work with your direct reports.

First, discuss the key cultural characteristics that currently exist in your organization or group.

Next, consider how you might need your team’s culture to be different in order to support and drive your particular strategic goals.

Assessing culture

Frazier set cultural goals focused on the principles of “prioritize” (focus on what’s important), “align” (collaborate with others to get these important things done), and “simplify” (find the most direct and least complex ways of doing them).

shift the culture

Symbolic actions to model cultural behaviors

As a leader, you can have an outsizes influence on your organization’s culture by modeling the behaviors that you want to encourage.

Leaders also can influence organizational culture through small, subtle, and even symbolic actions.

One reality of being a leader is that people infer messages and signals from your behavior, whether you intend to convey these or not.

Build your leadership team

As you manage how all your teams work together, ask them to think a few minutes about their own cultures and how they are working, and what they can do differently going forward to move toward the cultural goals you have set.

Harness performance feedback

Performance feedback is a more obvious way of shifting culture-related behavior.

Foster career development

While you create opportunities for people to grow and develop, and advance in their careers, you can simultaneously help them understand, internalize, and act on the cultural goals that will enable your strategy.

Offer incentives

Positive reinforcement of cultural behaviors is powerful. When organizational members see that the people who are rewarded, promoted, and recognized are those who exhibit the desired cultural behaviors, it provides a strong incentive to also act in those ways. You also can reinforce the desired behaviors by selecting people for key assignments who already have those behaviors, or who have the potential to do so.

Questions to Consider

  • Your team. What skills and capabilities do you need within your team of direct reports? Does the team meet your expectations, or do you need to make some changes?
  • Fostering teamwork. Are you satisfied with how well you and your direct reports function as a team? Do you have shared goals, agreed-on ways of working, and a common mindset? Do your team members help each other to be successful, and do they foster a “team of teams” approach that prevents silos from getting in the way of doing good work? Do they work to promote and extend the right kind of values and performance behaviors throughout the organization?
  • Performance feedback. How faithfully do you give brutally honest but constructive feedback to your team members? How well do the members of your team give candid performance feedback to their direct reports?
  • Developing talent. Are you spending enough time on developing the skills and capabilities of your team members? What do they aspire to achieve in their careers? How does each of them need to develop in order to be successful, and how you can stretch them to do that?
  • Incentives. Have you made it clear to your team members what it takes to be rewarded and recognized, both individually and collectively?
  • Culture. What cultural characteristics do you want your team to exhibit? How well are you modeling this culture with your own behavior?

Next (4. Focusing on Results )

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