Every company, large and small, wants to succeed. The definition of success is variable depending on the aims of said company. Healthy financials measured by year over year revenue growth? Sure! Aims to become the most recognized global brand? Yep! A small-town firm just trying to remain profitable and make it until next year? Quite common.
From growth targets to profit projections, strategic plans to revenue forecasts, job descriptions to SWOT analyses, firms from every sector spend countless hours on tasks they believe will contribute to that ‘success’ they strive for. Many of these activities are helpful, even essential. But, none of them can supersede or replace a few basic truths that a company’s workforce already knows. In fact, if the right professionals have been hired for your organization, they are likely very capable of surpassing whatever your measures of success are. That is, if they are enabled to do so.
These are a few areas of discipline, that when facilitated by senior leaders, can help an engaged team of professionals attain any heights you set before them.
Provide Consistent Direction and Role Clarity
Why do the casts and crews of Broadway plays rehearse from a script with lines for each performer? Why does an NFL team run formations a thousand times in practice while also running drills for each position? In the operating room or ER, how do clinicians, doctors and trauma nurses know what is expected of them when seconds count? The answer is role clarity, cemented by a deep understanding of how the team should act as a unit.
Clarity in a job description or company direction seems like table stakes but, all too often, companies leave these details up to interpretation. Doing the next right thing in my role and the ability for me to count on the professional next to me to do the same is paramount. This is how teams behave as highly-effective units. Ambiguity is part of life and business - but too much of it will short circuit the capacity for your company to succeed.
In our professional world, lack of clarity from a senior team can be devastating. A company leadership that changes messaging as it pendulums from one crisis to another can destabilize an otherwise effective workforce. Today’s top priority which becomes tomorrow’s forgotten mandate will eventually confuse and demoralize your highest-performing teams. A well-selected and trained team of achievers can often reach any height they are asked to climb, but if we as leaders aren’t clear about which summit we are trying to scale, how can our employees form an effective plan of ascent?
The lesson for us all as leaders is - be clear about the vision. Make it compelling, applicable for all roles and simple enough to be understood. But, equally important, be direct and specific about what role each person should play in achieving the vision. And, once a course is charted, stick with it! While it's true that things change and professionals need to be adaptable, nothing saps the energy of a team more than direction that changes with the wind. Remember the root of the word ‘leadership’ is ‘lead’. By definition, one can not lead if they are reacting. If the tactics directed by a manager or leader of people feel like a grab bag of ‘trying things to see what works’, your skilled professionals will soon become exhausted.
Words Matter. Actions Matter More. Both Should Match.
Every company charter, vision or mission statement has content which is inspiring, if a bit aspirational. Experienced company professionals have learned to take these statements as well-meaning manifestos that sometimes just don’t seem to be present during the difficult boardroom debates or challenging fiscal quarters in which the firm is missing its targets.
More impactful to the daily lives of teams and individuals is what you say to them in the trenches. How do you set a goal and then clearly define what is and isn’t ‘in bounds’ toward the achievement of it? How do you address a deficiency? How do you handle a mistake, either made by you as a line manager or endorsed by the firm? Words matter and actions matter more, but maintaining the alignment of both separates the truly world class organizations from the rest.
Leaders and C-suite professionals can intentionally or by neglect endorse cognitive dissonance in a wide variety of ways inside their organizations. A company that says it’s a people-centric firm but allows promotions or advancements to happen for employees that have ‘played the game’ better than those who have shown consistent results - this isn’t a place where words and actions are aligned.
Another way of summing up this parallel of words and actions is ‘integrity’. If this concept is a malleable one that is twisted and contorted by a board, a manager or a director to fit today’s definition and you think your employees don’t notice, you’re wrong. You’ve probably selected a team full of purpose-driven and skilled professionals. What do you think they will do if they decide the mouths and the feet of their organization aren’t moving in the same direction?
Be Visionary About Tomorrow, Be Honest About Today
Strong players on any team want to score. If we’ve done our job as selectors of talent and assembled world-class teams, they don’t need to be told how critical it is that the company achieve its goals. They probably came to work for you to do just that - achieve. What these high-level thinkers and results-driven professionals need are two equally-important commitments:
First is a vision and mission they can feel connected with. They will be fueled and inspired by the affirmation that the company to which they’ve chosen to give their time and energy intends to impact the world around them in favorable ways. Increasingly, our workforces place this purpose-centric philosophy higher on their want lists than things like compensation. What a company stands for matters to your teams, so stand for something. Decide on the palette of colors that will make up the hues for your firm’s next horizon and then splash them liberally everywhere across your organization. ‘Think Different’, ‘The Third Place’, ‘Don’t Be Evil’ are all visionary belief statements or mantras that teams can sink their teeth into. These kinds of purpose statements become a divining rod that your teams will be empowered to refer to when questions arise.
Equally important when looking down range and deciding on a 5 or 10 year plan is the necessity of being truthful about the world of today. Smart teams know what is working and they feel all too painfully what isn’t. A group of talented players on your team is probably capable of telling you what isn’t going well in your organization. It doesn’t help for them to feel that truth telling isn’t alive and well in the company they work hard for. All of the visionary puffery in the world starts to feel disingenuous to a team if they are constantly hearing where we are headed and not seeing enough being done about the problems that exist where we are.
For us as leaders, this may be our area of largest influence. The ability to keep our teams engaged with the blue sky plan we’re all working on is powerful, but only if we take prompt and public action on addressing the pain points that teams feel regularly in a growing company. Whether the issues are structural, resource-centric, competitive conditions in the marketplace or other barriers for your company, your team will work harder for you if you commit to addressing these issues and working on them relentlessly until the problems are resolved. This also requires something only the best of the best leaders regularly demonstrate - the ability to be vulnerable and transparent enough with their teams about the organization’s flaws - and their own.
Select a Blue Chip Workforce, Then, Trust Them
Even if company leadership has delivered on the promise of role clarity and specific guidance for how we should operate each day, life happens. There will be decisions to make, corrections to apply and levers to pull that only your teams will understand. It’s said ‘politics is local’ and in the same fashion, so is business. In the home office or boardroom, leaders who work at higher altitudes in the organization have the gift of being able to see farther and plan for things that their teams may not be cognizant of. But, they often don’t know or fully understand the challenges their employees face in the field or on the front lines. Hubris often leads leaders to believe they can and should direct everything that their teams do. This is often tragic. It can be devastating to a skilled team of subject matter experts to have their superiors hovering ‘in their kitchen’ as they try to cook. Capable team members thrive when they are trusted.
Leaders, particularly when times are tough and your investors are unhappy, remember - that same team that got you those strong quarters probably has the skills to get you back to where you want to be. A good general resists the temptation in times of battle to grip more tightly on the reins of the horse or dismount and fight on the ground with their troops. The strategic leader stays on the horse, surveys the field, provides direction and trusts their well-trained experts to do what they do best.
Hierarchy is a fact of life and important for organizations, but, over-indexing on command and control snuffs the life out of teams capable of incredible feats. On the walls of any institution which has achieved greatness were never carved the words ‘Those who complied succeeded here’.
— Kimball Carr is a writer, owner and multi-unit leader with more than two decades of business experience across a wide array of sectors. He has produced work for print, film and the software world and has contributed his leadership to 3 of Fortunes best 100 companies to work for. As a consultant, he works with business and individuals and is currently the co-founder of Grom Coast Surf & Skate, an apparel brand and retail store built specifically for kids. —