The Language of Leaders Part 2 — Capacity and The Stretch Goal Trap

hby Jason Questor
Founding and Managing Partner
EVP Learning Systems

A leader has the ability to develop a “sixth sense” about the talents and potential of their teams, individually and collectively. This is a useful skill because sometimes team members may themselves not have this awareness, underestimating their own potential or not recognizing how they can apply it to their everyday work and career path.  Bringing in your skills as a manager and coach, you can do a lot to help people realize their full potential and thereby make them not only more productive, but more confident in themselves in the work they need and want to do.

All leaders want their teams to be high performing, and are subjected to significant business pressure to create and sustain this. But the path is strewn with traps that, ignored or unnoticed, can result in just the opposite.

Chief among these is the overemphasis on  “stretch goals”, the underpinning of which is the need to maximize the return on the investment in human capital. In a healthy environment, the Pareto principle would suggest that only 20% of the performance goals we set our organizations, teams and people should be of this type, while a full 80% must be based on the realities of capacity, workload and stamina — this is, after all, what we hire our people for.  Unfortunately, some organizations and people in leadership roles skew this ratio to the extent that a goal is not even considered as such unless it involves a “stretch”.  All goals become stretch goals. This is, of course, absurd, and will create, in very short order, a culture where people believe they are being set up to fail.  Just being able to do their jobs and apply their actual skills and talent in a reasonable fashion and at a reasonable pace will be seen as insufficient. Faced with this “management reality”, people will emotionally disengage from their work, believing they are fundamentally inadequate and will always seen as such in the eyes of their leaders.

I have seen this pattern far too often in client organizations large and small, across industries. Driven by increasing project loads from internal and external customers or the desire for growth, organizational goals are set accordingly without the detailed strategic capacity planning that determines how these goals can actually be achieved. Everyone just has to work harder. What this usually means is increasing encroachment on personal time. Soon, the additional evenings and weekends are considered to be the “new normal”. As people begin to leave, those left behind are expected to flow into the gap, and the degradation accelerates. This is, first and last, a failure in leadership.

A leader rewards their teams for a job well done. This means a careful mix of capacity and stretch goals. Even then, a statistically derived ratio such as 80:20 is inappropriate. People are unique. Consider that some of them may already be operating at their peak performance capacity. In that scenario, no amount of incentive will increase throughput. Indeed, through the diminishing returns of fatigue and resentment, you will get less and less.

Instead, find out the reality of your team capacity. Enable growth through increasing that capacity by adding to your resource base, process optimization, waste reduction and training. Forget the “sixth sense” about your people if you don’t have it. Just ask them.

From Alpha Guerilla:The Leadership Lessons ©2012 Jason Questor

The Language of Leaders Part 1 – We versus I

spotlight3by Jason Questor
Founding and Managing Partner
EVP Learning Systems

Every day you reveal the truth of who you are, in everything you do or say — or don’t do or say. This is particularly true for those of us in leadership positions.  The most profound revelations happen in the “small moments”, with offhand remarks or the way you phrase a statement or question, as opposed to when you see yourself as being “on stage”. It is also when your personal brand is most exposed, especially with regards to your opinion about yourself and regarding your teams.  This starts with when and where you say “I” versus “we”, and indelibly marks you as either a leader or a narcissist.

As a leader, you represent and are a critical part of your team, not someone apart from it. Accomplishments are team accomplishments and your language must consistently express that as team spokesperson. While there is nothing wrong with using the word “I” to describe something that was truly an individual effort, how often does that actually happen?  With a narcissist, you are far more likely to hear self-promotional language like “I created”, “I built”, “I sold”, “I designed”, and so on.  In extreme cases, I have heard executives taking credit for the accomplishments of others long after their professional association ended – “I gave him that idea”, “That exists because, when she worked for me, I made sure she learned how to succeed”, “That would never have happened if I hadn’t . . . “.   This bombast reveals basic insecurity that can border on pathology, and completely undermines credibility as a leader.

Ben Lichtenwalner uses the wonderful phrase “Modern Servant Leader” to express how people in leadership positions need to view themselves. He describes how self promotional language from those in leadership roles not only demoralizes the team but encourages them to “follow the leader” by adopting self-promotional language and strategies as a defense. Ultimately, this will result in an organizational culture typified by internal competition, no sharing of ideas and disengagement. Gary Burnison suggests the “Me-O-Meter” as an informal assessment tool —  “Listen to so-called leaders speak — if “I,” “ME” and “MY” are used (versus “WE,” “US” and “OUR”) more than once in 15 minutes, they are egotists not selfless leaders.”

The next time your everyday business conversation calls for describing an accomplishment, pause to reflect on the work that others put into making it happen before you open your mouth. Just because you, in your role, were accountable for getting it done does not mean you were wholly responsible for doing the legwork and heavy lifting. And don’t shy away from stating whatever contribution you made yourself.  So instead of saying “I created the best customer satisfaction ratings in the company” you could say “My team has achieved the highest ratings in customer satisfaction for two years.” We call this Flashing the Trash Talk.  Try it yourself. Build your leadership brand in the process.

A leader lets their accomplishments speak for themselves. A narcissist must constantly speak of accomplishments.

From Alpha Guerilla:The Leadership Lessons ©2012 Jason Questor