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

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