Executive Education

Most employee problems are caused by this one thing their boss almost never does

Imagine you agree to join a friend’s social hockey team. Like me perhaps, you know the basics of hockey — that there are goals, hockey sticks and a ball — but you don’t know the rules, and you certainly don’t understand the nuances within the game and the plays of your new team. You arrive for your first game eager to make new friends and stay fit, but very quickly you realise that it is very difficult to understand this new environment. For you to be successful, it would take a lot of learning and practice, and you see that some of your teammates and opponents are highly skilled, experienced and understand every aspect of what it takes to win a game. You may have the innate capability to play social hockey, and you may want to play social hockey; however, unless you understand every aspect of what it takes to win a game, you are unable to succeed at that level of hockey.

For leaders looking to be effective, ensuring people reporting to them understanding how to succeed, to the point that it’s not possible for them to misunderstand, is one of the most important elements to enable a person under your custodianship to actually possess a chance of succeeding. Of course, how to succeed is not in the eyes of some far-flung guru or teacher, this is in the eyes of you, their leader.

Perhaps you haven’t consciously considered exactly how a person can succeed from your view, but if you were to ask them, there’s a good chance it’s one of the things that they want to know more than any other, “How can I understand what I must do to succeed in this role, from my leaders perspective, to the point it’s not possible for me to misunderstand?”

It seems overly simple, but more misery and conflict stems from this basic concept than almost any other workplace interaction. Employees want to know how to succeed, but often leaders don’t give them the information on precisely how or what they expect.

Considering the situation from the employee’s view, it is simply unfair for a leader to fail to empower employees to succeed by not giving them an understanding of exactly how to succeed in the organisation.

And yet it is by far the greatest obstacle to building accountability. If people aren’t completely clear on how to succeed, it is hypocritical to hold them accountable when they fail to succeed. But furthermore, they have an easy option to say they weren’t aware of what to do when you try holding them accountable.

In order to have employees in a position where it is not possible to misunderstand how to succeed, you must broadly focus on two areas: the productivity expectations and the cultural or Core Values expectations.

For productivity it’s important to have two Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) for each person, however, there are also other, important things people would need to do in order to achieve these KPIs.

As an example, for a salesperson the KPI’s might be:

KPI 1 – Number of meetings per week

KPI 2 – Sales $ per week

So, a successful week might look like 15 sales meetings and $20,000 in sales.

To provide that level of clarity to a salesperson and measure his or her weekly KPIs is a good start, but there could be another ten things that the person must do in order to achieve these goals consistently, such as:

  • Document every customer interaction in the Customer Relationship Management database
  • Call back all customers within 24 hours, identifying buying urgency on that call
  • Attend internal marketing meetings once per month to learn of new initiatives
  • Attend internal operational meetings once per month to understand operational issues
  • Don’t leave more than two months between customer contact
  • Follow every step of our sales process and seek coaching weekly on current opportunities from the sales manager
  • Always present proposals to clients in person, never via email
  • Attend every sales training session provided
  • If you find yourself unlikely to achieve your weekly sales target by Wednesday afternoon, ask the sales manager for help, she always has a few opportunities
  • Build rapport with other sales reps, keeping a tally of lead exchanges

Or there could be fifty things the salesperson needs to do to achieve his or her KPIs. The number doesn’t matter. It is the job of the leader to ensure that people understand how to succeed. That doesn’t necessarily mean you need to do it yourself, but you need to be confident it happens.

I have discussed this with hundreds of executives and CEOs, and when there are problems, almost every time the employee scores low on this simple measure. And that’s really uncomfortable, because it indicates that the leader bears some accountability in the situation. But equally, it’s good, because leaders in a difficult situation then understand how to be more effective.


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Brad Giles
Brad Giles, CEO at Evolution Partners, is one of Australia’s most sought-after leadership team coaches. An experienced business speaker, adviser and entrepreneur, Brad works with some of the country’s leading mid-sized firms, helping CEOs and leadership teams to thrive. He is also the author of Made to Thrive: The Five Roles to Evolve Beyond Your Leadership Comfort Zone ($29.95). Brad Giles is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine.