top of page

Performance is not the Holy Grail for leaders

Corporate Singapore, and many others in the world, laud the performance-based leader. Which company CEO does not want to see the business outperform itself quarter-on-quarter? Having great performance allows the company to have great cashflow, and that is the lifeblood of every company. When a new performance-focused leader joins a company, there is a flurry of excitement and activity, and for a while, things start to happen. Inevitably, a new broom will sweep clean and some people will leave the company, and others will join it. In this hive of activity, no one ever stops to wonder if this is sustainable or not. In fact, as research has shown, it is not. This is because activities like launching new products, signing up new accounts, creating new marketing buzz, require a backend engine to support and sustain them. New customers need to be returning customers. Meeting the first need requires meeting the next. Moving customers along a higher value chain - and increasing the Lifetime Value (LTV) of the customer - requires a slower and more deliberate pace. Getting to know your customers deeply cannot be prefaced on quick action - the hallmark of the performance-based leader. So if indeed you are an action-packed business leader, you may like to take some time off your busy schedule and internalise these 5 ideas.

(1) Don't be blinded by short-termism

Rushing to the starting flag is fun. There is a burst of adrenaline that keeps pumping in your veins. Your competitive nature is stoked and you want to win, perhaps at all costs. But what happens when you do? You need to look for the next flag. And then the next. And the next. This constant running for flags does not allow you to map the full journey because you miss the forest for the trees. Perhaps you are pumped for such action, but what of your staff? Can they keep up the momentum of not knowing what next, but constantly just shooting for flag after flag? Is there a big picture to what you are doing? Can you slow down, collect your thoughts, calibrate your activities, and then move on to the next objective? If you are constantly running around chasing flags, you may well end up where you started, and that does not signify any progress. Have you done any work? You have been busy, sure; but work might not have been done. "How can that be?" you ask. "We have been busy doing so many things." Yes, but where are you now? If you are still where you were, then no work has been done. We simply need to go back to Physics 101 and see that the formula for work done is

work done = force x distance moved by the force

so if you have ended up where you started, there has been no distance moved, and hence, no workdone. If you want long term performance, you need to be moving away from your starting point.

Short-termism focuses on the force, but not necessarily on the distance moved by the force.

(2) Have a vision

Are you signing up customers or are you giving them value? What does this value ultimately translate to? If you don't have a vision for your customers, you will invariably be chasing numbers. A vision for your customer must transcend your business; it has to energise your staff to go the extra mile for them. There is no magic formula, no special training programme that can compel your staff to go that extra mile, only your vision. Yet having a vision and not staying true to it will cost you even more than not having one at all. If you say that you are here to help low wage workers get a job, for example, and all you provide is training but no job placement, then are you being true to your vision? I understand that the training is important, but it should be a means to the end, and not the end in itself for your vision. And if you cannot deliver the end, then why are you in the business in the first place?

Having a vision also means that you support your staff who deliver that vision. When there are no clear guidelines at work, and your staff's actions are guided by your vision, then even if those actions are wrong, your staff is correct. You mustsupport your staff and congratulate her initiative because she is living your vision. If you or your people cannot defend the vision, then you either have the wrong vision, or you have the wrong people - or both!

(3) Let people have a say

The hard-charging performance-based leader seldom takes counsel from people because he thinks he knows best. Even if that were true, it is always helpful to get other people's point of view, and to see what they see. You don't have to be right all the time, and sometimes it is better for you to influence them through their own words than through yours. After all, it really doesn't matter whose idea it was that got you there, it only matters that you do. By giving people a say in your decisions, you let them have a stake in its outcome. And when the decision converges on their idea, there is greater buy in, and greater conviction in meeting the objective. If all there is in their job is meeting a performance target, there is no real value in coming to work. After all, there are countless performance-based positions out there, and they can be had for even more money than you are paying. What that means is, if yours is only a performance-based organisation, your job is a commodity and that means you have to pay higher than market rate to keep your staff. That is not good business.

But if you involve your people in important decisions, and if you give them a voice in the way things are done in your organisation, chances are they will overlook "small matters" like salary discrepency for the chance of doing something bigger.

Now isn't that a clever move?

(4) Attack silos

If there is one good thing from a hard-charging leadership character is its ability to make difficult decisions quickly, and to drive outcome from there. One thing that might need such a quick overhaul is culture; especially one which reinforces apathy. If your organisation's processes, infrastructure and even structure keep people from working together, and forces them to resort to "email wars", then it is time for the performance-based leader to do something quickly - to break down these silos. Silos breed passive aggression, and a propensity to view things in a "me-versus-you" mentality. Your performance-based mental model will drive you to break these silos so that you can get them to work better. For instance, there was leader who took over a business where inter-team collaboration was not allowed. Even at meetings, team managers were seated far apart from each other in a large imposing meeting room. The performance-based leader could not get them to collaborate and the structure and the culture were preventing him from getting things done. So he did what all good hard-charging leaders do - he tore down the meeting room, got rid of the imposing furniture and created huddles, much as you would see at Google. Suddenly the communication increased, ideas became better, and there was more commitment from the people. The passive aggression lessened tremendously and more importantly, performance improved.

But here is where the performance-based leader will need to change tack. He must now dial down the performance focus and dial up the visionary, the collaborator, the democratic leader. Hence, performance-based leadership has a role to play to push past apathy, but when that has been achieved, the leader must change his style and adopt a more collaborative approach. In this way, he will get the best of both worlds - performance AND collaboration!

(5) Rome was not built in a day

Finally, you know how you are right? In fact you pride yourself in your speed, and you expect things to have happened YESTERDAY! And when it does not materialise, not only do you set people aside, you also roll up your sleeves and do the job yourself, thereby undermining the morale and the competence of the whole team. That is an absolute mistake. No matter how competent you are, you cannot deprive your people of learning the trade. Your time to do the job is done, and it is time for your people to step up. Instead of swooping in, you need to help them get better. You need to use coaching as a means to lead, and not performance to push. You need to help them uncover what they don't know, and then identify the solution. Coaching is not rocket science, but to the performance-focused leader, it may seem a waste of time. It is easier to just tell them what to do, or to simply do it, than to give them the time to learn. After all, that will impact results, right? And the performance-focused leader will never sacrifice results for learning. But that will ultimately lead the unit to further underperform because you are the only person performing!

So it is time to ditch speed for a longer-term perspective. I am not implying that your short-term goals are unimportant, but what I am saying is Rome was not built in a day and all good things will take time to develop. But if you heed that, temper your expectations, focus on the bigger picture, and create a vision worth working towards, then you will realise that greater performance and results come from those who plan and wait for it.

Here's to your success!

You may also be interested in...
bottom of page