Your Employees Are Not Mind Readers

Harvard Business Review

As a leader, what do you want to accomplish? Do your employees know what needs to be done to reach that objective? Do they know how you expect them to behave? And — once they know the "what" and "how" — do you provide them with enough autonomy to get the job done in an effective and timely way? These are pragmatic business issues that all leaders encounter. Here are a few thoughts on how you can more effectively address these issues and reach your goals in an authentic and enduring way.

Collaboratively Develop The "What" And The "How"

Before anything else, you engage stakeholders in a conversation about where you are, where you want to go, and how to get there. By seeking and valuing their perceptions, you increase their commitment, confidence, and the likelihood of getting traction when it is time to execute. This collective perspective helps define what needs to be done (the what) and the behaviors needed to deliver (the how).

When I was CEO of Campbell Soup Company, we used a balanced scorecard to create an explicit understanding of each employee in terms of what they were expected to accomplish, including financial objectives, market share objectives and key project objectives. This scorecard defined the "what." To define the "how," we used the Campbell Leadership Model, which highlighted six expectations we had for every employee. All employees were regularly evaluated on both.

Declare Yourself — and Live By Your Commitments

Often leaders have the best intentions, but people cannot read their minds. That's why it's important to declare yourself: Tell people why you choose to lead and the code you live by. Lisa, a VP who led an innovation team, was struggling in her attempts to influence some of her peers. When meeting with one especially resilient colleague, she made a conscious decision to meet with him privately and do something she has never done before; Lisa let down her guard and was transparent. She declared herself by talking about her values and explaining why she cared so much about her work. Then she said, "I want to have a strong working relationship. Can you tell me what you look for in a colleague? What does it take for you to trust someone?"

It turned out that whereas Lisa valued being tough on results, her colleague really cared about relationships. By letting him know who she was, she created a space for a heart-to-heart conversation that led to a stronger working relationship. This is what I mean by declaring yourself. These powerful insights for both of them became a turning point in the way they worked together.

But declaring yourself isn't enough. When providing people with the direction and expected behaviors, you need to be alert to the fact that they will hold you accountable. People want to know if you are walking the talk. They will be watching your every move and you need to be one in the same... every minute of every day.

You need to own a commitment to completion; you have to live with the consequences. Bill George, Professor at Harvard Business School and widely respected former CEO of medical technology maker Medtronic, is a great example of clearly declaring oneself, providing excellent results and remaining accountable. While at Medtronic, he pledged to create extraordinary value and build a better world by saving people's lives. As he told Strategy & Business, "You have to stay a step ahead. You have to say, 'This is what we stand for. This is a long-term growth company. It will give you great long-term returns, because we perform very well.'" This commitment to action was consistent with his company's strategy. Yes, organizations drift but you need to be persistent and follow through. Over his 13 years at Medtronic, annual revenue increased an average of 18% and earnings increased 22%.

As George realized, the lofty slogan and mission statement posted on a company's wall isn't enough. This declaration is not just a nice statement; you actually have to live it. If your actions aren't consistent with your words then your ability to lead is compromised.

Respect Autonomy

You need to be careful not to carry the "what" and the "how" to an extreme. It would be counterproductive to tell people exactly what they are supposed to do and exactly how they are supposed to do it to a point where they become more concerned about your expectations than about completing their work in a quality way.

In the book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, author Daniel Pink did a great job identifying what motivates people. His research uncovered that the number one key motivator is autonomy, or acting with choice. People hunger to be the master of their own destiny. Therefore, you have to recognize that people want to know what is expected of them but want as much freedom to operate as possible so that they can deliver the expectations in a way that works for them. In fact, the best solutions often lie in the creative tension between these natural dualities.

To lead at a high level, you should be as prescriptive as necessary to give the organization a sense of direction on the "what" and the "how." Express it broadly enough so that it is clear, but not rigid to the point where it compromises the individual's ability to perform in the moment. Give them the flexibility and freedom to interpret it in a fashion that allows them to get the job done in a way that works for them and the organization. Remember, those on the front lines have to deal with the reality of executing these things. Leave it up to them to smartly manage and execute in the moment. By balancing this tension, you give them the pride of authorship as they solve problems in harmony with your expectations.

Be Consistent

Not only do you need to declare yourself early, you need to declare yourself over and over again. People lead complicated lives and aren't hanging on your every word or the company mission statement. You have to become a broken record of your expectations of the organization and show people why it is relevant and how it works in specific ways.

That is why, while at Campbell, I was always linking everything we did back to our expectations: our mission, our Campbell Promise, our employee value proposition, our three core values, our seven strategies, or our Campbell Leadership Model. I used every opportunity with employees to connect back with the fabric of the identity we created with the Campbell tapestry. I would talk about projects we delivered and how they brought our three core values to the workplace. I would also celebrate the leaders who were inspiring for us, or creating quality direction or executing with excellence... as called for by our leadership model.

Be aware of, and act on, the need to be consistent. Weave the expectations of your organization into everyday conversations you have with employees. The more you do this, the more people will innately put your "what" and "how" into action.

Remain Adaptable

The one thing I know is that whatever decisions I make, they will sometimes be wrong. So, when I declare myself, I acknowledge that at some point I will make a mistake.

Making this room for yourself, being flexible, does not say that you don't know what you are doing. What it does say is that you know exactly what you are doing and, because of this understanding, you know everyone makes mistakes. In my opinion, it is how you deal with mistakes that ultimately defines your legacy of contribution. As Charles Darwin observed, when the environment is changing rapidly, it is neither the strongest nor the most intelligent who survive — it is the ones who are most adaptable. Thus, the fittest leaders are those most capable of learning.

And not only do you have to be flexible, you have to make others aware of this flexibility. Very early in my tenure as CEO at Campbell, I gave every one of my 350 top leaders a personally signed document of what they could expect from me. The last point I made in the document was, "I will make mistakes. I will do my best to acknowledge those mistakes and remedy them as quickly and thoughtfully as possible." You are learning and growing, situations may change, and you may need to shift your direction.

When you do mess up — and you will — the key is to course-correct and to do it quickly. The most powerful thing you can do is acknowledge your mistake, commit to do better, and make sure you follow through.

Wrapping It All Up

Visions, strategies and declarations are merely promises. As a leader, your job is to translate those promises into real, on-the-ground performance throughout the complex sequence of interactions, every day.

Use each interaction as an opportunity to practice the elements listed here. Aim for improvement with each interaction. Commit to developing ever greater clarity and capabilities so that you may become ever more helpful in the moment. So say what you care about, make it clear what you intend to do, and remain accountable.

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