One of the ways I paid for undergrad was by managing a men’s clothing store. It was a small company with an owner who was a fixture in local retail. In fact, he was so established that he felt that he had better things to do than hang around the shop all day. Even though the owner wasn’t around much, having his name on the door attracted a lot of long-term regular customers. Many of them were local business leaders who would come by and either buy something, or just get philosophical about whatever was on their minds. Luckily, for me, many of those musings were about what it was like to run various businesses. As someone who knew they wanted to be an industrial and organizational psychologist, this was a great place to learn.
One of the more amusing anecdotes I heard during these sessions from one of the men was, “I wouldn’t mind running a business so much if I didn’t need employees to do it.” Normally I kept my mouth shut and my ears open when these patrons talked, but this statement intrigued me so much that I couldn’t keep from asking for more detail about what he meant. After all, it seemed like having employees went hand in hand with running a business. I wasn’t really sure how one could even consider doing one without the other.
The response was that the people themselves were not the issue. It was making sure they did the right things at the right time, especially when you’re not watching them. The point being that if you have to watch someone all the time, it may just be easier to do a job yourself. If you have to do the job yourself, then there really isn’t much point in having to pay employees. This notion stuck with me through nearly two decades of consulting because it seems to be one truism that has remained constant no matter the size of the company, the industry, or the quality of the leader.
Recognizing this truth, the question becomes how do we manage employees’ behaviors to drive the desired outcomes? Most importantly, how do we successfully do this at all times, not just when employees know they’re being watched? Attempts to answer this question have driven multiple books, lots of seminars, and a major segment of the management consulting industry. It would be an exercise in understatement to say that there is no shortage of different opinions on this matter.
My opinion is that the best way to do this is to develop what I like to call a Performance Strategy. The simplest description of a Performance Strategy is a plan for developing your human capital assets (polite term for employees) in such a way that they know exactly what behaviors are expected of and how those behaviors tie to the business outcome. Most importantly, they are enabled to execute those behaviors in effective and efficient ways.
As you’re reading this, you may be thinking something like “that sounds great but how do we do that?” As with most activities in this domain, there are a lot of different views on that, and many different variables impacting which approaches are more likely to be successful in which scenarios. If we look at them holistically, however, we can amalgamate the best practices into four major steps…
- Define business objectives and identify what performance outcomes matter
- Document current processes that drive those critical outcomes (e.g., SIPOC process mapping and documentation)
- Collect data from top performers to determine what they are doing differently than the rest of the organization
- Develop clear and actionable human capital strategies (e.g., recruiting, training, performance management) to bring the rest of the organization up to the top performers level
Sounds simple doesn’t it? Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t. But if we start off with a framework like this, we are at least driving towards outcome rather than hoping for luck. Or worse yet complaining when our teams don’t do what we wish they would.
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About the Author
Jimmy Brown, Ph.D. is a senior level management consultant with seventeen years of experience leading efforts to develop and implement practical strategies for business performance improvement. Dr. Brown has held senior level consulting positions at leading firms such as Booz-Allen & Hamilton, Accenture, and Hewlett-Packard.