How much can we achieve? Leadership isn’t enough

It’s that time of year again: most companies are pushing hard to close the final quarter of the fiscal year while simultaneously planning the budget and strategic objectives for next year. Depending on the type, size, and maturity of your business, this exercise could include anything from a rigorous, zero-based, quantitative analysis of global operations to a white board session over a beer. Or maybe not: Basecamp doesn’t plan more than six weeks ahead. Most likely, your experience involves too many revisions of painfully formatted spreadsheets that will be forgotten in a few months when the reality of daily business sets in.

Regardless of the mechanics of your planning process, the fundamental question is: how much can we achieve?

In many organizations, the answer to this question starts and ends with leadership. But when growth requires broad adoption of new systems, behavior change by the end users of these systems matters as much as, or more than, leadership capacity. Let’s look at why this matters, and what you can do differently in this year’s planning cycle to incorporate the concept.

Leaders think leadership is important. Whether it’s self-preservation or cognitive bias, many leadership teams will over-weight their role in driving change. I’m not endorsing the leaderless organization fad, and I believe it’s essential to sanity-check the number of strategic objectives and special projects assigned to each leader (in addition to his or her “business as usual” responsibilities) when building an annual plan. Even an Agile approach to program and project management, with more frequent interrogation of outcomes, risks, and blockers, can leave leaders overwhelmed. When a single leader is overloaded, delays and dependencies can put an entire program at risk. When the organization is capable of a high rate of change without enough effective leadership capacity, employees feel disengaged and top talent starts to look elsewhere. So if we’ve established that leadership capacity matters, why isn’t that enough?

Sustained improvement happens when a new, better thing happens more often than the previous, worse thing. Even in highly technical, capital-intensive industries, measurable changes in performance only occur with adoption of new solutions. Software teams can ship new features, and if users don’t adopt those features, the users don’t realize the benefits, no matter how many times in a row you say the word “done.” Managers can train teams on new procedures, and if those employees don’t perform their work differently, the same defects, inefficiencies–even accidents–will persist. Marketing teams can crank out more content, and if sellers don’t change the way they engage with buyers…you get it.

Therefore, in addition to a “top down” assessment of leadership capacity across projects, take a “bottom up” view of behavior changes during your annual planning cycle. Look across your portfolio of projects: which roles, or individuals, in the organization will have to sustain behavior change for the projects to succeed? Are we asking too much of the same people?

Here’s a hypothetical example from a fictional software company:

  • HR leadership plans to change the performance management process, using a new online tool
  • Marketing leadership plans to change the content management system, including how inbound leads are routed to Sales
  • Operations leadership plans to change the quote to cash process, including a new set of contract templates
  • Sales leadership plans to change the compensation structure, with different payouts for new logos vs account expansion
  • Product leadership plans to introduce a new self-service subscription feature as part of the next major release

From a top down view this set of projects will require cross-functional coordination, however, no single leader will be overloaded with responsibilities. Great, all set, let’s get started–right? A bottom up view of the behavior changes required for these projects to generate results, however, reveals that Sales Managers will be overwhelmed by requests from different project leaders to work differently. It is much better to identify this risk during the planning cycle than in the mid-year review, when each project leader is scrambling to understand–or worse, to blame the Sales Managers–why they are not hitting their numbers.

Leadership matters. But without behavior change that fuels adoption, results don’t stick. Try this approach in your annual planning cycle to see if it generates a greater rate of improvement–and leave a comment below with any questions or feedback.

Get your Talent Engine Revving: the Four Stages

Most leaders would agree that having the right talent on their teams is essential for success, and recently Build Network has confirmed this hunch in a leadership survey. The goal of this post is to provide some structure to the talent cycle and help leaders get the most from their talent by segmenting the tenure of any employee into four phases: Intake, Development, Delivery, and Transition. While similar to the four stroke engine cycle, we’ll try to limit the amount of compression and ignition we put our employees through.


Except for the stereotypical Japanese salarymen, very few employers expect to need more than one hand to count the average tenure of staff. And while the US Department of Labor’s 2012 data showed average tenure across all industries has increased to 4.6 years from 4.4 in 2010, data compiled earlier in 2013 by Payscale showed employers in retail and IT companies should expect closer to 2, as reported by Business Insider. And based on the bankrupt and bailed out companies at the other end of the Payscale list, and the bankrupt and bailed out countries in the OECD data set from 2011, seeing tenure rise above 10 years should be a warning sign (especially when long tenure comes along with unsustainable pension obligations).

So let’s make the math easy and propose you’ll get 2 years of contribution, on average, from your employees. I’m defining the Intake phase as the period from the first touch during recruiting through the first 90 days of employment. Take off the last month before exit for Transition, and we are left with 20 months. So if the goal is to maximize the contribution to the business from each employee, it’s important to “compress” the Development period, which I’m defining as the length of time required for an employee to become fully competent in role.

  1. Intake: starts with first contact with a prospect during recruiting, ends at day 90 of employment. Recruiting, onboarding, and orientation are key processes. Coordination between HR, Facilities, IT, Finance, and hiring managers is essential to establish new employees with high engagement and reduce early exits.
  2. Development: from day 91 through the point at which an employee is fully competent in role. Coaching, training, and peer support will help ensure employees can contribute high quality work, independently, as quickly as possible.
  3. Delivery: could be as short as a few months for organizations with low overall tenure and long intake and development periods.
  4. Transition: allowing for knowledge transfer from an outgoing staffer to the incoming hire. Internal promotions will allow for longer transition periods, but most US employment agreements expect only 2 weeks notice.

An upcoming series of posts (linked in the list above) will look at the key metrics to track in each of these phases of the talent cycle, along with the most important processes to streamline in your organization to ensure your team is happy, developing, and delivering at each phase of the cycle.