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Driving High Performance Sustainably

These days I hear in my role as a coach leaders and managers worried about their teams’ performance falling behind. The concern is mostly around keeping the people engaged and getting them to want to go the extra mile, work harder and achieve better or faster results in a business context that only gets tougher.

I hear the need for a strict performance management, with challenging targets in place and dead serious expectations about what would happen if these were not achieved. Don’t get me wrong, I love challenging targets and clear expectations. But no matter how hard the times get, I choose to reach and set them in a way that leads to sustainable high performance, the kind of performance you achieve when everyone feels involved and is eager to make a difference.

Let me give you an example. Several years ago I had the opportunity to lead a team considered at the time among the lowest performing in the department. To turn things around, I had two options.

The classical approach

The immediate choice at my disposal was to act on the current low performance label. Start analysing the debt position, make a strategy following the analysis, set and communicate targets, monitor achievement against results and start corrective actions where these didn’t meet my expectations.The outcome? Most likely increased performance in the short term, with everyone pushed to work hard but feeling demotivated, micro-managed and under-valued in the long run.

The coaching-based approach

What I chose was to build a strategy with the team instead of for them. I wanted to find out what they cared about and what would make them want to join me on a high performance journey.

On our first team meeting, I asked everyone to share on post-it what they were known for as a team. Their answers were mostly about being united and having fun together. I remember the “Never leave anyone behind when going out for a cigarette break” motto, which really got me worried about their performance aspirations!

Nevertheless, I decided to carry on with my strategy to engage them rather than just give up, so I asked them to write next what they would like their team to be known for at department level one year later. Much to my surprise, “Winning at least one department contest” was one of the most popular answers.

That desire to be recognised as a high-performing and united team became our drive and motivation for turning the results around. It also stood as the foundation for any expectations and targets setting. Every time things got tough, we reminded ourselves what we were working towards and why it mattered to us. Less than one year later, we were winning our first contest.

So, if you find yourself wondering how to increase your team’s performance, here’s a long-term oriented strategy you can use. It will help you not only set challenging goals and clear expectations, but also engage the people and make them want to roll-up their sleeves and go the extra mile.

1. Choose your highest goal as a team. Brainstorm together what matters to you, what you want to be known for and what everyone is willing to work hard towards.

2. Define your strategy. Do a self-assessment together and determine your team’s improvement areas and the key performance indicators you need to work on to reach the highest goal. A SWOT analysis can come in handy at this point in time. Agree and set interim targets.

3. Identify roadblocks. Look at the challenges that prevented you to improve the performance indicators so far. A Fishbone root cause analysis works well in this situation. Brainstorm together how you can address the highest impacting roadblocks and assign owners to work on it.

With challenging times ahead, the key difference between an average and high-performing team will lie in the people’s engagement and desire to push forward no matter what. And as a manager you have a huge role to play in it. Which approach will you choose?


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