During my early years of managing in business, I always assumed that if I hired and trained the smartest and most experienced people I could find, I would get outstanding productivity. I quickly learned that top performance also required the right initiatives and responsiveness on my part, high employee engagement, and a matching chemistry and culture with other team members.
For example, according to recent research from Bain & Company, Apple, Netflix, Google, and Dell employees are 40 percent more productive than the average, even though they are no smarter or more experienced. The research shows that senior leaders at these companies focus more on an efficiency culture, team makeup, and remove more obstacles to team productivity.
In my work with startups, I have been struck by how relevant and critical these same initiatives are to even the earliest stage of new ventures, and how hard it is to change later if you don’t get it right the first time. Here are some specific actions I now recommend to every entrepreneur, and to every senior executive, to get top performance from every member of their team:
Clearly and iteratively communicate team goals and objectives. Don’t be lulled into complacency by a few team members who always seem to get the message quickly. I always felt I was over-communicating, having repeated a key message in three team meetings, until I heard a comment, “Why didn’t they tell me sooner what was expected?”
As your team grows, and the business pivots, communication of expectations becomes more of a challenge. As you contemplate your key messages, I recommend that you count on repeating them at least five times in different forums to assure they are heard.
Define and document role content and standards for performance. Don’t assume that your expectations for a given role will be intuitively obvious to the relevant team member. New team members in a new startup, coming from different backgrounds, may have quite different standards for excellent performance from previous experiences.
Give team members the right to make decisions in their role. Micromanagement is never effective in achieving top performance. You as the manager don’t have the time to make every decision, team members will be de-motivated, and will use your actions as an excuse for low performance. Practice process coaching, but not edicting decisions.
I recently was an advisor to a very strong technical executive who insisted on “being involved” in literally every decision in his startup. He ignored my advice and ultimately lost several key executives, and then his own health, due to stress and workload. No one can be a top performer in these environments.
Relay regular informal observations on progress and results. Informal feedback should be provided weekly or daily, without emotion. More formal sessions should be held semi-annually. This may seem obvious, but I found it hard to do, given the daily crises and distractions of a normal startup. Don’t surprise your employee at the end.
Give team members the training, tools, and data to do the job. No one can be a top performer without the resources necessary to get the job done. Your responsibility is to anticipate these requirements, listen carefully to feedback from team members, and provide resources on a timely basis.
For example, if the business was built around your technical invention, it’s easy to forget your own learning curve and the wealth of data you have accumulated over the years. You can’t expect new team members to come pre-loaded with all the same background and insights. They need your mentoring, tools, and historical data to be a top performer.
Diligently provide follow-up and support on assistance requests. Team members assess your responsiveness, just as you measure theirs. Top performers expect to be surrounded by leaders who recognize and supportively respond to situations that go beyond their domain. The goal is to have no employee action impeded by leader inaction.
Formally and informally reward positive results. Informally showing your appreciation on a person-to-person basis and in front of peer team members is usually more valuable than financial incentives. Yet in the long run, you get what you pay for. Thus paying for sales volume, when you desire customer satisfaction, will not get you high performance.
Thus I learned that the performance of your team is a reflection on you as the leader, as much as the performance of individual team members. You select the team members, you set the culture and motivation for the team, and your support is the key to their delivery. Companies who have top performing teams must start with top performing leaders. Now is the time to be one.