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Delivering High Performance

15 Mins


By Team Artha

If you build a culture where honest expectations are communicated, and peer accountability is the norm, then the group will address poor performance and attitudes.

Henry Cloud

Self-Help Author
As a leader, you can’t be effective unless everyone is behind you. How do you align your team to your vision and values?

An inspirational vision is not sufficient. You create alignment by setting the pace, direction, and expectations in every interaction. The consistency of messages you communicate and the expectations you share in everyday interaction trumps vision always. And it needs to be done with a degree of intensity. Emphasize and reinforce these in every interaction. Over a period of time, the team imbibes these into their DNA and way of working. Getting the team aligned is critical for success! And most important of all, this applies to every team and every leader in the startup and not just the Founder!

Are there other ways to create alignment?

Goal setting is another great way of creating alignment. You should get your apex leadership team (comprising heads of business and key functions) together and share your vision/goals for the next 12-24 months. The goals need to be reasonably specific but should also have an aspiration and stretch built into them. After you share your vision, have a discussion around this to understand a) the constraints and b) interdependencies - what each business and function needed to do so that the team could collectively achieve the company’s goals. Assemble again, maybe a week later, when every function/business presents their respective goals that dovetail with the company’s overall goals. In this second meeting, encourage each function and business head had to bring their direct reports along. This would serve several objectives, namely, a) the leadership team gets a chance to see the collective strength of each of the teams and the quality of discussion that went behind each commitment, b) commitments are made by the team collectively, and hence it creates greater understanding and ownership, and finally, c) this also has the effect of uniting and strengthening the team, because the team would collectively field difficult questions from heads of other functions and businesses. Also, because of the detail expected and the kind of questions they will have to face from their peers, the quality of preparation is always very high.

Good execution is critical for a startup. What is the biggest lever for good execution?

Conducting insightful reviews is by far the biggest lever. The quality of reviews is an unambiguous indicator of the quality of execution. Sit through a couple of reviews, and you can judge the quality of execution in a team. Suppose you see a team (a function or a business) going through some trouble. In that case, try and quickly figure out if the reviews are being done well (the insights on the slides, the intensity of discussion, the quality of questioning & decision making, the consistency with which decisions are recorded and followed up in subsequent reviews and so on).

What should you communicate in your reviews? And how do you make your reviews insightful?

The direction and quality of reviews depend upon the expectations that you communicate through your questioning and also on what you appreciate and what you are critical of. I found five broad principles and messages that would ensure reviews are effective and insightful:

  • “We love data. You will be under a lot of fire if we don’t see data. We do not appreciate too much of the anecdotal stuff. But equally important, data isn’t enough!” If you tell us that the average number of defects produced per worker is 3, it is better than saying that defects are high. But, this is still just data and not an insight. But if you show us that 90% of the defects are produced by 15% of the workers and that we can bring down the defect rate by training these 15%, then it is an actionable insight! We would love that.
  • How do the Insights translate to specific Actions? Who owns these actions? And what are the timelines? We’d like to hear about this. Getting the insight was about intellect. But getting to actions, timelines, and follow-through is execution.
  • Share the Bad News! Always. The consequences of bad news being discovered later will be far worse than if shared transparently upfront. We don’t promise to spare you a dressing down on sharing the bad news, but deliberately hiding the bad news in our culture is an integrity issue.
  • Separate the short term corrective actions from long term fixes. Treat the two with equal importance and don’t ignore one at the cost of the other. If there is a case of sexual harassment, the long term action should be to institutionalize a process that can prevent this in the future, along with a redressal mechanism. The short term action is to swiftly and fairly deal with the case at hand. There is a serious problem if, after an incident and the consequential short-term fix, the long term action does not automatically come up for review in the follow-up review.
  • Your team may not have all answers and don’t expect them to. Identify the difficult problems and take personal ownership of solving them. Don’t resort to motivational speeches to avoid solving them yourself. “Zooming in and zooming out” is what you need to do based on the requirement.
What is the biggest differentiator between a mediocre review and an outstanding review?

Poor reviews just end up viewing metrics and trends in these metrics, followed by some spontaneous speculation and animated discussion on the reasons for deviations. Good reviews too have a component of spontaneity and some speculation but expect participants to come prepared with detailed explanations for material variances. The difference between speculation and hypothesizing is that the latter is more structured, and there is intent to test with data to either validate or negate, whereas speculation is a loose discussion that is not taken to closure. Good reviews also expect serious inter-functional issues to be pre-discussed by the function representatives. The absence of such prior discussion should be strongly discouraged. Finally, great reviews extract serious business problems with cross-function implications and carve them out as key initiatives deserving focused attention and special review. Good reviews also start with action items from the previous review.

What is the most common people-related problem that can adversely impact a startup’s journey?

Without a doubt, it is the ability to provide feedback. You need to make feedback a way of life. Say it if you like it, and say it if you don’t like it! Having said that, it is very important that you should communicate what you don’t like without getting personal. That is a bit of an art one needs to learn. You should create a totally apolitical and transparent climate so that the candor is taken in the right spirit. Most people find it difficult to provide feedback because of one or more of the following reasons:

  • They worry that the other person won’t like them and it would be difficult to work with them after that; or that they’ll end up hurting the other person’s feelings.
  • They fear that they would get a mouthful of feedback in return.
  • They have had previous experiences in which the receiver didn’t change or became hostile
  • They just don’t have the skills to provide feedback and worry about mishandling it

Feedback should be an easy and effortless process. Every feedback does not need a formal setting, nor does it need to always be scheduled. Feedback works best when it’s an ongoing and accepted as a part of your team’s routine. Feedback should never be sugar-coated. Don’t get taken in too much by the HR & training folks who may suggest using a “sandwich technique”. This is a technique that is for beginners. Just take care that the feedback does not come across as personal. Feedback should be so unambiguous that it must result in only one of the two things, namely, a) change or b) an acknowledgement from the recipient that she needs help in making the change. If it doesn’t achieve one of these two outcomes rapidly, then there is a flaw in the feedback mechanism. In an ideal world, feedback should be substantiated by data; and, in an ideal world, negative feedback is better given in private. But there is nothing like an ideal world. Don’t let these broad principles of an ideal world paralyze your actions in the real world that you live in. It is actually very helpful sometimes to provide negative feedback in a semi-public setting (a review with the team can be a semi-public setting)! You can get across messages very effectively. Just be careful that you don’t take this to an extreme, where you are seen to be totally anecdotal or seen as callous or insulting.

Feedback needs an open mind (for you as the provider of feedback). Be open to changing your position based on what you hear. An ability to change your position and acknowledge you were wrong can strengthen your reputation and make people even more open to feedback from you.
Identify your team members and mentally color-code them as Reds, Yellows and Greens based on their ability to assimilate and act on feedback – Greens being the best and Reds being the worst. With a Green, you can be gentle and refined. For example, “This incident has come to my notice. Please take a look and get it fixed.” Casually check on the status in some time. With a Yellow, you can be firm and specific. For example, “This incident is unacceptable and is a serious non-conformity. Investigate and get to the root cause, and have it rectified” Plan to meet after a week to check on the status. With a Red, you should be curt and explicit. For example, “I want an explanation as to why this has happened (the explanation should touch upon the root cause). This is not the first time this is happening, and there will be some serious consequences if such a mistake recurs.” Plan to meet the next day to check on progress.

How important is it to evaluate people well in a startup?

Extremely important. One of the biggest impediments to growth is the culture of soft-pedalling on difficult conversations relating to performance and an inability to discriminate when it comes to rewards. Performance discussions need to be candid. They cannot be pleasant conversations, with difficult messages delicately communicated as afterthoughts and footnotes – so delicate that the recipient doesn’t even get it. As a Founder, you need to have a clear sense of who the star performers are among your direct reports and their direct reports. You should use reviews and other forums to observe your two-downs. Reviews are great forums for talent spotting, which is a prerequisite for good succession planning and identifying people who can take on new roles that high growth always creates. At the same time, you should have clarity on who needs to be shaken up and don’t wait for a quarterly review to do it.

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Team Artha