Thursday, 25 October 2012

Effective Team Briefing

For me, team briefing was always a vital component of employee engagement in the businesses I worked in. It enabled me as a manager to know that all employees received information about the business and their own teams’ performance, as well as being a great source of feedback from them. I believe team briefing is a vital skill for any manager no matter what position they hold and being able to deal with tricky or difficult briefing situations is an important part of a manager’s toolkit. I have briefed many teams over the years and have found the following tips useful in managing and dealing with difficult briefing situations. 1) Set Expectations. Setting clear expectations is a great way to ensure that a briefing runs smoothly without constant interruptions. By stating expectations at the start of my team brief it helped me to manage the process more effectively. For example, I would set expectations around the length of time the team brief was expected to take, how and when questions will be taken, and the level of attention required - i.e. mobile phones and other electronic devices to be switched off! 2) Dealing with Questions. My experience is that you shouldn’t ignore a question, as doing so may be taken as a sign of defensiveness on your part and so I would answer questions directly and honestly. Even if questions were inappropriate or ill-timed, I tried to acknowledge them and thank the other person for asking them. Sometimes I would refer to the expectations I set out at the start, and answer any questions at the end. If I did not know the answer, I would respond with “I don’t know” to some difficult questions. I never felt that I had to know everything. People will soon see through any answers made up on the spot anyway. However, in the majority of cases, not getting an answer to someone's question was not acceptable. I would say, ‘Thank you. I do not know the answer to that very interesting question. I’ll have to get back to you on that, after I’ve spoken to (x). I will do this by (y)”. 3) Dealing with questions that keep on coming. One of the most common difficulties you are likely to encounter is a barrage of questions from either one or more people. Sometimes these people really want answers to their questions but at other times the interrupter may have a disruptive motive. However, you may not be able to tell which is which! I found that the least confrontational way of dealing with a constant stream of questions was to answer each question as briefly as possible. I tried to limit my answers to one ‘breath’ in length. Before stating my answer, I would check if this material would be covered later in the briefing. If it was, I would tell the questioner that the material will be covered later. I tried not to expand on my answers, because lengthy replies containing additional details will only serve to give the questioner additional opportunity to ask more questions. Remember, keeping your answers brief minimises the negative effect of any interruptions and allows you to move on. Another tip if you find that giving short answers and setting expectations haven’t deterred interruptions, acknowledge the question but delay the answer, letting the other person know that you will cover this at the end of the briefing. 4) Dealing with off-topic questions and discussions. My view is that one or two ‘off-topic’ questions from the audience isn’t a problem, but if there are a lot of them this can be very disruptive and cause the briefing to wander or over run. One technique I used for dealing with an off-topic question was to ask for its relevance to the briefing. The sooner I could relate the question to the briefing, the sooner I could move on. 5) Dealing with confrontational questions Occasionally I might get a very confrontational question. However, I learned the hard way that if I responded to the tone with a challenging or sarcastic response, I simply lost some credibility. However, it’s vital never ever to lose control. I would try to rephrase and restate the question in a neutral way to reduce confrontation. 6) Dealing with someone who is angry or frustrated If you encounter someone who has become particularly angry, upset or frustrated during your briefing, the best way to deal with it is to accept that they are feeling angry, upset, etc (you are not necessarily agreeing with them), but deal with it after the briefing. For example, “I recognise that (x) has made you angry / frustrated etc, and that you want it resolving. I suggest therefore that we discuss these issues separately after the briefing”. 7) Dealing with a ‘Heckler’ You may find you are conducting a brief and a member of the audience decides to make comment out loud (sarcastic, amusing or otherwise) about what you are briefing. Again, never get upset, or lose control. The best way I found in dealing with these people was to find merit in what they are saying, or express agreement on something, and simply move on. 8) Always have the final say. While it can be helpful to keep the questions until after the brief is finished, I felt it was important to make sure that I had the final say – literally, by summarising the points covered. Team briefing is a vital management skill and hopefully by sharing my experiences above, it will help you to improve your briefing skills too.

Friday, 19 October 2012

Why Performance Appraisals Don’t Work

I recently worked for a client that struggled to get their annual performance appraisals completed. Less than 20% of their staff received an appraisal at the end of their financial year. The challenges that they faced reminded me of a study undertaken by Investors in People a number of years ago that found a third of employees think that performance appraisals are a complete waste of time. The study identified that for many the annual performance appraisal ranks as one of the most unpleasant aspects of their job, as well as the most pointless! The same study found that half of those appraised believed that their bosses were being dishonest during the process, a quarter thought that it was just a tick box exercise and a fifth thought that their manager did not put any preparation in before their appraisal. All of these findings are a sad indictment of a process that in my opinion is an invaluable performance improvement and development tool when used properly. This got me thinking about why these issues arise in the first place and what can be done to prevent them from occurring? From my own personal experience I believe that there are a number of reasons why personal appraisals don’t work: • I have worked with and have been managed by people who think that an appraisal is simply an annual event. Yet, I have always believed that managing an individual’s performance and development is a continual process. In my opinion it is vital that people are given continual feedback and support to ensure that that they perform to the best of their ability. Rather than sitting discussing performance once a year, I believe firmly that managers need to formally sit down with each member of their staff on regular (e.g. bi-monthly) basis. This enables both the manager and employee to have full and frank discussions about progress and performance and nip any issues in the bud before they become a serious problem. I have found this approach a far more successful way of managing someone’s performance and development, than attempting to discuss these things on an annual basis. The annual appraisal should be a summary of all the discussions that have taken place during the year, and consequently not a surprise to either the employee or their manager. • I have worked for organisations who dictate that appraisals must be undertaken/completed within a specific time frame, for example, during December, in time for the year end. However, the problem with this approach is that a manager may have 10 or more staff that they have to appraise. This becomes too much of a burden in the time available and so the manager cuts corners to get them completed. The problem is then compounded if the manager concerned has staff based in different locations nationally or internationally. To combat this problem, I have seen more enlightened organisations use other approaches such as the date an employee joined as the appraisal anniversary date. In this way appraisal task becomes spread across the year. • Finally, too often managers do not have the skills necessary to manage the performance of their staff effectively. I have had managers conduct my appraisal who clearly did not know or understand even the basics. The consequence of this was that it left me extremely frustrated and de-motivated. In my view, performance management training should be an integral part of a manager’s recruitment or promotion. The training should include the principles of performance management as well as providing the opportunity for a manager to practice their appraisal interview and feedback skills in a safe environment. Sadly performance appraisal has a bad name in many organisations. However, by addressing the issues that I have highlighted above organisations and their staff can gain the full benefit from their performance appraisal processes.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

The Meaning of Leadership

I was discussing with a colleague the other day about what leadership is and what it means. To help my understanding I looked up the meaning in the Collins English Dictionary which defines the verb ‘to lead’ as ‘to show the way, to guide, to go ahead’. At its heart leadership I concluded is about taking people to new and different places. I reflected on the great Antarctic Explorers such as Shackleton, Scott and Amundsen, and realised that is exactly what they did. They took their teams to places that no one had ever been before. They did not have detailed maps, signposts or directions to show them which direction to go in, they just had the vastness of the Antarctic, and they had to provide the direction for their team themselves. My conclusion is that this is not so different from a leader of any team today. Neither I nor anyone else knows what the future will hold. There are no Ordnance Survey Maps, signposts, directions or a yellow brick road to future success, only blank space. This is an important point as my own experience has been that employees tend to look to their leaders to provide comfort from this ambiguity by providing a clear direction for them to follow. In my view this doesn’t matter whether the leader is the CEO of a multinational or the leader of a team of maintenance engineers. Working in an environment without clear direction is hugely frustrating. It is like watching a film that’s not in focus; you know that something is going on, you just don’t know what it is. I have seen the consequences of this at first hand. Without clear direction, employees chose for themselves the direction they should take and what they should focus on. While in some instances this may be acceptable, too often I have seen it create divisive relationships and poor performance as different team members pull in different directions and work on conflicting priorities. As stated above, the Collins English Dictionary defines the verb ‘to lead’ as ‘to show the way, to guide, to go ahead’. At its heart leadership is about taking people to new and different places, and in my view providing clear direction is a vital part of being a leader.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Leadership in a small business

In my opinion effective strong leadership is critical to the success of any business but its form depends on a business’s stage of growth. For example, when the business first starts up what is required is hands on approach while larger organisations will have managers who will be less involved in the day to day managing. Their position is much more of a leadership role, setting direction and conditions for success and establishing goals. I think that SMEs occupy the middle position between these two where leaders need to manage actively as well as set direction. My experience of working with different businesses is that they grow leadership style and their approach needs to change and ‘grow’ too. For example entrepreneurial individuals who start companies have unique skills and traits that often do not make them good leaders of larger organisations. I know that one of Sir Richard Branson’s secrets of success is that having started a business, he has always known when to bring in a professional management team to run it. It is therefore important that the person starting the business recognises the right time to handover the reins. My experience has been that this is often problematic as the person who started the business often doesn’t want to let go This is where an external person can add real value by challenging the business owner to prepare a plan for succession. They can also help to find the right personal fit with the CE or owner that is critical. The cost of making the wrong hire can be devastating! For a family run business I would normally expect the successor to be part of the family and expect it to remain in family hands. However, for the entrepreneur with no skilled or willing family members, it can be complex and emotional to identify successors. The best way I have seen this happen is to have a deputy ‘learn the ropes’ until the right time is to hand over. This provides both parties with opportunity to check that it works for both of them. While at its core leading a small business is no different than leading a large organisation there are some critical differences dependent on where the business is in terms of its stage of growth.