April 16, 2012

What "good" looks like

I just finished Steve Jobs’ biography, which is very good, and obviously he was a visionary and genius. I also recently read an article about managers attempting to adopt Steve Jobs’ management style and techniques, including one CEO who even started wearing black turtlenecks.

I am not so sure this is a great idea, and not just because I’m not big on turtlenecks. While Jobs was brilliant at product design and innovation, as a manager, he was volatile and sometimes even downright cruel. He seemed to either love someone’s work or tell him it “sucked” (or worse). His methods of treating people were unkind and not something I would endorse.
Then why was he so effective? When he had a vision, he made this vision and his corresponding expectations absolutely clear to those around him. He put a lot of pressure on his teams and was brutally honest with feedback. A lot of employees couldn’t take it and left the company, but those who remained, excelled.
I can see benefits of adopting parts of his style, specifically the vision and expectations components. I have observed that employees who underperform often lack a clear understanding of what their managers really want them to do. That is, the underperforming employees don’t understand what “good” performance looks like. This is a lost opportunity because people inherently want to do good.

For employees, good performance results in increased compensation, recognition, and a feeling of being liked by their supervisor. Problematically, supervisors also want to be liked by their employees (with the apparent exception of Steve Jobs). So supervisors are soft about delivering unpopular messages, and are therefore vague about what constitutes good.
I once had a manager note in a performance review that an employee was making too many errors. That employee noted in the same review that their accuracy was good. As the warden famously said in Cool Hand Luke, "What we have here is a failure to communicate."

In addition, what we had was a failure to measure. There was no specific tracking of the employee’s accuracy, and no benchmark of group average or acceptable error rate, and thus no agreed-upon definition of what was good (or not). The employee and supervisor needed to have a common, measurable definition of what good was. Obviously, lack of measurement can lead to a misunderstanding of what “good” performance would be, causing frustration between the employee and supervisor, even if the supervisor is trying to give honest, constructive feedback. Almost every job has some critical measurable aspect of performance. In sales and production, it’s easy to define, but even for other areas, the metrics are there, particularly if you utilize supervisor, employee, and client satisfaction surveys.
So what can we learn from studying Steve Jobs? For an organization to be successful, its leaders must understand the importance of communicating the corporate vision and expectations. For employees to excel, managers need to provide definitions of good performance, these definitions should be measurable, and honest (but respectful) feedback is required. The turtleneck, on the other hand, should be completely optional.

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