Leadership drives performance, so why not cultivate the habits of your best leaders to make high performance practice common practice?
What if all leaders performed like the best leaders?
Finding and cultivating what makes for good leaders in your business offers a high return. Performance can vary significantly across an organisation, even in operational businesses where sites deliver the same products and services, use the same systems and practices. Leadership is often the key difference, as businesses discover when they transfer a great leader to transform performance in an under performing area. Imagine the benefits if all of your leaders performed like your best leaders.
Leaders can change their performance by changing their habits
Some organisations now change behaviour, and hence performance, by targeting routines or habits. Why? Because most behaviour is habitual. A 2006 Duke University paper cited in The Power of Habit found that more than 40 per cent of the actions people performed each day weren’t conscious actions, but habits. Furthermore:
- habits can be changed
- changing a habit is a more effective path to behavioural change than following through on a decision or commitment to change, which relies on scarce resources of effort and willpower
- habits are likely to persist over time because they are automatic.
Identifying and cultivating productive individual and organisational habits appeals to many of our clients because it is:
- evidence-based, drawing on practices proven to work in the business
- simple, encouraging focus on a small number of specific things
- practical, focussing on targeted, applied changes.
The following examples from our experience with innovative clients illustrate what this can look like in organisations.
Developing high performance in common, distinguishing routines
A global resources client identified the routines of its best leaders. It found that its best front-line leaders (upper quartile business performance and better than average employee perceptions survey data) – who deliver 20 per cent higher productivity than average performing leaders – did certain everyday activities (‘routines’) differently from average performers. These were routines such as running team meetings, participating in cross-team meetings and having one-on-one conversations with their people. They found the most impactful of these routines to be one-on-one conversations.
Nous partnered with this business to develop an innovative program for operational leaders that focussed on improved performance in these specific routines. The program has had an unprecedented positive impact across the business.
Deliberately creating simple organisational habits
A major Australia-based financial services client embedded a small set of very simple tools to, in effect, form core organisational habits around things like feedback. These changes drove positive culture change (recognised by an external award) and improved business performance. The focus on a few simple tools and behaviours – routines – embedded a new, common language in the business, too; a shared frame of reference that has proven very powerful.
Diagnosing specific practices of the best leaders for others to copy
An iconic Australian organisation found its best operational leaders (verified against business performance and staff engagement survey data) had evolved leadership practices that set them apart with respect to each of the business’ target capabilities. There was strong correlation between the practices adopted by different leaders. For example, for the capability ‘drive execution’, the practices of many great leaders were routines like:
- give daily feedback to staff on operational performance
- explain the ‘why’ and the impact of every instruction.
Interestingly, the great operational leaders also told us they have ‘mantras’ – like a slogan they repeat to themselves and their teams to focus their attention. These were things like:
- “What would you do if it was your business?”
- “What’s the standard you’re setting?”
These mantras were effectively the way these leaders cultivated the right mindset for high performance.
Seizing the opportunity to make high performance routine
Identifying and teaching the capabilities of high performers is a well-trodden path for developing leaders, but frequently delivers disappointing results in terms of changed behaviour. Identifying and teaching high performance routines offers an alternative approach: one that we see delivering strong result for our routines.
How could business leaders and HR directors seize the opportunity?
- Identify your best leaders and deeply examine their practices to discern their points of difference – their distinguishing routines
- Plan to cultivate these distinguishing routines in others. We have seen this take forms including:
- a development program
- a CEO-down cascade of teaching and role modelling
- short, facilitated conversations led by the best leader
- facilitated ‘incursions’ as part of the normal business rhythm (e.g. regular meeting) to focus on a specific routine at a time
- simple tools like tip sheets.
- Consider how you’ll embed the optimal routines, probably thinking about the key levers and ways to remove any blockers, rather than planning a program of change. For example, one client used ‘social pressure’ as a lever (e.g. your exec leader will call in a month to see how you’re going with this). Another worked out some legacy processes and practices had to be stopped and cleared away to remove a key blocker.
Nous partners with great organisations to help them find and seize these opportunities to improve performance.
Article penned by Nous Group Principal, Penelope Cottrill.