“A good leader takes a little more than his share of the blame; a little less than his share of the credit.” – Arnold H. Glasgow
Do you have a teammate or team whose performance isn’t meeting your expectations? Unless you’re a very, very good leader in a well-run team and organization, odds are that you do.
Let’s call this sub-par performance the “performance gap” because there’s a gap between your expectations and your teammate’s performance. An individual’s poor performance is usually just the tip of the iceberg, with the underwater portion of the iceberg being made of performance gaps at the strategic, planning, communication, or systemic levels.
Let’s take a look at each gap in turn.
The Strategy Gap
At the very bottom, we have the strategy gap. In this context, I’m referring not to your operational strategy but to your foundational strategy – your vision, values, mission, and goals. These four components of your foundational strategy show where you’re going, what you believe, why you’re in business, and what targets you’re trying to hit.
A strategy gap exists when there is a non-existent, unclear, or inconsistent foundational strategy. The result of a strategy gap is a lot of incoherent action, wrong turns, fits and starts, confusion, and low morale. Your foundational strategy shows what game you’re playing and what winning looks like. Many people find it harder to not know what game they’re playing than to lose at a game they really want to play.
The Planning Gap
Having a well-articulated strategy is insufficient to drive great results in your team, simply because that strategy needs to be converted into a plan of action. A planning gap occurs when there’s a strategy without a plan of action.
Here’s one way to look at this: if the foundational strategy says “What and Why,” the plan says “When.” It allows people to prioritize their efforts and focus on discrete projects and objectives that push the ball ever forward. Few things are more reassuring to people than to know that they’re working on the right things at the right time.
The symptoms of a planning gap are less severe than those of a strategy gap because people at least have a better idea of the “What and Why.” General overwhelm is more of a concern because people within the team are trying to do too much at once. One of the upsides of displacement is that it teaches us that we can’t do everything at once.
The Communication Gap
A communication gap occurs when there’s a strategy and a plan, but they aren’t being communicated broadly and consistently. The “brain” of the team works, but there’s no nervous system moving the “body” of the team.
In my experience, communication gaps occur for three main reasons: 1) the people with the strategy and plan are too busy to communicate them, 2) the people with the strategy and plan forget that other people don’t know the strategy and plan, and 3) the people with the strategy and plan don’t know how to parse the “higher-up” strategy and plan into something that people “doing the work” can understand and find relevant and compelling.
For instance, many strategic plans have margins as a goal for the team to hit. That may make sense to the founders and executives running the business, but those goals are just numbers to people who haven’t been taught about margins or about what causes margins to rise and fall. So, at the communication stage, the leaders of the team need to either educate the team about what margins are and what causes them to rise and fall OR translate that goal into something that their team can actually understand and affect.
The Middle Gaps Are Where the Magic or Mystery Happens
Rather than keep driving on, I’m going to slow down here because it’s these middle gaps that make so much of the difference to a team’s results. In both my military and business experience, poor communication has been the dominant predictor of poor performance at both the team and individual levels.
Let’s flesh out the margin example above. Let’s say the company in question is a manufacturing company. Given the business models of manufacturing companies, gross profit is a perennial concern because they can never get away from the fact that they must buy raw materials to create their product, and the cost of goods takes away from every dollar they make. If $.35 of every dollar of the finished product is the cost of the raw materials, that leaves only $.65 for the company to do anything with.
There are many strategies for increasing gross profit margins, but three are obvious: 1) increase the price of the final product, 2) decrease the amount of waste accrued in the manufacturing process, and 3) find a lower-cost supplier of the raw materials being manufactured into a finished product.
If you’re someone who’s doing the actual manufacturing at the company, you can’t really affect strategy #1 or strategy #3. You can, however, help create or implement solutions that decrease waste (strategy #2). Manufacturing companies adopt Lean methodologies precisely because they empower everyone in the company to work on process improvements in ways that align with the company’s strategic goals.
Here’s where we really start to see the effect of strategy and planning. A company that adopts a training and management strategy that prioritizes employee development would likely take the time to hire good people whom they want to train, retain, and grow. A company that focuses solely on short-term goals may unconsciously de-emphasize HR because good HR programs can be seen as an expense.
But it’s the company that educates and empowers its employees that is more likely to meet its strategic goals because company leaders can tap into a broader pool of human insight, capabilities, and energy. The company’s foundational strategy determines how much the executives prioritize education and empowerment, which in turn determines how they communicate with employees.
Returning to our gross-profit-margin example, the managers and leaders are responsible for translating the strategy and plan in ways that their teammates understand. Furthermore, strategies and plans that are incomprehensible are a reflection of the capabilities of the people developing them, not those of the people trying to follow them.
The Systems Gap
A systems gap occurs when a strategy, a plan, and communication are in place but people have to fight against the business’s systems, or those systems are simply not in place. In this context, I’m using “system” to cover processes, systems, procedures, and tools, as opposed to my more narrow distinction between a process and a system.
If our team’s goals were to plant a thousand trees and we didn’t have shovels and equipment, it would be obvious that we shouldn’t expect those trees to get planted. The team simply lacks the tools they need to get it done.
While that case may sound extreme, it’s easy to find parallels across a wide range of businesses. Many sales teams don’t have a CRM that helps them stay on top of leads and deals. Operations managers don’t have dashboards that show them what’s going on in the business. Admin teams are working off of 82 spreadsheets rather than one database because they can’t get the budget for an IT specialist to help them. Mobile workforces aren’t provided with LTE devices because the upfront cost is too high. And then there’s the global lack of procedures, handbooks, and other documentation that would provide guidance to teammates on how to do their jobs.
In other cases, legacy systems may be out of alignment with the team’s current strategy and operations. Simple systems may not work for more complex teams, just as more complex systems that worked with a smaller team may not work with a larger team. Given business-operations creep, newer activities may not have the needed supporting systems, either because they’re too new or because the organization hasn’t taken seriously the fact that the new activities require new support systems. A team of tree planters can be “temporary lumberjacks” for only so long before the team has to take seriously the idea that they’re really lumberjacks who might also need to plant trees.
Systems should support the people doing the work. When the systems don’t – either because they’re non-existent or because they’re out of alignment – then we should expect a lower level of performance from our teams and individuals.
The Performance Gap
A performance gap occurs when teams or individuals have everything needed (the strategy, the plan, the communication, and the systems) to accomplish their goals but don’t do so.
Few people wake up in the morning and think “today is a good day to disappoint my teammates and boss” or “you know, I’ve been working on this project for a long time and I think I’ll just tank it today.” We’re social creatures hard-wired to get approval from those around us, and most people want to be successful. We’re people-pleasing winners at heart, which is sometimes our own undoing; going off the beaten path makes you a weirdo, which is enough to keep people from doing the things that would otherwise make them come alive.
So, if people aren’t performing well, it’s not because they don’t want to. In nearly every performance review that I’ve done or seen done, an individual’s performance was impaired by one of the gaps discussed above. Granted, other factors, such as troubles at home, health challenges, or money woes, could be affecting someone’s performance, and unfortunately, it’s often hard to figure out that that’s what’s going on because of the trust and rapport needed for teammates to divulge that information.
What’s doubly unfortunate is that because we don’t often know about those outside factors, it’s more likely that the individual’s performance is seen as a strike against their self-management capabilities or their being “all-in” with the company.
Individuals Can Mitigate the Effects of the Gaps Above Them
The truly talented people in your team can mitigate the effects of the gaps above them. Their aptitude, attitude, and ambition can swim against the gappy stream and they’ll still perform well.
They’ll also shrink the gaps to the degree that they can. But some team cultures are so ossified and stagnant that there’s little that people can do to change those cultures. Creative Giants will stick with you to the degree that they can grow and change things for the better. The degree to which you can gain and retain them is a litmus test for how gappy your team is.
In my nearly 30 years of leadership experience and my years of business advising, I’ve seen leadership, gumption, talent, and can-do from people “on the line” get stifled, stamped out, or squandered by the managers above them more often than not, so I bristle when higher-ups blame the performance or talent of their workers when things don’t go as well as planned. I look for root causes of performance and excellence, and it so happens that a lot of root causes of performance come not from the top-level actions we see, but from the foundations, far deeper down.
So, yes, star performers will still get the job done, but not nearly as well as they might without having to bridge all the gaps. And while it’s great to have other people do parts of your job, working to close the gaps is one of the most valuable things you can do for your team because it means you’re working on the growth areas at the core of your business.
Work Your Way Down the Chain of Gaps to the Root Causes
The next time you notice a performance gap, I’d encourage you to suspend judgment about whether the cause lies within the individual or the team. Instead, start working your way to root causes by asking:
- Do people have the systems they need to do the job? (Is there a systems gap?)
- Have they been told what’s expected of them and what the plans are? (Is there a communication gap?)
- Is there a clear plan that makes good use of their talents? (Is there a planning gap?)
- Does what you’ve asked them to do align with your foundational strategy? (Is there a strategy gap?)
The hard part about working your way to root causes is that your team’s performance is a direct result of your performance. It takes backbone as a leader to own up to your own shortcomings, but hey, that’s why you get paid the big bucks. It’s your job to provide a foundation for your people so they can do the good job they most want to do.
While I’m on it, if any particular teammates or teams are performing well despite the gaps, now might be a good time to acknowledge their efforts.
Which of the five gaps that predict performance most need your attention today? (Click here to tweet this. Thank you!)