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Defining Success


February 2015

A high-performing leader notices a pattern: he assumes people know how he will measure success. He and his coach discuss ways to make success more attainable for everyone.

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February 2015

Defining Success

Tom Henschel

Vague but valuable

Ramesh ran the project management team in his company. In his role, he was exposed to virtually all the executives and their teams. Few people in the company were as visible as Ramesh. Or as well liked.

When I asked why he wanted coaching, he said, “I had a coach about six or seven years ago and it was great. But some new stuff is happening so I thought I’d get a coach again.”

I asked what “new stuff” meant. He said, “Oh, just little stuff. A little bit of turnover. A little resistance to my ideas. I think it’s time for a tune-up.”

The feedback I gathered about Ramesh came back rousingly positive. No single development issue surfaced. On the one hand that was good; there were no derailers looming along his path. But neither were there specific issues we could focus on and get some big wins.

Consequently, we began the coaching without having set clear goals. Coaching sometimes suffers from that sort of lack of direction, but Ramesh was so smart and self-aware, I trusted we’d find value wherever the coaching led us.

She should know! … Shouldn’t she?

Our conversations quickly covered topics from macro issues affecting the business at large, to micro issues like managing his direct reports. For example, we talked quite a bit about a direct report of his named Katrin.

Ramesh had hired Katrin himself but was having doubts. “Her pedigree is perfect. She should be able to do her job without breaking a sweat. But she always seems to need help. She slows things down and doesn’t seem clear on her deliverables.”

Katrin and I had spoken when I was collecting Ramesh’s feedback. She seemed a highly articulate, savvy young woman. And she’d expressed frustration with Ramesh. “I don’t know why, but he thinks I should know how things work around here. But I don’t. And if no one’s going to teach me the ropes, I have to figure it out on my own. And that takes time.”

Seemed reasonable.

Since Katrin’s feedback had been confidential, I couldn’t bring up her situation specifically. Instead, when Ramesh expressed frustration about her, I asked, “How are you defining success for her?”

He began his answer by talking about the role of a project manager. Then he talked about Katrin’s specific skills—how great they were. Then he talked about repeatedly having to rescue her. Finally, after more thinking out loud, Ramesh was able to identify that he was defining Katrin’s success two ways: first, by the number of projects she was running; second, whether those projects were running smoothly. Katrin was succeeding in the first but not the second.

I asked, “So if I talked with Katrin, would she know how you’ve defined her success?”

“She should!” he said.

“What have you actually told her?”

“Well, obviously I haven’t told her those two measurements—I just figured ‘em out!—but she should know how to define success as a project manager. She’s been at the game a long time.”

In other conversations, Ramesh repeated similar statements.

Define success explicitly

For example, he talked about a meeting with his direct reports and their direct reports. He’d instituted the meeting eighteen months before but wasn’t getting what he wanted out of it.

What, I asked, was the purpose of the meeting?

He talked a long time before he was able to say he’d conceived the meeting as a best practices meeting. “But it isn’t that now,” he said. “It’s gotten squishy. I’d rather kill it than have it be a time waster.”

I asked, “If I polled the participants, would they all agree it’s a best practices meeting?”

“I hope so!”

I asked—as I had when discussing Katrin, “What have you actually told them?”

And I heard the refrain, “They should know.”

I began intentionally driving our conversations to a point when I could ask, “What have you actually told them?”

Invariably, Ramesh would say some version of, “he” or “she” or “they” ‘should know.’

Before long, Ramesh began to recognize my question. And his answer.

After one such exchange he said, “I assume a lot, don’t I?”

“Do you?”

“Well, come on! How else could I think ‘they should know’ unless I’d made a whole lot of assumptions? Like assuming they see the world the same way I see it. And of course, they don’t.” Then he deadpanned, “More’s the pity.”

We smiled.

“I understand the lesson here, Tom,” he went on. “I’m learning that I need to tell people how I define success. In fact, I did it this weekend and it saved me from a fight with my teenager. We were toe-to-toe about something she hadn’t done. And you know what she said to me?”


Giving a good impression of an aggrieved teenage girl, he said, “’Dad! What am I? A mind reader?’ The instant I heard her say that, I thought, ‘Uh-oh. Wait. Maybe I never told her how I define success.’ And I hadn’t. Not clearly. I’d made some big assumptions.”

“Wow,” I said, impressed by the connection he’d made.

“So I get it. Stop assuming people know what’s in my head. Define success. OK. But there’s a bigger issue.”

“What?” I asked.

“I can’t tell people anything if I don’t know it yet.”

Unsure what he meant, I waited.

“I haven’t known how I define success until you and I’ve talked it out. Until you ask me to define it, my ideas about success are kind of soft.” He shook his head. “It’s ironic. I’d never green light a project if the criteria for success were as vague as what’s in my head.”

“Vague? Really, Ramesh?”

“I think so. Like with the coaching. We started without knowing what success was going to look like. That’s vague! Even now, if the SVP of HR walked in here and asked me how I’m going to define success in the coaching, I think I’d still sound vague.”

“Not exactly ‘The Look & Sound of Leadership’?” I asked drily.

“Not exactly!” he agreed with a smile. He turned inward. “You know what I think I’m learning about myself? I figure things out by talking. Maybe that’s part of why I wanted coaching again. When else would I have time to talk like this and figure things out? But there’s no way I can replicate this on a daily basis. It’s a miracle I can carve out the time with you!”

Make it an agenda item

I asked, “You want an idea?”

“Please!” he shot back.

“Make it an agenda item.”

He rolled that idea around then asked me to explain.

“Imagine you want to give Katrin some feedback,” I said. “And suppose you haven’t figured out yet how you’re going to define success for her. Well, make that an agenda item.” I used my hand as if marking out words on a banner: “’How do I define success?’ Then start the conversation by asking how she defines success.”

“Oh, my god!” he said, as if this were an epiphany. “That’d be a win in so many ways. I could talk my ideas out. And she could talk her ideas out. And that would help her buy in. That’s great!”

He made some notes, then stopped writing. “But wait. What about with groups, like with the meeting? I don’t want to assemble the whole meeting, then say, ‘Gee, could you all help me figure out what you’re doing here?’ That’d sound pretty lame!”

“If defining success becomes an agenda item, then you wouldn’t create the meeting without having a definition. Maybe you float your idea during a few one-on-ones. ‘Hey, I have an idea about a new meeting. It’s still kind of vague but here’s what I’m thinking. What do you think?’ You’d have to explain yourself. And each time you do, you’d clarify your thinking. And you wouldn’t call the meeting until you could articulate what success will look like.”

Ramesh began applying this lesson—how will I define success?—throughout his life. Every time we met, he eagerly told me another example.

To prove how his failure to define success had impacted performance, at his very next multi-level meeting, he asked everyone to take a piece of paper, and, without talking, write down what they thought the purpose of the meeting was. Later, he showed me the slips. Many had written that it was a best practices meeting. But many hadn’t.

“No wonder it’d gotten squishy,” he said. “But now that my own definition is clear, I could tell them that, yes, it’s a best practices meeting. That’s how we’ll define success.”

For you, in all parts of your life at work—and perhaps your life outside of work, too!—put it on your agenda to ask yourself how you’ll define success. Don’t move forward until you know. Then, once you know, tell people. That way, you’ll all move together towards The Look & Sound Leadership™.

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