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The Boomer Bulletin - 2011
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Guidelines for Setting Expectations

Posted By Sandra Wiley, Wednesday, August 10, 2011
Of all the challenges that we have as leaders in our firms, one of the most difficult is 
setting clear expectations and then ensuring that implementation follows.  Whether you are a partner, a manager or a committee leader setting expectations sounds like an easy assignment, but it is not.  There are many things that should be considered when you are setting expectations for your team.  Examples are:
  • Will you drive higher sales while minimizing client service complaints?
  • Will you get back to clients quicker when they have questions?
  • How will the team interact?
  • Are there any foreseen issues that could be created as a result of the expectation?
When you set expectations, typically you are trying to raise the bar or create some form of uniformity within your firm so there are some guidelines to follow when you are doing this:
Guideline #1: Make sure that you have buy in from the entire team and let them participate in setting the expectations.

In this case you may have certain things in mind before you meet with your team but a good leader is subtle in getting the expectations put in place and making it look like it was your team's idea all along. If you just dictate expectations, you are going to have a hard time with commitment from the team because they have no ownership. When you have buy-in it's a lot easier to hold your team accountable as well.

Guideline #2:  Don't set too many new expectations all at once.

You are human and so is your team. Don't try to change the world in one meeting. Effective change doesn't work that way. Figure out two to three of the most important needs for the project or task you are working on (with the help of your team of course) and focus on just those critical items. You may have 15 areas that you want to fix but you must resist the temptation of trying to fix it all because you will fail.

Guideline #3:  Hold people accountable.

What's the best thing about the whole team creating the new expectations? They now have ownership and it takes away excuses with regards to how they were set up. Make sure that if you set a new direction for your team that you are the leader of this new direction. As the leader, you must drive the new behavior not only by your actions but how you hold others to the standard.

If someone is off track and doing things in a manner that is not congruent with the expectations, you must "course correct” with that person immediately.  A professional conversation is necessary, yelling, berating and chastising will not be effective.  It's not enough to "course correct” once, you must also be consistent and "course correct” over the entire project or task.

Think of some of the committee or task forces that you have worked on in the past.  You have a strategic meeting and decide on what you are going to change.  The leader talks about how this month or quarter you will be doing things differently and a huge game plan for how it's going to be done is developed. No sooner do you get back to your desk when it’s business as usual for you and your team. Everyone ends up doing things the way they have always been done without a word from the leader of the meeting about it. What's the message that is sent? He/she's just not that serious about the changes discussed.

If you want to kill your credibility with your team, don't follow through on what you say you are going to do. You do this too often and everything you say to your team will be a joke. 

Guideline #4:  Follow up and update your team.

There are going to be some growing pains with expectation changes and it's important to have constant feedback on how things are going so that you keep your team in the game. Many leaders fall short here because feedback and updates can take a lot of work and diligence on your part. This is why you only set two to three new expectations so you are not following up too much. I think of the hard/easy rule with regards to this guideline. It may be hard to get your team executing your firm’s expectations in the beginning but if you stay the course and see it through you have created a new culture within your firm that, in the end, allows your team to be more successful.

Partners and managers tend to interact with their direct reports only on "special occasions” such as when something goes wrong or when they want someone to tackle a new project.  As a result, many managers do not set clear expectations for employees, which can lead to a variety of performance problems. A few ways to ensure that everyone will adhere to the expectations are:
  • Consistent One-on-One Dialogs:  You need to set your team up for success, and having consistent meetings that are strategic will insure a positive result.  These meetings do not need to be long, short and consistent is the key.  Managers must be clear as they outline the expectations and monitor employees’ progress, then small problems will not turn into big problems, resources will get used efficiently, employees will not waste time doing a task the wrong way, they will be more productive and produce higher quality work and they become more motivated. A lack of clear expectations will deprive employees of opportunities to learn from their managers. It deprives them of the opportunity to improve and fine-tune their work.
  • Ask Good Questions: If you take the time to ask your team good questions the payoff will be felt in the end results.  Questions should be deeper than simply "How’s everything going?” or "Is everything on track?” or "Are there any problems I should know about?”   Think about questions that will help you discover if expectations are really being met, such as:
    • Can you complete this project? What do you need from me in order to complete this project?
    • What is your plan for achieving this project? Have you set a schedule for meeting deadlines along the way? What date and time is the first reporting milestone? What initial steps will you follow? What will be the benchmarks for success at that milestone?
    • Have you created a to-do list or checklist for each step of the project? How long will step one take? What guidelines are you following for step one? What about steps two, three, four, and so on?
Where to start?

The first step, and most important, is to communicate clear and specific performance expectations. For recurring tasks, that can be accomplished through ongoing dialogs with employees and standard operating procedures providing step-by-step instructions.

To ensure that expectations are clear for special or one-time projects, we suggest partners and managers work with the team to create a project plan that identifies initial, intermediate, and final goals; the project’s specifications and requirements; steps that will be taken to accomplish established goals; and a timeline for each step.

Since most managers don’t get enough training in the basics of supervision, such as setting clear expectations, we recommend that Leadership Education should become a staple in every firm of every size.  This training should be practical, concrete, and focused on the basics.

Tags:  expectations  management 

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