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Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Making professional staff accountable

Bill Caswell leads a seminar on Making Professional Staff Accountable. The result, for me, are insights in how to measure our employees' success in client relations and marketing.

Yesterday, in the midst of the challenges and chaos of multi-tasking as our business grows, I took three hours for a program by Bill Caswell, "Making Professional Staff Accountable". I thought the topic would be peripheral to our business -- but relevant for this blog; especially for mangers at architectural and engineering offices, responsible for supervising talented professional employees.
Indeed, many of the people in the room with me live in different spaces -- including managers at law offices, and government crown corporations. But Caswell addressed some of the major issues I've been struggling with in building out your business plan: How do you ensure your team achieves the highest level of performance, and how do you measure this effectively?
Underlying these observations (and explaining the relevance to this blog) is the fact that perhaps 80 per cent of marketing success within the construction industry is defined by the quality of your actual work product and, in creating that product, the quality of your employees and their relationships with each other and your clients.
To summarize a simple non-mathematical equation:

Great employees + great work quality + great relationships = great marketing.

(The equation of course is NOT mathematical because the employees, quality, and relationships all build on each other; that is, they attract each other so the actual numbers on the left side of the equation will multiply rather than simply add to marketing effectiveness if all is working the way it should).

Caswell advocates establishing for each job some very simple and easily measurable performance indicators; no more than three, which can be assessed quickly and simply. The assessment of these indicators should also be simple, with only three choices: Exceeding expectations, Meeting Expectations, or Not Meeting Expectations (which can be translated to a traffic signal, with Green, Orange and Red indicators).

In defining these expectations, Caswell emphasises, "Only items over which the employee has control should be measured". This is vital -- you can't impose stuff on your employees without giving them the power to decide, to act, and be in control of their responsibilities, if you wish them to be properly accountable. In defining expectations, obviously the priority should be on the client interests -- that is, the person/group to which the employee reports (or, in the context of this blog, the interactions of the employees/business with your clients). Again, Caswell uses some common sense -- he advocates you focus on the most important 80 per cent of the job responsibilities in developing these measurement tools; you can spend much time worrying about the 20 per cent remaining, but it doesn't really matter in the scheme of things.

The expectations with a feedback loop from the clients then are incorporated into the quarterly employee evaluation. This evaluation, Caswell notes, should not be tied to compensation -- that should be assessed separately. (This is wise, of course, because evaluation systems quickly can be 'gamed' when money is involved!)

Some of my colleagues in the room enjoyed the theory, but pointed out problems. The concepts might be nice in theory, but how do you implement them in a unionized work force, or within a government bureaucracy, where individual managers really don't have the authority or control to implement these processes. Caswell acknowledged these limitations, but added that people can make changes within their own scope of responsibility, and when they do, the larger organization often takes positive notice.

Of course, since I own the business, I don't have these constraints, and in general I like the approach. I'll summarize my take-aways (though if you investigate this stuff you may find other things of value):
  • Many measuring systems are quite complex, with gradations and multiple scoring. The "three choice" model, essentially: Less than satisfactory, satisfactory, and more than satisfactory, is appealing because it is simple -- it won't be hard for someone to give a simple check-box on a report sheet -- and lends itself to really easy to follow graphical dashboard images (the traffic signal).
  • The suggestion that not more than three things be measured for each employee, and you only measure the top 80 per cent of relevant performance elements, again, keeps the process simple and easy to follow. This also means it is much easier to act/resolve and fix problems.
  • Finally, and most importantly to me, I can see how this measurement system can link the employee performance to our marketing assessment.
If we have a very simple measure of client satisfaction, we can tell if our employees interacting with the clients are getting it right. Of course, this process is not exactly the one described by Fred Reichheld (Net Promotor Score) and you will notice earlier postings in this blog questioning traditional intrusive client satisfaction surveys. My sense, however, is that we won't impose on clients and can get some very good feedback (maybe 80 per cent of what we are seeking) with the truly simple three-choice satisfaction question, allowing room for comments.
I will test the concept in the next couple of weeks and see if we indeed have the means to gather meaningful, and quick, assessments of client/employee quality and satisfaction.

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