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  • Writer's pictureMatt Stephenson

Set Expectations - you of others and others of you

Whenever I start a new leadership role, whether permanent, interim or fractional, I like to Take Control of Day One. There are lots of facets to that, and I might talk about them in a later Blog post, but one of the most important things to do on Day One is to set expectations. It is really important to set expectations early, because it is much easier to do when you have no preconceptions or first impressions formed about the majority of people in your teams.

For the last decade or so, I've used broadly the same expectation setting material, because so far I've found that it travels fairly well, and has really worked for me in terms of securing early engagement from the motivated members of my teams.

It is much easier to do when you have no preconceptions of first impressions formed about the majority of people in your teams.

The right expectation setting also sends a warning shot across the bows of anyone in the team who isn't entirely bought into the change (a new person leading a team is always a change). I find this is much easier to do when I have not yet worked out who those people are. I don't find myself accidentally looking at the people who might be problematic when I say it. I can say it much more firmly, but with a bit of humour, when it is not aimed at specific individuals. It is also useful because if I do then find people who are resistant to change, or worse, disruptive, I can reference the unambiguous setting of expectations on Day One as an opener to the often dreaded "difficult conversation". By the way, there's actually no such thing as a difficult conversation if it is well prepared for, driven by facts and backed up by clarity of expectation throughout.

So, how do I go about setting expectations. The most important thing, I think, is to make sure that the expectation setting is bi-directional. If I am going to tell my teams what I expect of them, it is only fair that they know what they can expect from me in return. It's essential that expectations are clear and unambiguous.

Typically, I do three things. I describe my Leadership Style, I make clear my expectations of my teams and I tell my teams what they can expect of me in return. There's a bit of overlap between my leadership style and the expectations, but I'm ok with that because repetition helps it land.

The most important thing is to make sure that the expectation setting is bi-directional.

You'll obviously find your own, because your style won't be the same as mine, but I typically start the description of my leadership style with "I am not going to micro manage you". Then I talk about 4 things:

  1. I will set clear direction, provide support, unblock issues, give clear guidance.

  2. I will look to my management team to be accountable leaders in their own areas.

  3. I will give everyone credit for their skills and experience - everyone has value to add.

  4. I will be tough on poor performance and supportive of talent and hard work.

The last one (about performance) is absolutely critical. Usually on Day One I have no first hand experience of the performance of any individual. I was once asked in one of my Day One presentations whether I had been hired to cull or outsource the team. I was able to say with absolute honesty that "anyone who wants to work hard, get behind the vision and strategy, and help us make this team even more successful has nothing to fear. But anyone who doesn't want to do those things might find it uncomfortable". I learned afterwards that the honesty in that statement was very much appreciated by the teams, and so I kept it as something to specifically talk about in subsequent similar situations.

After talking about my leadership style, I talk about my expectations of my teams. It is always slightly tailored for my employer or client, but the main facets are:

  1. Make stretching but achievable commitments, and then deliver on them.

  2. Do the best work you can every day, even if today's work is not your best work.

  3. Be honest and have integrity.

  4. Take accountability. It is ok to make mistakes in the pursuit of excellence.

  5. Play fair - give credit where credit is due. Celebrate the success of others and yourself.

  6. Operate as One Team - support and challenge your colleagues.

  7. Embrace change.

Anyone who wants to work hard, get behind the vision and strategy, and help us make the team even more successful has nothing to fear

Finally, I talk about what my team members can expect from me. Again, always slightly tailored to the audience, but broadly speaking consist of:

  1. I will support you any way I can to do your best work.

  2. I will endeavour to set clear direction at all times (and tell me if I don't!)

  3. I will give credit where it is due.

  4. I will highlight talent and be tough on poor performance.

  5. I will give timely feedback.

  6. I will listen to well formed arguments and proposals and support them.

It is really important, in my opinion, to be really clear about expectations from the very outset because it allows you to have difficult conversations later referencing those expectations, and it also helps with the justification for anyone who has demonstrated elevated potential being endorsed and uplifted.

Most importantly, though, clear expectations help your team members accept you into the team, and establish your position as their leader. My experience has been that even the most mature teams that are capable of high degrees of self-organisation like to have an accountable, consistent leader at the helm who has got their back. Even in the sort of meritocracies I try to operate, there is still a need for a bit of hierarchy when it comes to unblocking issues, resolving deadlocks or making a decision when the way forward is not necessarily clear.

The expectations you set, of your teams and others, might be different to mine - that's fine. But do set them because your teams will thank you for it.

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