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The Standard You Walk Past Is the Standard You Set

One of the most important roles that a leader plays is to set the right standards for performance and behavior that the team is expected to rise to. Sometimes, we think we’re setting an appropriately high performance standard but the exceptions we make indicate otherwise.

How do you actually set the standard? Now, I’m talking about setting a higher standard here, because it takes no effort to maintain the existing standard… that ticks along regardless, and it’s just part of your culture. 

We set standards in two areas, behavior and performance. It’s hard to describe behavioral standards, because they’re not rule-based. Your people take their cues from seeing what happens around them.

For example, when you’re coming to the end of a financial year and everyone’s bonuses rely on hitting particular financial targets, how do you treat the accounting rules? Do you tell your finance department to get super creative so they can get you over the line for bonus, or do you tell them to play a straight bat and just do it the way it should be done, regardless of your personal outcomes?

If that’s what people see, it’s a slippery slope, and they will very quickly consider this to be the path of least resistance.

When you set standards for performance, the targets have to be tough. I know a lot of leaders who habitually make their targets easy to achieve so that they can personally profit from reaching them.

As CEO of CS Energy, I set uncompromising standards for safety performance. In fact, we didn’t achieve the primary safety measure on our scorecard five years in a row, because it was incredibly ambitious. But it forced us to go after real stretch performance, and I have absolutely no doubt that many of our people were spared from injury as a result. 

When the board asked why we repeatedly failed to meet this target, we looked at relevant benchmarking. We found that our peer organizations with very similar businesses were setting the bar way lower than we were. 

In fact, they managed to meet their much softer targets, even though our people were being injured at less than half the rate theirs were.

Once you’ve chosen the standards for behavior and performance that you’re comfortable with, make it clear to all of your people what’s expected. Communication is critical. Why are the new standards being set? What’s the catalyst for setting higher standards than you’ve set previously?

What’s the burning platform? Why do we need to do this now? What do I expect you to do differently? 

If you communicate well, you’ve got a good chance that people will buy into it.

Communicating the standard clearly, and making sure that the leaders below you understand and communicate it is critical. Just remember, no matter what you say, people watch your feet, not your lips. They’re going to work out what you do, not what you talk about. This is why not walking past an inferior standard of performance or behavior is so important.

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