So, you’ve hired great people, now what? Finding and hiring the right people is only step one in the journey to a world-class team. What you do after you hire them is as important – if not more. We are a professional services consulting firm where our product is delivering tangible outcomes for clients. Because this is a critical facet of our business, we’ve developed a framework to empower our great people and ensure excellent delivery. However, even if you are not a professional services consulting firm, the same approach will help you nurture excellence in your workplace.
I could go on for days about the importance of expectations1I will at some point. Consider yourself warned. For now, I’ll keep it short and sweet.
The first and most critical step in nurturing excellence is to communicate your clear expectations to a new person joining your team about their role and your goals for that role. They can't hit the target if they don't know where the target is.
As client-facing consultants, working in a framework of shared expectations takes on even more importance. Each of us must be able to set and meet expectations for clients daily. By immediately beginning this practice in internal conversations, we burn the approach that will drive successful client engagements into muscle memory. These conversations work like an echo chamber. After being given any direction, the recipient describes their understanding to ensure correct interpretation of scope and expectations. With this echo-based debrief, the parties can quickly resolve any misunderstandings.
Even if your people are not in external client-facing positions, almost every role includes other stakeholders who serve as the “client,” and in those situations, clear expectations are still foundational.
Another practice for nurturing excellence is providing documented processes so everyone knows how they are expected to operate. The benefits of documented processes are numerous, but to highlight a few:
- Documented processes are repeatable and scalable (e.g. more people can do things the same way).
- Documented processes enable someone new to ramp up quickly and do things “The Wittij Way” (insert your company name).
- Documented processes can be tweaked and improved over time to make even better-documented processes.
If you don't document it, is it even a process?
I can't overstate the importance of repeatability. We only hire highly skilled people, but often when we hire someone, it is because a client has said, “Hey, I love Jeff. His work is amazing. We need another Jeff!”
In those situations, it is not enough to have another intelligent person like Jeff, but also someone who delivers and operates the same way that Jeff does. We achieve this consistency and clarity by defining our processes clearly. We optimize these processes over time through continuous improvement. New people joining the team must master our methods “as is” to ensure they fully understand them without falling back into the comfort zone of handling something the way they have in the past. Once they have mastered our methods, those same people become part of our continuous improvement cycle.
Trust me; you want another Jeff too! Hire great people and provide repeatable processes, and you can have one.
Provide Knowledge Resources
In addition to processes, we also provide internal knowledge resources. Our curated knowledge bank stores our carefully crafted processes, samples, templates, reference material, and guidelines, as well as links to industry sources of information. It includes a peer-contributed section where we all share any resources (internal or external) that we have found useful and think others on the team might find valuable.
Providing this information accelerates the learning process, which helps everyone on the team grow their skills and knowledge. This is especially important as our people move from engagement to engagement and face new environments and challenges, but brings value to any organization:
- Nobody likes looking like they don't know what they are doing. It's stressful. Clear guidance and referencable material quickly close that knowledge gap.
- Having a “go-to” spot to learn something is much more efficient than “phoning a friend,” especially if you are unsure which friend knows the answer. Or if you just started a new job and are still making new friends.
For example, we create “Quick Start” guides to help new people understand our processes for solution architecture, covering topics such as risk, solution scoping, and diagramming information flows. We have the same for all our disciplines. To nurture excellence, you need to provide people with examples of excellence.
In a larger organization with a much wider sprawl of information, there are technology strategies for making information easily accessible without the overhead of storing it all in a central repository. (As an aside and shameless plug, we have done substantial work in the knowledge management space, so contact us if you face challenges in this area.)
Create A Mentoring Program
A mentoring program is a great way to help newly hired people ramp up and gain knowledge quickly. By assigning someone experienced to help someone just starting, we reap many rewards. This structure turns nurturing excellence into a one-on-one activity.
- The new person on the team has a safety net, so they can work quickly to master our processes without fear of a damaging misstep.
- Teaching something is a great way to hone mastery of a topic and sharpen your communication, so the mentor gains skill mentoring.
- The mentor serves as a quality checkpoint to ensure delivery quality.
It is not complicated to get mentoring in place. We assign a senior team member (and a backup for when the mentor is too busy to provide support) to be the “phone a friend” mentioned above. The new teammate has regular checkpoints with the mentor to discuss and validate their approach, and the mentor reviews every work product before the new person presents it to the client. Eventually, both parties are comfortable that the new person has mastered our processes, and the mentoring transitions to peer review.
Foster Peer Review
Peer review is another critical practice for excellence, especially since our people tend to work independently. It consists of people submitting their work for a group review, which we do virtually through Microsoft Teams. The benefits of peer review are plentiful for everyone, regardless of experience level.
- For junior members, they gain the experience of those with more experience and crowd-sourced perspectives from everyone.
- For more experienced members, the crowdsourced perspectives (even from more junior participants) uncover opportunities to improve their deliverables.
The great thing about peer review is that all forms of participation bring value. Even if you are not directly receiving feedback on your work product, you are refining your craft at providing feedback and learning from the discussion taking place. You also see great examples of high-quality work.
Support Self-Imposed Deadlines
Another practice for nurturing excellence is to allow everyone to own their deadlines. You assign a task, ensure they understand the expectation (see above), then allow them to estimate the work effort and make a commitment to a deadline. Sometimes this is a bit of “negotiation” because you may have more faith in their abilities than they do.
Realistic timelines are critical because unrealistic timelines lead to overworking and stress. Stress leads to failure, which leads to more stress, which leads to a very toxic work environment. By allowing people to make their deadlines based on what they believe it will take to deliver, they gain the empowerment of self-accountability and become increasingly skilled at estimating and creating a mental model for realistic expectations. (Eventually, we turn these mental models into documented models so the whole team can use them as a resource to make similar estimates.) There is also external accountability. Once someone makes a commitment, they are held accountable to meet that commitment. The most important skill anyone can have in the workplace is understanding expectations, making commitments based on those expectations, and then meeting those commitments. Through practice, your people can grow this skill.
- Realistically, there are some situations where timelines are driven by immovable forces and are excessively aggressive. There is no magic here to fix that, but those aggressive timelines should be the exception, not the rule.
- We all make mistakes, even more so before we have established a good mental model for estimating effort. That means we will all find ourselves in the situation where we realize that we cannot meet the expectation we set. It usually comes with a sinking feeling and increasing anxiety. The best move in this situation is to stop, take whatever consequence is associated with missing the commitment and make a new, realistic commitment. Any other reaction makes the situation worse.
Setting appropriate expectations requires being realistic with yourself and others about what you know and what you don’t know. Pretending to know more than you do is setting yourself up for failure. Instead, we encourage fundamental skills like listening, asking the right questions, and using all available resources to learn what you need to know. We believe a questions-oriented culture is a culture of growth for both the person and the practice. So, if you’ve built an environment where it is acceptable to ask questions, a knowledge gap that could take hours of research to fill can be closed with a few appropriate questions.
Hiring great people is a foundational first step, and I don't want to understate the fact that the people that work for Wittij Consulting were great long before joining us. However, it is equally important to continually empower great people and set them up for success.
I hope you have found this review of our approach helpful. These practices for nurturing excellence benefit our corporate culture internally and are also essential for ensuring external success with clients and fostering this growth of excellence results in a Wittij Consulting team equipped to handle anything that comes their way.