When You Don't Have 90 Days to Listen

24 Jan. 2012 | Comments (0)

We've all heard of the 90-day listening tour that executives should take when they start a new job. But, in today's business environment, that's become something of a luxury. As a newly appointed or promoted manager, or someone spearheading a new project, you're more likely to need a plan of action within a month. So how do you get 90 days of insight in a just a few weeks? Bridgespan recently worked with the new leader of a national unit in a multi-billion dollar international aid agency to do just that.

The executive was tasked with transforming his new division into a service center for 22 field offices supporting community development. He knew he needed to get up to speed fast and so we helped him craft a three-step plan:

  1. Conduct an automated, anonymous survey of both senior and line managers to identify leadership blind spots.
  2. Follow-up with in-person interviews to identify the root causes of those disconnects.
  3. Hold a facilitated workshop to let employees hear each other out, agree on a set of initiatives and establish working groups to execute on them.

He did all this in just 21 days.

Let's look at each step in detail:

An anonymous survey is a great way to identify "blind-spot" areas where leaders, senior managers and line managers have very different views of your organization's effectiveness. Leaders might think their lieutenants are clear on strategy, but those lieutenants feel differently. Sometimes the disconnect is between the lieutenants and their reports. Simply listening to the usual suspects won't expose what's hidden. But a survey can. The leader we worked with invited his top 50 managers to go online and answer questions about their unit's vision and mission, decision-making, performance management, and readiness for change. Employees welcomed the chance to voice their concerns — more than 90% responded, many offering candid observations — and the exercise highlighted two significant problems. Front-line managers found the unit's decision-making culture to be paralyzing, and senior executives thought performance management systems were inadequate: they were losing their best people and retaining underperformers.

In-person interviews with employees at all levels help to unearth the root causes of disconnects that surfaced in the survey. In this case, our leader discovered that purchasing had been centralized even as programs expanded to multiple sites across the country, causing bottlenecks. Something as simple as a ream of paper could take weeks to get to the field office that needed it. Meanwhile, new performance review forms had confused managers, and only 40% of staff had actually received reviews. And the course-based management training was broken because it created no loyalty: top performers often parlayed it into higher paying jobs elsewhere.

The next step, a facilitated workshop, allows employees at different levels to acknowledge issues and develop solutions, while the new leader listens in "surround sound". Our aid agency executive did this in his third week into the assignment to boost organizational effectiveness. A group of 50 front-line supervisors, program managers and senior directors were invited to brainstorm in the safe space of their own peer groups with an outside facilitator, who helped them consider the survey and interview data, understand problems and develop ideas to resolve them. Suggested initiatives were then rolled up into a menu for action and voted by the entire group. The three solutions the crowd liked best were revising performance measurement forms to reward customer service, overhauling supply chain processes to allow for some local decision-making and shifting training toward on-the-job mentoring. Our leader also added a fourth initiative: region-wide benchmarking to stack his unit's progress against others. The four-day workshop concluded with participants forming cross-level working groups and taking ownership of specific tasks with agreed timelines and next steps With co-leadership from senior and front-line managers, all four initiatives progressed well over the following month.

Today, few people in a new role have time for a 90-day listening tour. But it's possible to accelerate learning using the three steps we've listed here. We call it a smart start.

This blog first appeared on Harvard Business Review on 1/17/2012.

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