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Why 'Key Results' Are Key to Changing Company Culture

It’s been said that leadership is defined by results. We think a better version reads: “Leadership is defining 'key results.' ”

August 11, 2014
Related Topics: Performance Management, Employee Engagement, Motivating Employees, The Latest, Talent Management, Workplace Culture
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Key Results August 2014

In early 2009, Brinker International Inc. faced massive business challenges: The economy had collapsed and the company’s business sector, casual dining, was experiencing one of the sharpest downturns of any business sector.

A 35-year-old organizational culture had slipped into a blame-game culture where no one would take responsibility for anything that was going wrong. Finger-pointing, confusion, cover your tail and other denial behaviors abounded.

This was an undeniably bad time for Brinker. Profits were down and shareholders were concerned with company stock dipping to an all-time low of $3.99 per share. Consequently, employee engagement plummeted to below 50 percent and turnover rates rose as a result to 110 percent annually.

At the time, Brinker had no fewer than 40 key performance indicators, or KPIs, across the organization that were inadvertently used as key results. It’s easier for company executives to admit now than it was then, but they knew they were experiencing a high degree of confusion around what to measure and really no way to remember easily at the team level just what they were accountable to produce.

Not Your Everyday Fajita

Without a doubt, Brinker executives knew the economy wasn’t coming back the way they had known it; “Brinker as usual” could not continue. To survive, they initiated a shift in corporate culture to embrace their new business reality. They understood this shift must precede anything else.

For a company where a new “initiative” usually involved introducing a new fajita menu item, stepping up to an all-encompassing culture change would be the mother of all initiatives. What could be true for many organizations was particularly true at Brinker:

1.     Leaders and managers were not accustomed to discussing the organization’s key results. 

2.     They rarely prioritized the most important results they needed to achieve a few simple, measurable objectives.

3.     There was a genuine hunger that was evident among the leaders for more conversation about how their jobs, responsibilities, teams, projects and priorities could be better aligned with the organization’s key results.

In our meeting with company leaders, we advocated that a culture of accountability would encompass the whole organization, including every initiative and all key results. It would require them to define just a few key results and then redefine accountability. Only then would they get their culture moving in the right direction — one where people understood and owned delivering the key results of the organization.

Linchpins to Success

It’s been said that leadership is defined by results. We think a better version reads: “Leadership is defining "key results."” Too many leaders in today’s organizations fail to clearly define, fully disseminate and adequately discuss key results that will focus their organization on achieving their most strategic and most important goals. Ask yourself this question: Do the people in your organization clearly understand the key results that your organization must deliver to ensure success?

Our research shows that 85 percent of organizations lack clearly defined key results, which leads to significant misalignment around key priorities. And nearly everyone — 84 percent of those surveyed — hold their leaders responsible for creating this degree of clarity.

It Starts With Accountability

Accountability begins with clearly defined key results. What you create accountability for is what you get, and what you get is what you created accountability for. That is resoundingly true when it comes to holding others and ourselves accountable. What we hold ourselves accountable for is what we get. Or, in other words, what we take ownership for is what we get.

Taking ownership is a critical step, and it can also be a difficult one. Making the tie between our own actions and the results we are getting, particularly when those results are not what we want, can take some real heart. Here are some questions you can ask yourself to help you make the tie-in:

1.     What am I pretending not to know about the effect of my role in the outcomes I am getting?

2.     What are the extra steps that I would take next time when faced with similar circumstances?

3.     What advice would I give someone else about how to move forward when faced with the same set of conditions?

Taking ownership for the results you want to get by making a complete, full and personal commitment to achieving them is an investment that will pay huge dividends. Tip: Try sitting down with someone you trust and discussing your ownership for issues keeping you from achieving your key results.

—Roger Connors and Tom Smith

Without clarity, confusion leaves the door open to poor execution and invites counterproductive behaviors. It licenses people to maintain the status quo and dismiss their accountability for results. It kills momentum because no one feels confident about which direction to move. By contrast, a clear focus on well-articulated, measurable key results reverses this and encourages people to look at what they can do to improve company performance and deliver results that are most needed, which is our definition of a culture of accountability.

Often, it’s helpful to define what is not a key result — or a valid obstacle to achieving one. Recently, Paul Byrne, the now-retired president of Precor Inc., one of the largest fitness manufacturers in the United States, stood before his Seattle-based organization and stated, “The world’s a mess, the company is slow, and the weather is bad. We’re simply not going to accept any of these old excuses anymore.” Following Byrne’s leadership around key results, Precor under current president Rob Barker’s leadership continues to excel at innovation and excellence in fitness equipment quality and customer service. 

Key results are those most important objectives that are prioritized as strategically essential to the organization’s success and which must be achieved. They should be memorable, measureable, and meaningful for everyone in the organization, and every person in the organization should be able to connect their daily work to these few results:

·       Meaningful results are prioritized.

·       Measureable results can be effectively quantified and frequently checked. If you can’t measure it, you can’t move it.

·       Memorable results can be easily remembered and regularly used to guide daily actions. Everyone should be able to repeat what the key results are.

We know that not every leader has a special genius in this area, and yet defining key results in a meaningful, measureable, and memorable way can give everyone in the organization the benefit of knowing exactly what they are accountable to deliver.

In fact, our research consistently shows that people who have a crystal clear understanding of their organization’s key results consistently demonstrate higher levels of accountability for achieving those results than do people who have a less clear understanding of their organization’s key results. People hunger for more clarity around the organization’s key results because they want to be successful, and they want to take greater accountability for what matters most to their organization. 

Tony Bridwell, Brinker’s chief people officer, said: “While at first we were chided for an oversimplistic version of our key results, this approach has rocked our world. Since beginning this exercise, we have returned almost 20 percent to our shareholders.” He added that turnover has dropped and engagement scores have risen.

Clarify, Communicate and Confirm

It could be argued that it’s impossible to hold everyone accountable, but it is possible for people to hold themselves accountable. Defining key results won’t create instant accountability nor will the exercise broadly convince everyone to take accountability — but it’s an essential first step. To get there, you must regularly clarify, reinforce and refocus the organization on those key results. Without concerted effort, the constant forces of resource constraints, problem-solving and operational pressures are working to cause the organization to drift away from this foundation. With concerted effort, people organizationwide begin to own their own contribution to key results.

Another benefit of this clarity is the common organizational language that follows. For instance, Kansas City, Missouri-based Commerce Bancshares Inc. recently clarified key results and communicated those throughout the organization. In addition, they used the key results to create a common language for measurement across the organization. Sara Foster, chief human resources officer at the 140-year old financial institution, confirmed the value of a common language for maintaining this focus. “The common language of always asking ‘What else can I do?’ is heard throughout our organization. Managers are reporting a real difference in the way employees are taking ownership for achieving results and not letting obstacles stand in the way of finding solutions to everyday challenges.”

The Payoff

Clearly, like Brinker, the best organizations lay claim to a culture where people demonstrate high levels of ownership to think and act in the manner necessary to achieve their key results. That starts by everyone knowing what those results are. The defining characteristic of this kind of culture is that people voluntarily assume their own accountability. Rather than having accountability forced upon them, they enthusiastically take it upon themselves. They are neither commanded to be accountable nor kept under surveillance until “called to account” for their actions.

In a culture of accountability, people at every level of the organization are personally committed to achieving key results targeted by the team or organization, and they never wait to be asked for a progress report or a follow-up plan. Instead, they report proactively and follow up constantly, diligently measuring their own progress because they have internalized their commitment to achieving results. Their mantra — “What else can I do to achieve the desired results?” — leads them to continually find answers, develop solutions, overcome obstacles and triumph over any trouble that might come along. And, as you would expect, everyone holds everyone accountable for achieving those results.

When properly framed by leaders, achieving key results really becomes everyone’s responsibility.

Roger Connors is CEO/co-founder and Tom Smith is co-founder of consulting company Partners In Leadership. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com. Follow Workforce on Twitter at @workforcenews.

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