Big Wave Thinking

By Ian MacNeil, principal at Standish Executive Search

Growing up as a kid on California beaches, I wasn’t a great surfer. In fact, I was goofy-footed. This term means that I stood on my surfboard with my left foot in back, which is opposite of most surfers who put their right foot in back. I now look at my business career and how I was being directed to do things opposite of the way they “should” be done. Leadership in business is sometimes similar; that is, creating what feels right even when it doesn’t necessarily fit with convention. For some, this is a definition of entrepreneurship.

Finding the perfect wave in business can take a company on an amazing ride. Some companies like Netflix are now riding their third perfect wave by reinventing themselves to catch the next wave of innovation before others find it. From distributing movies in DVD format, to streaming and finally to creating highly addictive original content, the company has been grabbing early 2020 headlines by being the stock of the decade and proving long term investors with a 4,000% return over the past 10 years.

However, riding the perfect wave as a company goes beyond the business model and requires leadership and teamwork. as we turn the calendars and enter a new decade, one of the biggest waves in our business world these days for both employees and employers is the job performance review process. It is often dreaded by all participants. Most times, the expectations of the performance review between employees and management have opposite goals. The company’s perspective has Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) that are based upon financial and operational goals for the organization, versus the hopes of the employee, who is looking to capture a raise in salary, promotion and accolades.  Without consistent communication during the year and a steady leadership objective for staff, the performance review process can be very stressful and can even create poor morale.

Like business leaders, surfers aspire to find the best waves. Recently, 54 of the world’s best surfers competed in California ahead of the 2020 Olympics in a man-made pool. It is a 700 yard-long structure that has revolutionized competitive surfing. Proponents have described the complex as akin to the mining industry; big, powerful machines that must work to provide a wave that is consistent and measurable for an equal evaluation of competitors. In business and leadership, this is a valuable metaphor for avoiding the evaluation and communication pitfalls to employees in 2020. One wave doesn’t fit all.

KPIs can be convenient, as would be creating the same wave for every competitive surfer. However, the performance evaluation process is often a convenience for management but does not meet the expectations of employees who may have little input in company’s financial goals upon which they are rewarded. At the surfing ranch in California, the waves are all the same, removing the unpredictability of natural forces and neglecting the true instinct of great surfers to differentiate their talents. In a like manner, business performance reviews can account for pre-assessed measurable statistics but may miss the nature of employees’ motives and talents. This could result in losing good employees, and further, might result lost profit and productivity.

Unpredictability can create opportunity. Your business is probably not completely static and consistently repetitive, like the man-made waves. Circumstances change, technology shifts and there are new waves to ride. Your team – which likely includes people with diverse skills and personalities – needs to be prepared for the ride. If they are all evaluated in the same manner as each other once a year and not engaged in the larger corporate vision, they might not be prepared.

In the New Year, rethink the annual performance review and replace it with an informal monthly or bi-monthly check-in with your employees as best you can. Hire the right leaders that communicate empathetically. Connect with staff often to accomplish that goal. It is difficult work, but it will ultimately increase the productivity of your company and improve the morale of your employees. It’s time for business leaders to connect with your employees to let them know that you’re in the water with them, and that you have their backs in the coming year for new waves. Not every swell in the workplace is predictable, so avoid evaluating employees as if it is.

Ian MacNeil is principal at Standish Executive Search, LLC. Standish secures the right leaders for businesses positioning for accelerated growth, change and succession.