Have you chosen a HR career for the right reasons?

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Five steps for clear performance expectations

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Sandwich feedback method – for whose benefit?

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How Organisational Development Transformed Geelong FC from Good to Great

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Lack of feedback, leadership and accountability to blame for Australian cricket’s demise

An exhaustive review has been completed and the verdict is in.  The demise of Australian cricket was not caused by the inability of the Australian batsmen to cope with reverse swing or Mitchell Johnson’s failure to consistently land the ball on a good length.  No, Australian cricket is in the doldrums due to ineffective leadership, unclear accountability, a poor culture, a lack of feedback, and poor talent and succession management practices.

Most of us know the context.  After dominating men’s world cricket for the better part of two decades the Australian team’s performances have rapidly declined (we are currently ranked fifth in the ICC Test Rankings), culminating last season in a devastating home Ashes series defeat at the hands of the old enemy.  Under the weight of public and media outrage, Cricket Australia commissioned an extensive review into the Australian team’s performance.

The review was chaired by corporate heavyweight Don Argus, former Chairman of BHP Billiton, and the panel’s recommendations undoubtedly heavily reflect the success factors which saw BHP Billiton become a leading player in the world’s resources sector. 

Some of the critical issues which the panel found to have hindered the Australian team’s performance and their recommendations for improvement are outlined below, many of which provide salient lessons for the corporate world.

Success ultimately led to poor performance
Australia’s dominance for such a long period of time masked a range of structural, cultural and organisational problems which needed to be addressed, and in hindsight Cricket Australia took too long to act.  After all, who would have dared change a structure and system which had delivered such unprecedented and sustained success?

Cricket Australia’s organisational structure is inhibiting the side’s performance and culture and it needs to be fixed.  The panel acknowledge that making changes to such an entrenched structure and culture is not going to be easy, stating that “… change is constant and difficult to lead.  Cricket is not exempt from that phenomenon”.

Lack of clear accountability and authority
The panel found that “No one person is currently accountable, or has full authority for, the performance of the Australian team” and stated that a single point of accountability for the performance of the Australian team is required, in a step described as “critical”.

The panel also recommended that the captain becomes a team selector “to ensure appropriate accountability and authority”.  Reading between the lines Cricket Australia is saying that if the captain has the authority to play a major role in team selection decisions he can then rightly also be held accountable for the performance of the team. 

Furthermore, the panel identified a lack of accountability in relation to players’ performance, stating that “Players must be held accountable when they are not performing”.  Accountability, including consequences, is a foundation for high performance.

Poor team culture and leadership
The panel found that there is a “… lack of a strong culture in the current Australian team”.  To remedy this they recommended actions including:

  • A 360 degree feedback process for players and staff followed by “adult conversations” with players about how they are perceived
  • The Captain and Vice-Captain should receive mentoring by an external professional
  • Senior players must role model the desired behaviours
  • Team leaders must set a clear direction for the side

The report makes it clear that the Head Coach and captain are responsible for “… developing the team’s vision and strategy and must create a High Performance culture in … the side”.  With Michael Clarke having recently been awarded the captaincy which was relinquished by Ricky Ponting, he has a great opportunity to reshape the direction, culture and performance of the side.

Inadequate performance management, feedback and development
The panel declared that there must be “appropriate performance metrics, targets and review processes” for the team, including:

  • Clearly communicated performance benchmarks
  • In-depth performance reviews, at least six monthly
  • Appropriate rewards, recognition and consequences.

It went on to say that “Players … must be given appropriate feedback along the way, including encouragement, acknowledgement of their strengths and full and frank assessments of what they need to do to improve” and have development plans in place.

The panel clearly believes that performance management will drive better individual and team performance for Australian cricket.

Inadequate talent management and succession planning
A lack of talent management and succession planning contributed to the decline in Australian cricket and the panel recommended a much greater focus on these processes to help improve the team’s long-term performance. 

Australian cricket once had an imposing production line which generated outstanding talent such as Glen McGrath, Shane Warne, Adam Gilchrist and Matthew Hayden, however when those players retired there was simply not the talent available to replace them.

As a response to this predicament “The panel has … recommended that the National Selector become a full-time role, and function as the “HR Manager” of Australian Cricket, managing our top talent more actively than we are at present – in particular by communicating more proactively with those with the potential to play for Australia, whether they are currently in or out of the team”.  The National Selector as HR Manager – a very progressive step forward for Australian cricket!

The panel also stated that “Players … need to know what is required to get to the next level”, with the inference that there is currently a lack of clarity about the capabilities and proven performance levels required for a player to progress from their state side into the national team. 

So, Cricket Australia is embarking on a major organisational restructure, culture change, and rebuilding of its team and talent pipeline with the aim of becoming the number one team in all formats of the game.  It has a clear strategy in place and will have to hold its nerve in sticking to the plan in order to produce long-term and sustainable results, while potentially having to deal with some pain and criticism in the short to medium term.

The lessons learned and shared publicly by Cricket Australia reinforce the value of the basics which drive high performance in organisations – accountability, leadership, culture, clear performance expectations and feedback to name a few.  How would your organisation fare if it was reviewed closely by Argus and co?

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Moneyball: How to gain a competitive advantage by tapping into undervalued talent

Several years ago I read a book that challenged my thinking about organisational performance and talent management.  Notionally, it is a book about baseball and statistics, but its lessons extend to almost every aspect of the business world.  So even if, like many people, you have no interest in baseball and a loathing for or innate fear of statistics, please do persevere with this article as it is going somewhere!

In the book, Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game (also to be released as a motion picture late in 2011 starring Brad Pitt), author Michael Lewis set about finding an answer to the question “How do the Oakland Athletics (the A’s) consistently make the Major League Baseball (MLB) playoffs despite having a payroll substantially less than most other teams?”. 

For example, in 2002 the A’s were spending $US41 million on player salaries compared with power house team the New York Yankees whose payroll was around $US125 million for the season.  How could Oakland even be competitive let alone successful when they seemingly had such an inherent disadvantage?

Lewis discovered that Oakland had turned to Ivy League college educated statisticians (or sabermetricians, as baseball statisticians are known) who had identified the most important factors associated with winning a game of baseball, such as having players with a high ‘on-base percentage’.  Many of the statistics which the A’s found to be predictors of success were dismissed or simply not utilised by other clubs.  Oakland also found that many of the traditional statistics which baseball coaches, talent scouts, players and fans relied upon were in fact of limited value (e.g. ‘runs batted in’).

Lewis’ premise at the time was that the identification and selection of talent across MLB was often subjective, flawed and based upon outdated thinking from within the insular baseball fraternity.  Talent scouts tended to have a fixed idea of the typical attributes of a talented baseball prospect. This led them to overvalue players who looked the part (i.e. tall players with an athletic physique) and who measured up well against traditional baseball statistics, while they undervalued or overlooked those who didn’t fit the stereotypical mould.  It took a group of outsiders to the industry to look for, identify and utilise contemporary knowledge about high performance in baseball.

Oakland was able to exploit its use of statistical analysis and understanding of the drivers of success in baseball to give it a competitive advantage over other teams in recruiting and retaining players within its payroll constraints.  For example, they would often select players late in the draft who went on to over-achieve relative to expectations.  The A’s would also frequently cheaply acquire experienced MLB players who were undervalued by their clubs and trade their own players whom the market overvalued, thereby collecting a cash windfall whilst maintaining a competitive playing roster.  So Oakland were able to remain highly competitive despite spending much less on player payments than other MLB teams.

So what are the potential applications of Moneyball to organisations? 

Firstly, the question should be asked in each organisation “Do we know the main capabilities, attributes or activities which actually drive our success?”.  If the answer is “no” then you have some work to get started on. 

Next, once organisations know their success drivers they need to ensure that their recruitment and talent identification processes consistently utilise this information rather than primarily hiring and promoting people who fit the ‘traditional’ mould.

Finally, organisations should identify undervalued and overvalued talent (i.e. performance relative to salary) and utilise the information to gain an advantage over their competitors and/or to get more out of their talent budget.  While the specifics of undervalued talent will likely differ for each company, my hypothesis is that there is a rich source of undervalued talent in almost every industry – those people who do not fit the exact profile of the traditional ‘ideal’ candidate for a position. 

For example, a person may have less years of experience than desired by the hiring manager or they may have come from a different industry to that of the employer and are therefore overlooked or never considered for the position despite the fact they would have been able to perform to a high standard in the job.  When the selection criteria for a role are defined too narrowly, inevitably talented people who don’t fit the traditional mould are screened out. 

Conversely, those candidates who do very closely match the profile of a typical person in a given role in terms of years of experience and industry specific experience may tend to be overvalued in the market, inflating salaries and driving labour market churn.

So, the talent management applications of Moneyball are clear.  In today’s highly competitive labour market with most employers identifying skill shortages as adversely impacting on their growth and profitability there is a large opportunity for organisations to challenge conventional wisdom, identify the true drivers of success within their business and to exploit imperfect labour markets by identifying and sourcing undervalued talent. 

Where do you think the undervalued talent lies and how can your organisation use it to their advantage?

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Don’t hate the performance review ….

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Blueprint for Building a High Performance Organisation – Lessons from the AFL

Successful AFL clubs in recent years have developed and executed their own blueprints for achieving premiership success.  The good news for senior leaders of organisations is that the steps required to win an AFL Premiership are the same as those required to build a high performance organisation – so there is much that can be learned by taking a closer look at how AFL clubs achieve success in a highly competitive league. 

 How to win an AFL Premiership
1. Establish a competent and stable Board supported by an excellent management team
It is no coincidence that the most successful AFL clubs in recent years such as Collingwood and Geelong have built and sustained highly credentialed and united Boards and professional senior management teams.  Conversely, those clubs with turmoil at Board level such as Richmond, North Melbourne, Essendon and Carlton have under-performed. 

2.  Create an attractive vision of the future for the club and rally support
Perennial underachievers both off and on the field, Richmond and Melbourne are but two examples of clubs which have recently identified just how critical a vision is to creating a successful and sustainable future for their club.  A key to this has been the creation of a highly attractive and shared vision of where the club will be in the future and the rallying of all staff, players, sponsors, members and supporters behind the vision. 
3. Set specific goals which make the vision tangible and against which progress is measured
The Richmond Football Club has recently articulated its vision by developing very specific goals including by 2014 they will have played in 3 more finals series, will have zero club debt and 75,000 members, and will have won their next premiership by 2020.  Everyone at the club focuses their efforts relentlessly on contributing to the achievement of these goals.  Progress is measured, reported and communicated regularly.

4. Identify, articulate and drive the club’s values – never compromise them
Ten years ago if you heard an AFL player talking about values it was most likely a reference to their burgeoning property portfolio.  Now, most AFL clubs have a set of core values which all players (and back office staff) are held accountable for upholding.  The values drive the disciplines and behaviours which produce high performing teams.  There is no better illustration of this than the ‘Bloods’ culture entrenched at the Sydney Swans which helped drive a modestly talented side to premiership glory in 2005. 

The Bloods culture applies to all players equally – despite being one of the Swans’ most talented players Nick Davis was dropped from the side and then delisted from the club after failing to uphold the team’s values.  By way of contrast, clubs such as Carlton, Brisbane and West Coast enforced team rules selectively, with elite players like Ben Cousins and Brendan Fevola keeping their place in the side despite reported frequent instances of behaviour counter to the team’s values.  Each of these sides had little success in the periods where the club’s culture was exposed as fractured (NB: West Coast won a premiership with Cousins in the side however they suffered an unexpected and rapid decline around the time that his off field troubles came to a head for the club).

5. Develop a winning game plan
While traditionalists bemoan the death of one-on-one contests and burly full forwards kicking regular bagfuls of goals, recent premiership sides have turned football wisdom on its head with new and innovative game plans (many of which are borrowed from other sports such as soccer and ice hockey).

Sydney’s high stoppage style of football took it to the flag in 2005, West Coast used a high handball to kick ratio on its way to the 2006 premiership, Hawthorn’s rolling zone helped it win a premiership well before the club itself thought possible, while Collingwood’s relentless focus on keeping the ball locked in their forward line using a ‘forward press’ saw them hold the cup aloft in 2010 after a 20 year drought.

Developing and executing a winning game plan is an essential component of the premiership blueprint.

6. Recruit the best available talent
While the annual AFL Draft takes place in November, recruitment and selection is a year round highly resource intensive process for clubs.  Clubs have talent scouts scouring football games across the breadth and depth of the country (and increasingly overseas including Ireland, New Zealand, South Africa and the United States) to identify and assess the draft talent pool. 

Hours of footage of potential draftees’ games are pored over, their season statistics are analysed in detail and extensive data is collected from the AFL Draft Camp and heavily scrutinised.  Prospective draftees are interviewed by each club to assess how well they are likely to fit in with the club culture and many clubs utilise psychometric and abilities testing to further inform their player assessments. 

Making the right recruitment decision at each draft impacts the success of a club for years to come – just ask Fremantle supporters what might have been in their formative years if they hadn’t traded Andrew McLeod, before he had played a game, for Chris Groom. McLeod went on to become a legend of the game for Adelaide while Groom faded into obscurity after playing just a handful of games for the Dockers.  Successful clubs expend substantial time and resources to understand their current and future talent needs and identify, assess and select the best talent in the draft pool.

7. Ensure that every player clearly understands their role in the team and their performance measures
Having the appropriate team structure to win a game is critical and this requires each player to clearly understand the purpose of their role and their main accountabilities.  For example, a midfielder’s primary accountability may be to win the contested ball at stoppages, or to break the lines with bursts of speed through the centre or to shut down the opposition’s most dangerous midfielder by playing a tagging role.  Each role is important but distinctly different and must be clearly understood and then effectively executed by the player. 

Both the team as a whole and each player has a set of Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) which provide specific targets which the player is accountable for achieving during the game – these drive behaviours which maximise the team’s chance of winning the game.  KPIs may include kicking efficiency (percentage of kicks which hit the target), number of tackles laid, number of contested possessions won, percentage of hit outs to advantage and the number of ‘one percenters’ such as shepherds and smothers.

In a sign of the times most small forwards’ performance is not judged primarily by how many goals they kick but rather how many tackles they lay in the forward 50.

8. Develop a strong leadership group
The days of a team only having a captain (usually the best player in the side) and a vice captain are long gone.  Recognising the importance of leadership from within the playing group as a critical success factor, most clubs now have a captain (usually the best leader at the club, not necessarily the best player, e.g. Collingwood’s Nick Maxwell) supported by a leadership group of between 5 and 8 players.

Leadership groups play a vital role in driving and role modelling the team’s culture, motivating the team, promoting honest communication both within the team and between players and coaches, leading and directing players during a game and mentoring and developing younger team mates.

AFL clubs invest heavily in developing the leadership skills of all their players, identifying future leaders and supporting the work of the leadership group.

9. Provide constant feedback and coaching to each player
Would an AFL footballer receive performance feedback just once per year at an annual review like employees in most organisations?  Not a chance.

AFL footballers receive continuous, constructive and very specific feedback both during and after games highlighting what they are doing well and where and how they can improve.  During games runners take messages of feedback out to players, they receive feedback at each major break during the game, feedback is provided directly after the game and early the following week each player is taken through an individual review of a highlights reel of their critical incidents from the game. There is also an increasing incidence of head coaches coaching from the boundary line at ground level during a game rather than high up in the coaches’ box, which is largely attributable to their desire to provide players with immediate and direct feedback during the game.

Clubs such as the Western Bulldogs place a heavy emphasis on the use of peer feedback – where players provide each other with feedback.  This is an important tool both for improving performance and also for driving the team’s culture.

When was the last time you saw a successful AFL coach use giving players a ‘bake’ as their main tool for trying to improve performance?  Successful coaches of the modern era such as Paul Roos and Mick Malthouse know that it is through feedback (both positive and negative) and teaching that players learn and develop their capability to perform at the highest possible level.

10. Invest heavily in developing the capability of players and onboarding of new recruits
Most clubs now have a head coach and a battery of assistant coaches and other technical specialists who spend significant time one on one with each player to provide the feedback and coaching required to develop and sustain high performance.

Core capabilities for the various roles in the team are identified, players’ strengths and weaknesses are assessed against the capabilities, and players work on these in both a whole of team and tailored individual manner to continuously improve their capability and performance.

New players to the club are carefully onboarded to ensure they understand the team’s vision, culture and game plan and their own role and accountabilities within the team.  Younger players and/or those who relocate are supported to settle in to their new city and environment.  The more effective the onboarding process the more quickly a player will start performing and contribute to the team’s success.

11. Carefully manage the playing list – not just for today but for the medium and long-term
These days AFL playing lists do not just evolve haphazardly – they are very carefully managed for the now, the near future and the long-term.  Most clubs target an optimal spread of experience across their squad grouped by position to ensure a pipeline of young developing players coming through the system. 

AFL clubs know which of their roles are most critical, which roles are hardest to fill and have plans in place to ensure replacements are ready to take the place of their high performers nearing the end of their career.

Difficult decisions are made.  The average AFL player’s career lasts just six years.  Talent and list management is a key strategic tool as part of the premiership blueprint.

12. Constantly search for a competitive advantage – innovate
In a highly competitive league, clubs now leave no stone unturned to identify a competitive advantage.  Collingwood successfully exploited sports science knowledge to dramatically increase the frequency of player rotations through the interchange bench thereby ensuring players on the ground were fresher than their opponents. In the past several years Fremantle identified players at the next level down from the AFL, a talent pool dismissed by most recruiters, who could enter the AFL and make an immediate impact – resulting in rapid improvement to their side’s historically poor performance.

13. Review progress against the strategic goals and plan and refine what isn’t working
The good AFL clubs constantly review progress against their goals and plans and adjust and refine aspects that aren’t working.
14. Execute the game plan
AFL teams play for just 3 hours per week for less than half the year.  When a supporter sees their side run through the banner each week they are unlikely to appreciate the thousands of hours of preparation, hard work, science and planning that is all channelled towards their team performing at their peak on game day. 

There are no short cuts to premiership success and it certainly doesn’t happen by chance.  Clubs which develop their blueprint for high performance, implement each component and then execute it on the day are those which succeed.  Success in the business world is no different to the AFL – those organisations which develop, implement and execute their blueprint will be high performers with a significant advantage over their competitors.

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