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Searching for results in the rear-view mirror

(Image credit: Image Credit: Shutterstock/Sergey Nivens)

The new era of working-from-home introduced in response to the coronavirus outbreak is one of information overload from constant news, emails, video calls and so on. Each employee has to balance new forms of communication with a variety of different projects for a number of clients, whether it’s researching, writing, setting up meetings etc. These are executed using a range of applications and reviewed against numerous KPIs – all of which come with their own data to be analysed.

Pressure to keep up is immense as well as relentless, and for many business leaders, there is one consequence: a reactive mentality. Amid the constant influx of new priorities and issues, it seems the only way to stay in control is by looking backwards; analysing past data to track performance and identify inefficiencies.

This is the increasingly common rear-view mirror approach, and it’s also the enemy of operational efficiency. To maximise productivity and profitability in trying times, leaders must stop searching for the path to better results in the past.

Rear-view leadership: key signs and hazards

The hallmarks of a rear-view leader are simple to spot. They are reactors, revving into action after an event has taken place. For instance, by waiting for an employee to make a mistake to be rectified, instead of giving the appropriate brief beforehand to prevent the mistake happening at all. For most, this knee-jerk mindset is applied across the board; performance errors are met with corrective instruction, and any skills or knowledge gaps highlighted by incidents are resolved with ad hoc training. And the negative impact of this leadership style also tends to reach multiple areas.

Among employees, it fuels fear of reprimands and a culture of anxiety. For the wider business, this creates the dual difficulty of distraction and a lack of forward drive. Individuals plagued by worry aren't fully focused on the task at hand, increasing the risk of mistakes and reducing their ability to deliver quality services and products in a streamlined way; in short, operational efficiency is poor. Meanwhile, failing to effectively plan for the future means it’s unlikely company goals and growth ambitions will be met. While it can be easy to fall into, the rear-view mirror trap can engulf the entire organisation – making it critical to change gear at the earliest signs.

Switching to the ‘windshield’ perspective

Transforming leadership style is a significant undertaking, but not impossible. What it requires above all else is a pivot in perspective; leaders need to shift their gaze from the road behind them and embrace the ‘windshield’ mentality, looking ahead and ensuring everything possible is done to avoid any potential potholes.

This method is the opposite of rear-view centric working. Instead of waiting for issues to arise, it strives to proactively prevent potential problems and enhance efficiency. True windshield thinking also needs to be an integral part of day-to-day operations. Not only must leaders themselves be able to avert possible hazards, but they should give their workforce the power to do the same; equipping them with the skills, insight and freedom to identify upcoming roadblocks and find a way around them.

The question is: how to do so?

Following windshield best practice

At a basic level, moving to the windshield approach means switching from reactive to proactive activity. Training should be comprehensive from the start; providing each worker with the ability to deliver on their responsibilities and quickly resolve errors. Any false steps that do occur also need to be treated as learning opportunities, with lessons taken that help improve individual performance and avoid future re-runs.

Going a step further, leaders need to become the driving force behind a different and more systematic way of working by taking three key actions:

1. Implement positive micro-management

Traditionally, micro-management is associated with unnecessary nit-picking and seen as the epitome of bad leadership, but its meaning is subject to interpretation. There is a difference between intrusive management that impedes an individual’s progress, and attention to detail when it comes to the processes that empower the individual to complete a task to a high standard. Used well, micro-management of processes and structures can be a means of establishing systems that keep businesses running smoothly, rather than controlling people.

For instance, by adopting a holistic and centralised workflow coordination system, leaders can gain a macro overview of organisational activity and the capacity to hone in on micro elements, such as particular projects. With this complete understanding, they can then keep up real-time progress and – vitally – identify impending issues before they occur. Better still, when such systems are made available to the company at large, employees can track their own schedules and checklists, and steer clear of pitfalls. In other words, everyone can be a micro efficiency manager – a skill that’s more critical than ever when every employee is working from a different location.

2. To speed up, you must slow down

It's essential to slow down first if businesses want to function both quickly and efficiently. Although working at pace and juggling tasks can give the impression of productivity, in truth it creates chaos that makes errors inevitable and wastes resources. In fact, studies show finishing jobs can take 40 per cent longer when employees are multi-tasking.

Leaders must foster a culture of balanced and organised working. By encouraging employees to pre-plan their activity and stick to one task at a time, they can ensure quality remains consistently high and projects run on time – ultimately fuelling greater speed and growth. That’s not to mention avoiding creating minor issues that will become much bigger problems in the long run.

3. Taking interruptions to task

Eliminating the fear of suffering severe penalties for mistakes will do much to help fight distraction, but there are also many other drains on attention, time and energy that can make future goals hard to realise. Emails, instant message notifications, and ineffective video calls all take their toll. As a result, there is a need for leaders to embed behaviours and processes that keep interruption to a minimum. For example, this might include making pre-call planning a core requirement to cut aimless discussion or giving employees free reign to mute notifications and set specific hours when they are available for problem-solving. Companies can even designate a person responsible for timekeeping in the office, a 'Chief Time Officer' who ensures time is used to maximum efficiency.

Of course, working proactively isn't just about procedure. While leaders can create systems and processes to protect their employees from distraction and guard against issues, collaboration is also key. As with any leadership model, the windshield mindset must run from the top down. Leaders need to take the first step: beginning with defined expectations and objectives, and clearly communicating them to all employees. Only once they have ensured every individual understands how their role contributes to business success, and knows where they are going, can leaders be certain all eyes are on the path to better future results.

Richard Wright, Head of Marketing, Scoro