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As a leader, your personal performance is a huge driver of your business’ success. What you do and how you behave matters.
You want to set the highest example for your team, so they can maximise their own potential and ensure the business performs at the highest level.
It’s a lot to shoulder, but it comes with the territory.
Sage CEO Steve Hare joined Jake Humphrey and Damian Hughes on The High Performance Podcast to share the lessons, values, and business culture that have made him the high-performing leader he is today.
When asked what high performance is, Steve said: “It’s doing amazing things that you didn’t think you were capable of. It’s pushing to becoming the best version of yourself.
“But you’ve got to want it.
“You have to set yourself the ambition and put the effort in. You’ve also got to be resilient, because you can’t be high performing all the time.
“The best measure is whether you can deliver it consistently over a period of time.”
Only that version of yourself can guide your business to ongoing success.
Below are eight lessons from Steve on achieving high performance.
Here’s what he covers:
1. Fall in love with the outcome
To make any form of progress in your life or your business, you need a clear vision of where you’d like to be. In other words, an outcome you want to achieve.
You then need to fall in love with that outcome, because tough times will come, and your motivation won’t always be there.
But if you have a north star that excites you, and you’re willing to put in the hard yards through good times and bad, you’ll be able to stay consistent and make it happen.
“I’ve never met anyone who is consistently achieving high performance, that doesn’t put huge amounts of efforts in, and doesn’t have highs and lows,” says Steve.
2. Always about the team, never about you
Speaking of highs and lows, the way you behave when things go wrong will reflect massively on your performance as a leader.
Sometimes, you and your team will be aligned on how to solve a problem or issue. But there will also be times when you’ll have differing views.
And that’s OK.
In fact, challenging one another is essential for high performance.
When this happens, you need to always make it about the team, and never about yourself. Keep the interest of your team and the wider business at heart, not the outcome you want for yourself.
Don’t be tempted to point fingers. Instead, own the problem together, take collective responsibility, and you’ll arrive at the right solution faster.
3. Create an emotional connection
For your business to reach its full potential, your team needs to be driving in the same direction.
But simply understanding your business goals will only get you so far. To really excel, everyone needs to be emotionally invested too.
You can achieve this by establishing strong company values that people can get on board with.
This goes beyond dictating what people should care about. It means surrounding yourself with those who already share your values and creating a realistic vision that aligns with them.
You then need to model those values in your own behaviour and start to mould the business using value-based decision-making.
Steve illustrated how many businesses forget this, and simply create a set of values that don’t really mean anything to teams.
He says: “If you’re going to have values, they need to mean something. You go to so many places where the values are up on the wall.
“Yet, if you covered them up and asked someone to tell you them, they wouldn’t be able to.”
4. Seek honest feedback
To continually improve as a business leader, you need to seek honest feedback.
This can be hard to do, as you often find those around you are afraid of telling the truth and tend to tell you what they think you want to hear.
This creates a mini echo chamber where everything that comes back to you is reflective of the things you say and do.
The best way to get around this is very simple. Go up to people and talk to them.
Within your business, this means walking the floor, approaching people of all levels of seniority, and engaging in conversation. Outside of your business, it means meeting or phoning customers of every type and size.
Whoever you’re speaking to, ask them what’s working and what isn’t. Show a bit of vulnerability and allow them to open up. Try to learn what it feels like to be them.
For this to work, most of the time, the conversation needs to be unexpected.
An unprepared person is more likely to give honest feedback because they haven’t had chance to think about what you want to hear, and so instead tend to tell the truth.
You can get really valuable feedback this way. You may even learn of unintended consequences of a decision that have resulted in a negative experience.
Steve says: “This might be hard at first, but the more you do it and the more you learn from doing it, the easier it becomes and the more enjoyable.”
5. Learn to say no
Trust is one of the most important aspects of a business and its culture. It’s also very volatile and can be damaged quickly.
A proven way to build trust—both as a leader of your business and with your customers—is by following through with promises.
That means giving a firm agreement or announcement of what you will do, and then actually doing it.
It’s tempting to give vague responses such as “I might be able to do that,” or “I’ll see what I can do.”
But people don’t really know what these mean.
And if you make several of these promises to different people, you’ll likely only take action on those that matter most to you.
This erodes trust.
Instead, you need to get comfortable with saying no.
Give an honest response that says you can’t do what they’re asking. Explain why their request isn’t a priority.
This isn’t easy, but people will appreciate the honesty, and their expectations will be properly set. You may not have given them what they want, but you’ll have built trust.
6. Build a culture of accountability
When you’re faced with multiple requests that you can’t prioritise, it’s often because issues or decisions have been unnecessarily escalated.
People have passed an issue up to you because they don’t feel as though they can solve it themselves.
This can be reduced by building a culture of accountability.
Empower people on the ground to make decisions themselves. This will help them solve issues faster (even if it’s not the same way you’d do it), which delivers better outcomes for both internal teams and customers.
The alternative is that problems drag on for too long, or never get resolved at all.
You need to clearly communicate with your team that they have the go-ahead to make certain decisions. There will always be things you’ll want them to run past you, but you should remove yourself from as many processes as possible.
7. Create an environment where it’s safe to fail
To create a culture of accountability, there’s a big hurdle you need to overcome. And that’s making your team feel safe.
If they live in fear that any mistake they make won’t be accepted, they’ll never take accountability and make their own decisions.
You need to create an environment where it’s OK to fail.
Making mistakes is inevitable when people try new things and push the envelope. In fact, innovation can’t happen without failure.
“If you speak to people who have invented things and successful entrepreneurs, you’ll find there are very few that turned their first idea into something amazing,” Steve says.
“Most have had 20, 30, even 40 ideas. Then they’ve simply iterated them.
“To achieve great things, you have to make mistakes.”
Encourage your team to switch their language from “making a mistake” to “that didn’t turn out as I expected”. It’s a subtle yet powerful shift that positions these situations as opportunities to learn and try something else.
8. Find balance
To be successful in any area of life you need balance. And this needs to be a conscious priority.
Yes, you have to be all-in on the outcome you’re pursuing. But all-in doesn’t mean 24/7.
You don’t need to be at the top of your game around the clock. That’s impossible and unhealthy.
Allow yourself to be unavailable and make sure you’re psychologically present when you’re spending time with family and friends.
Not only will this benefit you mentally, you’ll also be fit for the big moments that matter when it does come to your work.
As Steve reminds us: “Sustained high performance in business takes fitness. It requires you to look after yourself. It’s hard work.”
As well as making this a priority for yourself, extend it to your team. They need to know you don’t expect them to have an unhealthy work-life balance.
Yes, there may be a time of crisis where you are needed, and where you need your team out of hours.
But this should never be the norm, never planned, and never expected.
How high will you rise?
Catch the rest of the conversation with Steve on the full episode of The High Performance Podcast and hear his full story; from starting as a factory accountant and being let go as CFO to being welcomed as Sage CEO.