What does it mean to be a compassionate leader these days? How do you continue to set a high bar for performance, but also recognize that people have been dealing with a lot of personal challenges over the past two years? I believe it is possible to do both—good leaders are both demanding and caring at the same time. My approach is "high hopes and high expectations," and it can only work if it's based upon trust and genuine care for your team, both inside and outside of work.
The onset of COVID-19 in early 2020 created new challenges for leaders. Everyone has been dealing with a lot, and empathy counts now more than ever before. When we ask, "How are you?", we absolutely need to listen to the answer. At Prudential, we've always had a culture of care and concern for our colleagues. Recently, we have also become much more flexible in terms of how, where and when the work gets done. However, all of this is in the context that we are here to serve our customers and ensure that their needs are met. Providing greater flexibility for colleagues doesn't imply any dampening of our expectations for performance. Concern for colleagues and high expectations have gone hand in hand, and our employees have responded with high levels of commitment and performance.
So how does "high hopes and high expectations" work in practice? It's grounded in four elements: 1) having great people; 2) setting clear and ambitious expectations; 3) the willingness to give and receive constructive feedback; and 4) knowing team members as individuals and genuinely caring for them. Let's look at each in turn.
There's no substitute for having the right talent on your team. That means people who are smart and curious, who give their best and want to continue improving, and who are focused on the success of the team. They need to be aligned with the fact that you both hope for, and expect, the best from them. If they are not, this may not be the right team for them.
I try to be upfront about my approach. I believe I'm accountable for helping good people get even better, and for helping people who are struggling to become effective. I sit down with new team members and say, "Look, I'm not perfect. Please don't mistake absence of praise for me feeling that you're not doing well. I wish I were better at giving praise—I'm a work in progress too. However, please know that if I don't like something, you will hear it directly from me—there won't be any surprises." We establish the contract up front. And I'm happy (and relieved!) that many people have told me, "You cared about me, and the tough moments were worth it because you were trying to help me get better."
Don't apologize for high expectations. We need to be surrounded by people who aspire to be their best—it helps us all get better. As leaders, we are performance coaches. When you look at high-performing athletes, their coaches aren't sitting on the sidelines saying, "You're playing beautifully today." They're giving constructive and challenging feedback—some of it is technical and some is more motivational, encouraging players to stretch themselves and find new levels of performance. Athletes sign up for this because they know that the feedback is focused on helping them get better. In large businesses, the challenge lies in trying to do this with thousands of colleagues. Companies need practices and routines to enable high performance at scale.
Feedback is critical to high-performing teams. Some of it is about practices (simple processes to make it easier to give and receive feedback) and some is about skills (ways to deliver messages constructively and to act upon them), but the essential element is trust—does the team member believe that you have his or her best interests at heart? We all know the difference between feedback that's genuinely intended to help us improve and feedback that's meant to show us who's in charge or to ascribe blame. We will put up with lack of finesse from a manager if it's clear that he or she cares about us and wants the best for us. Conversely, we can detect feedback that's polished but insincere almost instantly.
Simple routines help to make feedback happen more regularly. At Prudential, we brought in Marc Effron's "2+2" tool to help feedback become more frequent and effective. Once each quarter, each manager and team member hold a 10-minute meeting—we share two things that are going well, and two that are still in process or could be improved. I ask colleagues to share their own 2+2, then I'll share if I feel that they've missed anything, making it more of a dialogue. I'll also ask for their feedback—"Tell me about how I'm leading. What can I do differently to help?" Regular 2+2s can then be summarized in our annual performance reviews, hopefully ensuring that there are no surprises along the way.
You can only have trusting relationships with colleagues if you know them as individuals and care about them. This enables you to tailor the conversation to each person—their journey, their aspirations and any particular sensitivities. If a consistent high performer suddenly starts to struggle, do you know why? Do you have the kind of relationship in which they will open up and tell you? Do they trust that you are confronting an issue, not them as an individual?
That's how I try to bring "high hopes and high expectations" to life—it's grounded in having the right talent, high expectations and the willingness to give and receive feedback. However, none of this works unless your team members trust you and know that you have their best interests at heart. High expectations and genuine care go hand in hand. Doing this at an individual level is hard. Making this happen at a company-wide level is even more challenging and requires having the right performance routines and skills in place. But authenticity and genuine concern for colleagues go a long way.
Creating an intentional approach to feedback also helps advance diversity, equity and inclusion. It is well-researched that women and people of color don't get the same clarity of feedback as white men. Why? Sometimes it's because people are worried about hurt feelings or whether they are going to be clumsy or misunderstood. The result is that women and people of color can feel that they are not getting honest feedback and don't know where they stand. That's not a good outcome for anyone, and we have to ensure that we build the right environment—with the right combination of trust, concern and high expectations—to overcome these obstacles and drive organizational performance and individual growth for everyone.
Lucien Alziari is the Chief Human Resources Officer of Prudential Financial.