What happens when you tell your family you plan to get home by 5:30 PM, and instead, without any notice, you get home at 6:45 PM? A classic recipe for getting home to an upset and anxious spouse, kids, and/or pets. This is a simple, everyday example of what happens when you fail to set the right expectations. In the business world, setting and managing the right expectations is a whole different ball game. Expectations help us to form projections of sales pipelines, role definitions, financial performance, and much more. Expectations are the human side of strategy and the key element for aligning stakeholders to shared goals. Every minute of every day, we set expectations for our business whether we like it or not. Whether we intend to or not. Whether we say anything or not. Remember that each minute you spend not setting expectations, others are filling up the vacuum and setting them for you!
Here are three essential factors to expectations in a business. As a business leader, you need to masterfully Set, Address, and Manage Expectations (not easy tasks). Once you successfully master the three aspects of Expectations, there is an optional fourth aspect!
Warning:You may fail first!
As in many other things, failure is the first step in recognizing that you need to start consciously setting the right expectations. And trust me on this; you will fail initially, only to quickly learn from the failure. Learning to set expectations and setting the right ones is an art that comes with practice.
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In my first CEO gig, I tried to be an overachiever and in doing so, I set the wrong expectations. There was no way for either myself or my team to meet those lofty expectations, especially during the Dot Bomb! Along with the dot bomb, my own expectations and the strategy based on those overly optimistic expectations bombed, too. I also played into my own fears of not being an overachiever! As a result, I had to quickly learn from my mistakes in my first year and reset expectations for the second year of my tenure.
Advisory – Reach reality quickly
Now that you have hopefully failed first, failed fast, and learned faster, you can get close to the real picture. The quicker you reach the, “it is what it is,” moment and live in the same reality with key stakeholders, the better off you are in both the short and long run.
Factor 1 – Set Expectations
Once you’ve reached reality, you are in a good position to set expectations for yourself and your immediate team. Setting expectations for your immediate team and getting feedback from team members should give you an idea of any potential gaps and also about how you may need to communicate with the larger group of stakeholders.
Factor 2 – Address Expectations
If you thought setting expectations from your end was tricky, wait till you begin to address the expectations of all your stakeholders. As I said previously, every little move you make, every interaction you have, creates expectations in others’ minds. While it is tempting to throw your hands up and say you had nothing to do with those expectations, as a leader you do need to address those expectations. This is the start of the alignment process, where you begin to understand where other people stand and align them with your own expectations based on reality.
Factor 3 – Manage Expectations
What you are really doing here is just aligning expectations – tons of them, day-in and day-out, over a long period of time. This is a continuous process of making sure that all your stakeholders (both direct and indirect) are aligned with expectations. You could do this through holding meetings, press conferences, or even authoring an article on your company blog.
In this stage, consistency is key. Consistency of tone, messaging, and frequency of communication with your stakeholders are all important elements here. If you are looking for an example of a leader who does this well, look no further than Warren Buffett – almost everything that man touches turns to gold, but his Midas touch is not a fluke. He is extremely conscientious about managing expectations, be it in a panel discussion that he is a part of or when he is addressing his shareholders.
Optional Factor 4 – Surprise occasionally
Here’s the optional but good-to-have aspect of expectation. Once you have learnt to skillfully navigate around setting, addressing, and managing expectations, you will hopefully have the bandwidth to surprise your stakeholders every once in a while. Surprising is exactly what Elon Musk did when he opened Tesla’s patents or when Beyoncé releases a single out of nowhere! Two names you never thought would appear in the same sentence, but these are two distinct leaders in their own right, who have mastered the art of setting, meeting, and exceeding expectations!
Be Conscious 24×7
Since expectations are funny things that get set whether you intend for them to or not, the onus is on you to be conscious 24×7 about the sort of expectations you are setting in the professional world around you. This holds true whether you have just landed your first job, have been appointed to CEO for the fifth time, or if you are a first time entrepreneur. So my final word to you about expectations in the business world is to be extremely mindful of them. This way you don’t fool others or yourself.
Edwin has authored 9Lenses Insight to Action:A Social Approach to Business Optimization and Snapshot9 What’s Your Picture?:Accelerate Your Business Performance. Click here to download the first chapter of 9Lenses Insight to Action for free!