Elevate Your Performance By Setting Clear Expectations
Living up to expectations isn’t usually a matter of performance; it’s a matter of taking an active role in setting expectations. In fact, proactively setting expectations is an underused tactic that can seriously improve virtually all aspects of your life. Does it sound like I’m over selling? I’m not.
In 1982, I was a Wharton student working part-time at IBM, and I learned a performance lesson that would end up playing a major role in shaping my life—both professionally and personally. One day, our department leader made an announcement congratulating a sales rep named Ruth for winning a tough deal. Not only was she recognized in front of the whole (mostly male) department, she was awarded $5,000—a highly-impressive accomplishment through the eyes of a poor college student. After that meeting, I went up to Ruth to congratulate her. She thanked me, then looked at me and said, “Let's talk.” That day, I received a critical lesson.
Ruth told me she knew how hard that deal was going to be to win, given the competition and the customer’s price sensitivity. She chose to let her manager know those things before she attempted to bring in the business. That way, he would understand how big her accomplishment really was if she succeeded, while also understanding what she was up against if she didn’t. She told me that it didn’t matter how hard you work if no one knew about it. If you made it look easy, people would assume it was easy. And people don’t get recognized for doing easy things.
I understood then that she won the award through hard work, but also through setting expectations. If she didn’t let her manager know the challenges she was up against, it would have been just another sale. I’ve taken this advice to heart throughout my career, and I always encourage other professionals—especially women—to do the same. As women, we are often motivated to make things look effortless. But the truth is that a lot of things are hard work, and hiding this fact is not always in our best interest.
As you embark on a challenging work effort, you must let leaders around you know the hurdles you face and the roadblocks you’re overcoming so you can set accurate expectations. Get others involved in value-added ways, so they can not only help, but see firsthand your hard work and the skills you are bringing to bear. Break the effort up into tangible milestones and communicate those milestones. As you accomplish the milestones, your progress will be visible and more likely to be recognized.
After getting Ruth’s advice, it wasn’t long before I realized that setting expectations doesn’t stop at work. I started applying her advice to just about every other relationship in my life. For example, I like to get involved in my community through non-profits and volunteering. When I consider partnering with an organization, I want to be seen as a positive addition to the team. That said, even with my best intensions, I have only so much time and so much money to give. That’s why I’m always transparent about how much I’m able to commit, given my other responsibilities, so non-profit leaders know what they can expect of me. If their expectations for my time, fundraising, or personal donations are greater than I’m able to deliver, I know it’s not a good fit for either of us.
If you like to volunteer, you should be just as transparent about how much you can commit—even if the non-profit organization doesn’t specifically ask. Expectations have a way of growing over time. This can be especially true for volunteer roles that don’t have defined parameters. In the short term, it might be fine. But trust me, over time, expectations will form. It’s better to shape them upfront and let them know what you are willing to commit.
Expectation setting works with your spouse or significant other as well. If you know you have a tough stretch coming up at work, don’t keep it a secret. Let your partner know you are going to need more support during this period, whether it’s getting extra help around the house, or just a little more time at the office to get everything done.
Early in my career I wanted to join Toastmasters to improve my public speaking. Well, my husband was also working full time, and we had a toddler, so that made it hard. If I joined Toastmasters, he would have solo duty one-two evenings a week. We talked about it, why I wanted to do it, how long I would participate, and how it fit into my career plan. When he had a clear understanding of the expectations from both of us, he agreed to take on the extra responsibilities.
I’ve been setting expectations for a long time, but it wasn’t until I spoke with Carol Bartz that I realized I could set expectations with my kids as well. We had coffee about 15 years ago when she was CEO of Autodesk and I was CEO of MetricStream. We started talking about our kids, and I shared how hard it was to attend school activities during the week. She told me that she sat down with her kids at the beginning of each school year and discussed how many of their events she would be able attend. They understood that she had a highly-demanding job and often had to travel. She didn’t have the same level of flexibility as other parents, but that didn’t mean she cared about their activities any less. They would agree on a number of events she would attend, and she promised to make it work. That way, if she agreed on attending five games out of 10, and actually made six, she overachieved, instead of feeling guilty for missing four. From one CEO mom to another, putting her advice into action made a big difference in elevating the way my kids perceived my performance!
As you think about all the people in your life, you’ll realize that they all have expectations for you. If you don’t help set those expectations, it’s easy to disappoint people or leave them hanging, no matter how much time or effort you put in. But if you set expectations that you can meet—and maybe even exceed—it’s a win-win for all concerned.
Originally published for Forbes.