Mastering performance - a leader's guide

Connected society 7 February 2013 Jeppe Ostersen

The objectives of Performance Leadership are quite clear: leaders need to create an environment that fosters high performance. It is as simple as that. But exactly how this pathway is ensured is nevertheless quite unclear, and executives are left questioning what practices constitute good and effective leadership when taking a Performance Management approach.

12 min

To address this apparent lack of clarity with regard to concrete leadership practices, Ramboll Management Consulting conducted a study on Performance Leadership in action, with the purpose of elucidating the ‘craft’ of high-performing executives in the public sector. This article explores the valuable lessons learned, and sums up the most essential practices of successful performance leadership.

A global strategy

Managing for results has become a renowned strategy across the globe. More commonly termed as Performance Management, this approach to management is highly favoured and recognised as what organisations must do to operate successfully and stay ahead of competition. As an overarching term for a set of management disciplines, the purpose of Performance Management is to ensure that organisational goals are met consistently, efficiently and effectively. A salient and essential aspect of this is Performance Leadership, and how an organisation in terms of leadership can create and sustain good performance.
In the study, twenty-nine executives from Northern European public sector organisations were interviewed in total. The study validated the critical importance of leadership in implementing Performance Management, which in itself is no surprise, as the practice of leadership can be characterised as literally crucial in all aspects of organisational operation. What the study nevertheless brought to the table was that of effectively clarifying successful practices of the discipline, which were specifically relevant in the context of Performance Management. Performance Leadership was transformed from being an intangible notion to concrete actions.

What is Performance Leadership?

To kick things off, let us first look a little deeper into the notion of Performance Leadership. As an element within the Management Performance approach, Leadership Performance can be defined as a strategic outcome-focused approach to management and leadership that uses a data-driven, reflective and dialogue-based culture to achieve high performance. Put differently, the objective of the discipline is to align management structures and processes as well as culture and leadership within an organisation in order to ultimately increase effectiveness, goal realisation and organisational performance.
Importantly, it should not be considered as a ‘one size fits all’ practice. Successful Performance Leadership is practiced through the situational and contextual application of appropriate, complementary leadership roles according to the challenges and objectives in question.  This article introduces a framework consisting of four key leadership roles for successful leaders to step into when practising Performance Leadership:

  • The Visionary who executes strong motivational leadership focused around strategy.
  • The Architect who designs organisational systems and capacity to deliver high performance.
  • The Engineer who focuses on the organisational ability to execute with diligence.
  • The Manager who drives the organisation operationally through institutionalised learning.

Leadership in Action

To truly grasp how to effectively realise these respective roles in practise, this article illuminates how successful executives understand these roles, showcases their successful practices, and hereby gives insight into the real lessons learned. Stay put!

The Visionary – motivating for the mission

Visionary leadership is adopted in times where change is needed. It is about setting out the desired course and direction, creating a compelling vision for the future and establishing a strategic platform for the organisation to operate from.

Additionally, a key objective for the Visionary leader is to ensure that the strategy and execution plan comes to life, inspires and makes sense to managers and staff. To facilitate this, the executive must assume strong ownership of the strategy and be dedicated to promoting and executing it; put differently, he or she must demonstrate that Performance Management is a core and essential part of the organisational business strategy, as Anders Carstorp, Director of Södermalm District Administration in Stockholm, articulates it:

“No-one in the organisation can escape our results focus. It is important that it permeates all our business and how we talk.¨

The Visionary leader must:

  • Be committed and dedicated to the strategy.
  • Formulate a clear, reasoned vision and concept.
  • Communicate the vision and concept and the importance of the changes repeatedly and give individuals space to ascribe meaning to what they are learning.
  • Acknowledge opposing views, yet maintain momentum in the change process.
  • Constantly reflect on the direction and whether goals and targets remain appropriate. The end destination, however, remains static.

The Architect – designing for high performance

Moving on, the Architect leader should design the blueprint that creates alignment and consistency between goals, culture, processes, structure and human capital. In short, if management, measurement and leadership are not synchronised and optimised to support the delivery of high-quality services to achieve the desired outcomes, little will be achieved (Behn, 2006, Mayne, 2007). Thomas Thellersen Børner, Director at City of Copenhagen’s Department of Labour and Integration, verbalises the fundamental purpose of the Architect leader this way:

“It is a story that you need to keep alive all the time. I have just been to speak at an introduction course for new employees. The directors prioritise this. One third of my presentation is spent telling the new recruits that we are a Performance Management organisation.”

The Architect leader must:

  • Ensure that all systems, structures and processes are aligned and optimised to realise high-performance strategic outcomes.
  • Ensure accountability at all levels; assign responsibility and uphold consequences.
  • Maintain a strong track record, and get the broad management team on board – this will also make it easier to win the support and commitment of the rest of the organisation.
  • Identify, nurture and back up capable middle managers to execute on your behalf.
  • Accept that a great number of organisational members will need to adapt and learn new skills.
  • Design a knowledge management strategy and maintain a monitoring and evaluation system that feeds timely and relevant performance reports to staff at all levels.

The Engineer – leading through change and implementation

The role of the Engineer is then to lead the organisation through the realisation of the changes required to instigate Performance Management in the organisation, as well as to guide the planning and construction of the processes involved in effective implementation. The importance of this function is stressed by Christine Lugnet, Director General at the Swedish Agency for Economic and Regional Growth in Sweden:

“It has been important to establish a line of sight. The other day, one of our staff told me:
‘This is the first time I can relate my work to the aim of the organisation.’”

In short, the Engineer should link strategy with operations, and realise objectives practically. Critical success factors here are intrinsically linked and include a clear line of sight as well as ensuring employees’ ability to ‘make sense’ of what they are doing and why (Liner et al, 2001).

The Engineer leader in must:

  • Push performance by setting ambitious yet realistic operational goals for the organisation that will achieve high performance.
  • Communicate clearly what is expected.
  • Balance ideas and personal energy with the ability of the organizational members to absorb, understand and apply these innovative proposals.
  • Stretch without stressing the organisation.

The Manager – driving data-driven learning and action

Last but not least, the Manager drives the organisation in operational mode. Here, according to many of the public sector executives interviewed, Performance Leadership involves establishing an effective management information system, which supports the organisation to achieve its objectives. A typical manager viewpoint is expressed by Dr. Beier, Managing Director at the German Development Agency:

“Best practices are shown in the organisation. When the occasion calls for it, best practice examples of good performance are awarded and shown (at the intranet, knowledge management systems, events).”

In numerous organisations, bringing results to the forefront is only a recent development. The gut feeling has been supplemented or even substituted with facts. In the past, Kjell Richard Andersen, Assistant Director at the City of Oslo Department of Education, was left guessing:

“What is the situation in your organization? What are the results? Many leaders lead on intuition rather than knowledge. Before, in our organization, results were hidden. We did not know how things were. We had to create a picture of what happened.”

Of particular importance for data-driven management is not the data system in itself, but the institutionalised analysis of that data (Patufsky, 2007, O’Connell, 2001), as well as fostering a culture that is established around a focus on performance (Mayne, 2007, Moynihan, 2005, Thomas, 2005). Essential to the Manager style is thus the ability to make organisational learning routine by instituting an inquisitive, data-driven culture.

The Manager must:

  • Demand performance reports and use these to review performance continuously.
  • Data quality is king. Establish regular procedures to check up on data credibility.
  • Bring data to life. Translate data analysis into action.
  • Promote an inquisitive performance-oriented culture.
  • Promote best practice: recognise and reward high performance in public.

Unleash the practices that drive success in the organisation

The message is clear: for maximum impact, Performance Management should be practiced through the situational and contextual application of different, yet complementary, leadership roles. The more detailed requirements for and of each role will always depend on the given situation, and it is thus crucial for executives to be versatile, possessing the full spectrum of qualities needed, in order to be able to act and respond appropriately to the given context. By adapting to different situations and honing the different skills that are needed, executives will pave the way for successful Performance Leadership.

References Behn R.D (2006): (second edition): Performance Leadership: 11 Better Practices That Can Ratchet Up Performance, IBM Center for The Business of Government.   Liner, Blaine et al (2001): Making Results-based State Government Work, Urban Institute Press, Washington.   Mayne, John (2007): Challenges and Lessons in Implementing Results-Based Management. Evaluation vol. 13, issue 87, pp. 87-109.   Moynihan, D. P. (2006): Managing for Results in State Government: Evaluating a Decade  of Reform, Public Administration Review 66(1): 77 – 89.   O’Connell P.E. (2001): Managing for Results Series: Using Performance Data for Accountability: The New York City Police Department’s CompStat Model of Police Management, The PricewaterhouseCoopers Endowment for The Business of Government.   Patusky C. & Botwinik L. & Shelley M. (2007): Managing for Performance and Results Series: The Philadelphia SchoolStat Model, IBM Center for The Business of Government.   Thomas, P. (2005): Performance Measurement and Management in the Public Sector,   Optimum 35(2). Retrieved from