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posted: 12/15/2013 6:03 AM

Career Coach: Focus on the fundamentals

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By Robert M. Sheehan Jr., The Washington Post

We hear it every weekend during football season. The losing team did not execute the fundamentals.

"Didn't take care of the football."

"Sloppy blocking."

"Didn't wrap their arms on tackles."

Legendary football coach Vince Lombardi once said, "Excellence is achieved by mastery of the fundamentals." The same is true in the working world. Management is complex, but here are the five fundamentals to make sure you get it right:

1. Set clear expectations. It makes common sense and it is backed up by research ("First, Break All the Rules," by Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman, 1999). Make sure that your direct reports are perfectly clear about what you expect of them. This includes job descriptions and lists of responsibilities, but also those often unwritten expectations. Write them down. Review responsibilities and expectations at least twice a year just to make sure that everyone is on the same page.

2. Set goals. Setting goals that are connected to expectations improves performance. This is also backed up by research ("A Theory of Goal Setting & Task Performance," by Edwin Locke and Gary Latham, 1990), but it is truly remarkable how often managers don't do this with direct reports. Set them annually and quarterly, then follow-up. It is ideal to set goals for performance and for development. Make sure that performance goals are connected to the most important goals of the organization. Support each person's development goals with resources.

3. Provide encouragement and appreciation. It is the right thing to do, and guess what? Research on leadership and management demonstrates that it leads to higher levels of performance ("The Leadership Challenge," by James Kouzes and Barry Posner, 2012). This does not have to be complicated. At every staff meeting, for example, you can ask every person for their most recent proud accomplishment. Appreciation needs to be sincere and given on a regular basis.

4. Establish an environment of mutual trust. Recent research (James Kouzes and Barry Posner, "To Lead, Create Shared Vision," Harvard Business Review, January 2009) found that what people want most from a leader is honesty. And we know that this is the foundation for building mutual trust that creates an environment for high performance. You need to model honesty and respect for others. And when others on your staff do not act this way, you need to confront the behavior.

5. Share the vision and mission. In the same Harvard Business Review research referenced above, the No. 2 thing people want from a leader is for them to be visionary -- or forward thinking. This does not mean you have to give an "I Have a Dream" speech at every staff meeting. Simply help remind everyone of the big picture regularly. Why are we here? We can all easily lose focus on this with the business of daily work. Taking some time once a year to create a vision of the ideal future for your organization or even your particular unit is a great exercise for everyone to participate in -- not just the top leaders.

Print these five fundamentals and tape them to your wall at work so you don't forget. Share them with all of your management staff. Master the fundamentals and you will build a winning team.

• Sheehan is the academic director of the executive MBA program at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. He provides consulting services in strategic planning, board development, and leadership and teamwork development for nonprofits. He has more than 30 years of executive management experience, including 18 years at the CEO of two different national nonprofits.

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