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Build for success > Tough Tales of Transition > Unreasonable Expectations

Unreasonable Expectations

By Sarah Wilshaw-Sparkes

“I have a target for our membership body which was set by others with no credible background to why that number was set. This number is now being held as “God given.” It is totally unachievable on an annual basis – as a long term goal it has credence.

I have the Board and the Director saying I am failing and I have a membership manager who feels she also has been set up to fail. How do we get through our comments and provide the context without sounding as though we are making excuses or whinging?

We felt this question was relevant to many who work in professional services/corporates who have deliverables set for them by managers who may be a couple of steps removed from the hard realities of business. We believe that the most important step in dealing with unreasonable expectations is to remove the emotion from the situation.

Concentrate on Facts and Logic

We’re sure many of you know of awful feedback sessions where, instead of focusing on the facts, discussions have become emotional. The best way to avoid that is to ground the talk in data and logic. This means you’ll need to do some homework so you can have a ‘courageous conversation’ with the Board and Director. More on that later.

Find the Source

Your first step is to establish where the ‘God given’ target number came from. In our experience, there will have been some logic, however tenuous. Your mission is to discover its origins. The more you know about who created it, and how, the better you can marshal your counter-arguments and plan how best to lay them out.

These sorts of numbers often appear in strategy documents, business plans and marketing plans even if the person who created them has left the building. We can’t be sure from the outside, of course, but if membership numbers are an important driver of profit in your organisation, there might have been pressure in the past to put in a stretch target for it

You never know, it’s possible that uncovering the original logic may cause you to adjust your view a little, too!

Build Your Case

Secondly, why are you disputing this number? You say that as a long term target the Board’s number has credence, but that the annual targets to take you there are unachievable. What are your assumptions in setting annual membership targets? It sounds like you have answers to these questions and in this step, your task is to lay them out as clearly and convincingly as you can.

Perhaps you’ve looked outside your organisation for benchmarks from other member- based organisations. We’ve seen external comparisons provide a powerful argument provided they are for broadly similar operations. Issues such as how long your benchmarks’ membership programmes have been running, how large their local population pools are, and whether they are from the same or similar cultural settings will all have an influence. Perhaps there is some disagreement over the business sense behind the growth rate. Someone may have taken high growth rates from early years that were readily achievable off a small base and extrapolated them forward as a deliverable each year.

It can be tempting at times to list all the reasons something is wrong, and not push to the step of an alternative solution. Do think about what a challenging but workable set of numbers would look like that you and your membership manager could sign up to. Putting a range on it can leave some room for later negotiation.

Write it Out

There’s nothing quite like sitting down and outlining your logic and thinking in writing. Whatever your favourite mode of communication, it’s best to use a written document that you can leave behind for circulation among key stakeholders if necessary.

If you have someone whose business judgement and political instincts you trust, this would be a good time to ask them to listen to your ‘pitch’ and take a look at what you’ve written down.

Have a Courageous Conversation

These are the conversations we don’t like and don’t want to have, but really need to have, in order to work through road blocks of many kinds. Once you’ve got your logic sorted and you’re happy with your written outline, ask for a special meeting to discuss membership targets with the key board member.

This ‘courageous conversation’ does not have to be confrontational. You can say that you’ve been reviewing your progress and have looked at the available facts and would like to raise some potential issues.

A good place to start is by checking your findings about how the board reached their targets. You want to make sure you’ve got your facts straight! It’s helpful that you do articulate that you see the long term goals as achievable. Saying so allows you to start the meat of the discussion on a positive note and it may also mollify the Director. We all like to hear that people agree with us! You can briefly highlight why you agree with the long term number before turning to the more difficult issue of the annual growth rate.

When you present your suggested new membership growth range, you might consider making the point that challenging but achievable targets are highly motivating for staff, but that targets which are too stretched and seen as setting one up to fail are dangerous as they are demoralising and de-motivating. Your membership manager sounds unhappy with the current situation: can the organisation afford to lose this individual?

The Director will no doubt have perspectives to offer and there may be more work that you both agree needs to be done to resolve particular issues. Do make sure that you end the meeting with an agreed timeframe for meeting up again, and leave the Director with a copy of your work to date. The key for you is to follow up, politely but persistently.

Good luck!

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