Clarity of purpose Featured

8:00pm EDT August 26, 2009

Tim Bentsen has been working at KPMG LLP longer than many of his employees have been alive.

After 34 years with the audit, tax and advisory service firm, one thing he recognizes is that he has a large group of generationally diverse people, which makes it a challenge to get everyone to understand him and the vision he’s communicating — and to buy in to it.

“We have so many smart, bright people that are out there trying to serve clients in a variety of ways — how do you keep them all aligned under the firm guidelines, processes, goals and objectives?” says Bentsen, the firm’s managing partner for the Southeast area and the Atlanta office.

He starts by setting goals for the 2,000 people in his region, following up to make sure they understood and then stepping back and letting them execute.

“That links into how do you get buy-in around things,” he says. “You can’t just tell someone, ‘This is our vision, and by golly, you just have to buy it, and it’s our way or the highway.’ You have to let them take some ownership of it. Say, ‘OK, this is the firm’s vision. What’s my piece of it? How can I influence it at my level? And how, at my level — even me as a partner — can I really influence what’s happening?’

“If you start to understand that piece and see how if I push in that direction or contribute in this particular area, it helps move the firm forward overall.”

Set goals

You’ll never be able to get a group of people going in the same direction if you don’t set the direction for them, so the first thing that is crucial to keeping people aligned is to set goals.

“The key is just set a real clear set of goals and objectives and keep them focused on that, and you continue to say, ‘This is what we do, and this is what we will not do, and this is how we’ll engage with our people, and this is how we’re going to engage with the marketplace,’” Bentsen says.

When it comes to setting clear goals and objectives, it’s often more difficult than we’d like to think.

“We’ve all heard it for years — keep it simple,” Bentsen says. “That’s what we have to do because professional services, we can make it sound awfully complex, but it’s really fairly simple. If we understand our clients’ business issues and help them solve those, it’s not a whole lot more complicated than that. … We just have to keep in front of us a clear understanding of who we are and what we’re not, what we’ll do and what we won’t and how to engage with our clients in accomplishing that.”

Bentsen has to take a look at KPMG as a whole and then break it down from there. For example, as an international organization, the company has goals and objectives it wants to accomplish. From there, the U.S. entity also has goals that it’s looking to achieve. From those goals, Bentsen needs to look at how his regional area can fit into that puzzle of achievement. He then uses those tasks to create goals for his people.

“It starts at the very top with the firm’s priorities and strategies, and it transcends down into the businesses, be it geographic or functional, which then goes down to specific teams and individuals — what is my role, what are the things that I’m expected to do to help the firm accomplish its overall goals?” he says.

A lot of times it may seem overwhelming when you’re determining what goals to set for yourself or your people, but Bentsen says you have to choose the most important tasks to focus on.

“Don’t overdo it,” he says. “One of the real challenges is to keep it fairly clear. … Our leadership team might say, ‘Tim, here’s 47 things we need you to do.’ I cannot focus on 47 things, so it really needs to break down to, ‘Tim or Sue or George, what are the three to five things that you do that will move the business forward?’

“So I would say to keep it really clear, keep it somewhat of an ability to focus on priorities. What are the three to four things that will really make a difference?”

He says there are some ways to know how to choose top priorities.

“One, you have to use your own knowledge and intuition about what’s really important, but I’ll also play that back to my boss, and I would encourage people to play that back to their leaders,” he says.

For example, when you or your people are part of multiple projects, everyone thinks that the project he or she heads is most important, so how do you prioritize when different people think different things are most important? He says that’s when you have to go through those 47 — or whatever your number is — things and look at which items will most affect the business. Then communicate to everyone involved that these are your 47 things, but these are the four that are most important to focus on.

“I’m going to get to the other 47, but I’m going to address these four things first or keep them sort of the No. 1 priority as I work through the overall list,” he says. “Play it back to the people that you work with to get them to agree and understand what some of those competing priorities are.”

Follow up

It’s all well and good to set goals for your company and employees, but they still won’t get aligned if those goals aren’t clear and understood by everyone, so you have to check back with them.

“When you’re communicating with someone, setting expectations, you do some follow-up with different groups and levels and say, ‘Did the message get through?’” Bentsen says.

He does this by having people summarize to him what they heard when he’s conducting formal reviews.

“You’re working with me, and I’ll say, ‘Here are your performance goals for this year, and I want you to summarize those and put them back in the formal performance discussion process that we have,’” he says. “So one, it’s your ability to turn around and articulate those in a formal and structured manner and then through ongoing and frequent communication and interaction.”

Bentsen also likes to sit in with his managers when they do this with their team members so he can see that they are doing the same thing and that their people are seeing how they need to contribute.

He also follows up with people after large group meetings.

“One of the things that I’ve learned — you kind of know it, but you learn it the hard way sometimes — is what you believe you say is not always what people hear,” Bentsen says.

For example, when he had a practicewide conference call for his region, where there were hundreds and hundreds of people on the call, he knew there could be misunderstandings. So the next day, he had a call with 15 of his senior associates and asked them what they heard on the call the previous day.

“I went through four or five specific areas that I had addressed,” Bentsen says. “‘OK, this is a topic we covered. Somebody tell me what I said.’ I think just to have that follow-up — and that’s the goal of having this sort of feedback process is to say, ‘Did my message get through, was it understood, how could it have been interpreted by others?’ If everybody is sitting in different contexts and experiences and different things, what they hear is going through all those different filters.”

Get out of the way

After setting goals and following up, for everything to work well, the next thing you have to do is back off.

“My role is to get out of the way,” he says. “We have some outstanding people, and if you set the goals and set the expectations, you want to empower them by having that clarity of expectations and then getting out of the way and then saying, ‘OK, you go do it, and what can I do to support you?’”

Bentsen knows how important it is to get out of the way because he’s seen his own frustrations through his own experiences with micromanagers and, on the other hand, his experiences with those who empowered him.

“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” he says. “I look at who have been great leaders for me over the years and know that they were there but they had given and they had instilled in me a tremendous amount of confidence — ‘Tim, I know you can do this. I’ve seen you do this before. We’re in agreement this is where you’re going; go do it and check back with me in two weeks,’ or whatever. But you learn from the people that you work with.”

While you may learn how to better let go by watching those who have led you, you’ll also learn how much to let go as you watch those you currently lead.

“As I’ve had the opportunity to work with others, you give more rope to different people,” Bentsen says. “That’s why you get to know people and you understand Samantha here can do some incredible things so I’m going to let her have almost as much rope as she needs, where Steve over here is maybe a little less experienced so we’re going to have a little more frequent touch points.”

Those touch points come in the form of evaluations and metrics. You have to have that follow through and look at how they are performing against those goals and objectives. One of the expectations he has of his people is to provide constructive feedback on someone’s performance in order to help them grow and understand the opportunities they have in the firm. He expects performance reviews of new associates after every project of more than 80 hours. For more experienced people, reviews are expected semiannually. He’s also quick to note that sometimes the best performance “review” is often the immediate and specific feedback that someone provides to a colleague.

“For a huge percentage of the population, they’re just going to do that anyway, but for everyone else, there is an expectation that what gets measured gets done,” Bentsen says.

Once you do all of this, you’ll have good systems in place to move the business forward.

He says, “You set all these expectations, and then you get out of the way and let them go do it and don’t micromanage and have your points of accountability and know that you’re there to support and encourage and help the teams going forward.”

How to reach: KPMG LLP, (404) 222-3000 or www.us.kpmg.com