Even if you have an open door, and are constantly asking your direct reports how you can improve, chances are your employees are holding back.
Particularly if you’re generally a great boss, they figure “Why complain? It could be so much worse.”
Most employees we talk with have ideas for how their boss could be more supportive. And yet, when we ask them if they’ve had that conversation with their manager, most of the time the answer is “no.”
In fact, when Karin was teaching a leadership course in a top MBA program, she asked her students if they had ideas on how to improve the effectiveness of their relationship with their manager. As you can imagine, every hand in the room shot up with a lot of knowing chuckles.
And then when she asked how many of her students had shared at least one of those insights with their managers, only one student raised her hand.
If these fast-track (not shy) millennials, serious about their success, were holding back, it’s probably a good indicator that others are too.
And, if you’re like most managers we talk with, it goes the other way as well. You know your relationship with your direct reports could be better. Perhaps you’re not getting the support you need in a particular area. Or communication is breaking down in some way. Maybe you need more ideas or for them to challenge your thinking.
But it’s hard to carve out the time to have that conversation, so you settle for “good enough.”
An Easy Way to Open Up the Communication With Your Direct Reports
We use this tool with managers in some of our long-term leadership development programs to open up two-way communication between leaders and their direct reports. We thought it might be helpful for you too. If you give it a try, we’d love to hear how it goes. Drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Why the Tool Works
The tool is designed to reinforce the reciprocal nature of the manager-employee relationship.
It’s not just about what the manager is doing well or could do better, or what the direct report is doing well or could improve.
Both the manager and the employee rate the effectiveness of the relationship on the same dimensions.
The tool is designed to encourage both parties to take responsibility for co-creating the relationship and the results they produce.
How to Use The Tool
Explain why you think this is an important exercise. It’s important that your direct reports feel safe and know that you are genuinely open to the dialogue. If the basic trust is not yet there, work on that first. This is an advanced communication tool that requires a foundation of trust.
Ask your direct reports to complete the quick assessment with as much candor as possible before you meet.
Complete the assessment yourself, based on your relationship with each direct report. (Note, it should be different for each person.)
Schedule a one-on-one meeting with each of your direct reports to discuss and celebrate where your relationship is working well, and identify areas for improvement.
Align on one or two specific actions you both agree to do to improve your relationship.
Schedule the finish. Set up a time in the future (a month or so out is probably best) that you will meet to discuss progress.
Your confidence is fuel for problem-solving and creativity.
In the past two weeks, we’ve been in several meetings and conversations with leaders responding to rapidly changing coronavirus scenarios. Regardless of the industry, as leaders shared responses and next steps, many of their teams reacted in the same way:
But how do we … ?
We’ve never had to do this before. Can we really … ?
We’ve never done anything like this. What am I supposed to do now?
These moments of rapid change and unprecedented response naturally cause anxiety, doubt, and grief. The old way of doing things is gone—even if only for a month or two. What now? Can we handle this?
In these moments, your team needs your leadership more than ever. Address these moments of rapid change with calm clarity and then focus on answering the doubt.
When it Feels Impossible
In a state correctional facility, Christine faced a challenging problem.
With no prior supervisory experience, as one of a small handful of female staff in a mostly male prison, and with a highly diverse and contentious inmate population, she had been placed in charge of creating a clothing factory. As if those weren’t enough barriers, prior attempts to open a similar factory in other state facilities had failed.
One year later, Christine’s factory was out-producing the prototype operation, had an impeccable safety record, and could run itself without supervision.
I was able to talk with Christine, asking what made such a rapid transition, and seemingly impossible results, possible. Here’s what she said:
It began with my belief in the people. When they came to me, they wanted to tell me about what they had done on the outside—why they were in prison. I cut them off, told them I didn’t really care about who they were last year. ‘This is who we will be in this factory and this is what we’re going to do.’ Most of them didn’t believe it at first, but pretty quickly they responded to someone believing in them.
She described how male inmates would initially object to sewing because they thought it wasn’t something men did.
Christine would walk over to the industrial sewing machines, quietly operate it, produce a garment, return to the men and say, “You’re telling me women can run this industrial machine but you can’t? I don’t believe that. I believe you can.”
Your Confidence in Your Team
I love Christine’s message: “This is who we will be in this factory and this is what we’re going to do.”
Faced with major change and hurdles, your team needs your confidence.
This is the essence of leadership: believing that together we can do more and have a better tomorrow. That’s what it means to be a CBO – a Chief Belief Officer.
Your team needs a CBO right now. Your team needs to hear you say, “You can.”
I know this is tough and I know we will find a way through it.
I trust this team and believe we can find new answers.
Together, we’re going to stay safe and figure out how to deal with these changes.
I know you can.
Leave us a comment and tell us: How a leader in your life is or was a C.B.O. for you? How do you communicate your confidence in your team when times are tough?
When he started work that week, “Aaron” didn’t know that he’d be asked to guide his team through a Coronavirus response, but within just a few days the situation was urgent. Major clients were making changes quickly. Like many leaders throughout the world, Aaron found himself having to lead through rapid change.
We happened to be in his office that morning as Aaron brought together his leadership team to communicate the next steps. We watched as he gracefully led his team through the day’s urgent situation. The entire office worked with clarity, focus, and resolve. The same principles Aaron used to lead through rapid change will work for you.
As you and your team respond to the rapidly evolving realities of this problem (or the next one):
1. Over-communicate clear, precise actions.
Aaron’s first message was very clear: “We need to call every client, ask them this question … and give them this information.”
Keep it simple. Check for understanding and be ready to repeat what matters most—frequently. When your people are worried and stressed themselves, communication is more challenging. Even with this seemingly straightforward request, there were several questions.
Aaron patiently and confidently reiterated the task: “A phone call to every client. Voice to voice communication is our MIT (Most Important Thing) here. If we can’t do that, we’ll use email for a backup. But #1, #2, and #3 is a phone call. Ask them this … tell them this …”
Focus on clear, concise communication that leaves no doubt about who will do what and by when.
2. Acknowledge emotion.
Ignoring emotions doesn’t make them go away. In fact, it makes them stronger. When you have to lead through rapid change and stressful circumstances, acknowledge how everyone feels.
Aaron looked at his team and said, “I know this is scary and there are a lot of things we don’t know. We have a plan for today. If anyone needs to talk with me individually, I’m here.”
If you’re not sure, you can also take a moment to ask how everyone is feeling. Acknowledge their emotions e.g. “It’s normal to feel nervous or upset in times like this.”
3. Focus on what you do know and what you can do.
Clarity is the antidote to uncertainty.
You don’t have to know everything. Focus on what you do know, on the next steps, on what needs to happen next, and the process going forward. You may not know what will happen or what decisions will be, but you can be 100% clear about what you know and what you will do next.
4. Communicate your confidence.
One of our favorite parts of this meeting was when Aaron told his team, “I know there’s a lot going on and this is on top of all the other things we’ve normally got to take care of—and I know you’re up to it. If you need help, I’m here.”
Your belief in your people becomes their confidence in themselves.
Next, Aaron shared an analogy that he’d learned from a mentor:
As a leader, you’re like a flight attendant during turbulence. When the plane shakes in the air, everyone looks at that flight attendant. If they’re joking or reading on their phone, everyone relaxes. If they’re upset, everyone panics. Your job today is to be that calm flight attendant for your team.
In talking with Aaron, he had his own concerns, but he modeled this “be the flight attendant” approach beautifully. Your team will take their cue from you.
5. Address concerns.
Aaron then took questions from his team. Some involved the work, some focused on personal concerns, and internal company procedures and response. Where he had information, he shared it. Where plans were being developed, he was clear about the process and that how he would inform everyone when the time came. When concerns were more personal, he met with those team members individually.
When you have to lead through rapid change or stressful circumstances, you often don’t know what you’ll show up to—but as a leader you always choose how you’ll show up. Your team needs you to be clear, calm, focused, and connected.
You don’t know what you’ll show up to, but you choose how you’ll show up.
Your Best Way to Lead Through Rapid Change
We’d love to hear from you: leave us a comment and share your best practice for leading through urgent, rapid change.
This week we’ve received so many calls like this from managers faced with implementing new work from home policies.
“I get the safety issues, I really do. But my team is used to being together in the same office. We collaborate all day long. That’s what makes us so successful. I’m concerned that this work from home policy is going to tank engagement, stifle communication and reduce productivity. What can I do?”
“I love sitting out on the floor with my team. That’s how I know what’s going on. How can I stay connected if everyone is working from home?”
“The timing couldn’t be worse. We’re in the middle of a huge project. How can I ensure my team stays focused when they’re working from home and distracted by fear?”
5 Ways to Keep Your Team Productive and Engaged While They Work From Home
These are all very real and legitimate concerns. Not everyone is cut out to work from home.
And it’s tricky to lead a remote team, particularly if you never have before.
So how do you keep your team focused and engaged when working from home is the only option?
1. Require video for your meetings and one-on-ones.
Your team may resist. Be clear from the beginning this is not optional. Being able to look one another in the eye leads to better listening (body language matters) and prevents multi-tasking.
This human connection is even more vital now that we’re all afraid to shake hands and see every human we interact with as a potential threat to disinfect.
2. Formalize informal communication.
When you’re in an office it’s natural to connect first before jumping into work. “How was your weekend?” When everyone is working remotely, it’s tempting to skip the small talk. Be deliberate about finding ways to communicate at a human level.
Last week, we sat in on a remote team meeting where they started with a virtual chorus of happy birthday. Not the best rendition we’ve ever heard. But, it was a brilliant minute well spent as everyone laughed before jumping into the stressful topic of coronavirus contingency planning.
3. Over-communicate your most important priorities.
Your team is likely stressed and distracted about their health and the health of the vulnerable people they love, tanking stock prices, and what’s going to happen next. On top of all that, now they have a new routine at work. In times of uncertainty and change, you’ve got to overcommunicate more than you think is necessary.
Mix it up with as many techniques as possible For example, you can start the day with a quick team huddle (over video of course). Then follow-up with a recap email. Up your frequency of one-on-one check-ins. And be sure you’re deliberately asking your team for their best thinking for ways to work effectively in this new environment Or look for more creative ways to reinforce key messages such as starting an internal podcast.
4. Encourage people to work together (without you.)
When everyone is remote, it’s easy to become the hub for all communication. Which of course is a huge time suck for you and a missed opportunity for them. Assign people to work on projects together (over video). Encourage brainstorming and best practice sharing (over video). Consider assigning collaborative homework in advance of your team meeting or huddles.
5. Learn the art of great remote meetings.
Take time to establish new norms for your remote meetings. How will you ensure everyone participates? What’s the rule on multi-tasking? See How to Take Charge of Your Remote Meetings, for a quick primer you can share with your team.
Just like any other change, a shift to a work-at-home policy will take some adjusting for you and your team. Be sure you’re checking in with your team to see what’s working and what more they need from you and from one another.
Have you ever ticked off your coworkers and didn’t know why?
You didn’t mean to. You’re working hard, moving fast, and advocating for your team. And one day you overhear two coworkers complaining about you in the hallway. Or you catch a peer typing “WTF” under the table in a staff meeting.
Avoid Damaging Your Reputation With Coworkers By Avoiding These 7 Mistakes
Here are seven big mistakes we’ve seen many well-intentioned, hard-working managers (sadly including ourselves) make while working diligently to improve the business—inadvertently ticking off their peers in the process.
1. Over-advocating for Your Team
Of course, advocating for, and defending your team, is generally a good characteristic. People want to know their boss has their backs.
But be careful to keep a realistic and balanced perspective.
Sometimes the best person for that coveted special assignment isn’t YOUR box nine candidate, but THEIR’S.
Sometimes it’s YOUR TEAM that screwed things up NOT THEIRS. And yes, sometimes the bigger bonus needs to go to the guy on the other team who knocked it out of the park—even though your team has been working hard too.
Yes, advocate for your team. But also take a step back and stay objective.
2. Hoarding Talent
When you’ve spent significant time developing your team, it can be difficult to let them go to another team or department—even if it’s in their best interest, or for the greater good of the organization. After all, who wants to be the farm team for the rest of the company?
Take the long-view. As you become known as a leader who both develops AND supports people’s career growth, you’ll become a magnet for high-potential talent drawn to that kind of support.
3. Unbridled Tenacity
When you know you’re “right” it can be tough to figure out how to also be effective. When you disagree in front of an audience, particularly if that audience is your boss, even if you’re right, your peers may feel like you’ve thrown them under the bus.
Be willing to lose a battle or two. Stakeholder potentially contentious issues off-line. When conflict arises, pick up the phone instead of shooting off a frustrated email. Resist the urge to work out conflicts in front of others. Resolving coworker conflict is not a spectator sport.
4. Not Spending Enough Time Together
It’s easy to under-invest in coworker relationships. Leaders tend to focus on their team and boss first and hope the peer relationships will evolve naturally. Just like any human interaction, coworker relationships take time and energy to grow properly.
In addition, peer relationships are naturally tricky since you’re often competing in a stack rack, for resources or for senior leader attention.
Make a deliberate investment in the relationship. Take time to understand your coworker’s goals and objectives. Ask them what worries them and how you can help. Break bread. Learn about who they are outside of work. Invest in their success.
5. Not Asking For Help
When you know your coworkers are slammed, you don’t want to ask for help. But if others are reaching out and supporting one another, not asking for help can be perceived as arrogance.
Take time to understand your coworkers’ strengths and areas of expertise. Ask for their advice or support from time-to-time. Of course, be sure to offer your support in return.
6. Not Acknowledging Their Contribution
Okay, suppose they did help you. And now you’re getting praise for your great work. But forget to mention their support. And now they’re ticked.
Be gracious in your public gratitude and go out of your way to make a big deal out of the support you’ve received from others— particularly in front of the people that matter most to your peers.
7. Withholding Best Practices
Often high-performers will share if asked but are too busy (or competitive) to do so proactively. Or they don’t share because they don’t want to look braggy. Meanwhile, people are wasting time spinning their wheels because they’re unaware that a coworker has already figured out a better way.
Sometimes when you’re moving fast and working hard, it’s easy to slip off of one of these slippery slopes and damage a peer relationship. It’s never to late invest more deeply for greater influence and impact.
What else would you add? What do you see as the biggest mistakes derailing coworker relationships?
Don’t let useless performance feedback sap motivation.
My phone buzzed with a text message from Amena, a young manager. “Just had annual eval – most useless performance feedback ever.”
I’d coached this woman—a hardworking, strategic thinker who passionately cared about the company and its customers. Another text quickly followed the first: “My eval was ‘good’ on everything except where I was ‘very good’ at getting along with people.”
Which was rapidly followed by this:
Have you experienced her frustration? Too often, meaningless platitudes followed by a vague assertion that something you’ve never heard about should have been better are the norm.
Because many managers lack the courage or know-how to give meaningful feedback and help their people grow, they default to no-good, useless performance feedback that isn’t just a waste of time—it’s painful and destructive.
But like you, most leaders don’t intend to give poor feedback or hurt people, so what goes wrong?
Characteristics of Useless Performance Feedback
Three characteristics make performance feedback so destructive. If you can identify and avoid these three problems, you’re on your way to helping your people achieve great results and becoming a leader they can rely on and trust.
Problem #1: One-sided Feedback
People need to hear what they’re doing well. They also need to know where they aren’t getting the job done. Many managers err on one side or the other.
Some managers hang in the land of “great work, love what you’re doing” and never address real performance concerns or tell their people how they can grow. This frustrates people who want to do a good job. Your top performers want to excel, and if you don’t help them, they’ll find a leader who will.
Other managers live in the world of “I’ll encourage you when it’s perfect—and there’s no such thing as perfect.” This one-sided barrage of critical feedback and improvement plans demoralizes people. If nothing they do will ever be good enough, why bother?
Solution: Balance your Ratios
People need encouragement and they need to hear what’s not working. You get more of what you encourage and celebrate, less of what you criticize and ignore. So, address both.
Consistently encourage what’s working. When someone isn’t performing well, talk about it. However, unless your team member has specifically asked for feedback, avoid the dreaded “sandwich method” where you shove something negative between two niceties.
That feels manipulative—or they might focus on your positive comments and ignore what you were really trying to say.
Problem #2: Vague Feedback
Another critical feedback mistake is to speak in vague generalities. Examples include the feedback Amena received that she hadn’t “been very productive in the last three months” as well as statements like:
“You’re doing great.”
“You rocked it back there.”
“You need to step up.”
“You’ve got a great/poor attitude.”
Notice that both encouraging and critical feedback can be vague and general. There are a couple of problems with vague feedback. First, the person doesn’t know what they did well (or poorly) so it’s unlikely to reinforce or change behavior.
Second, when you address a general characteristic, like someone’s attitude, you’ve put yourself in an impossible situation. You can’t actually know what their attitude is. Their attitude is an internal set of feelings and thoughts. You’re not seeing an attitude; you’re seeing behaviors that you interpret as a great or poor attitude.
Speaking in vague generalities often results in frustration, misunderstandings, and doesn’t encourage performance.
Solution: Address Specific Behaviors
When you encourage someone, be specific about what they did and why it mattered. Eg: “I really appreciate the extra time you spent solving that client’s problem this morning. I know they’re difficult. You showed so much patience. They called me this afternoon to let me know how much they appreciate the firm and will be renewing their account.”
When you need to share feedback about something that isn’t going well, you can use the INSPIRE Method to plan for and hold the conversation. The N step in INSPIRE stands for “Noticing” a specific behavior.
Be specific. Eg: “I noticed that you came into the meeting fifteen minutes after it started.” Or “I noticed that when your colleagues brought up ideas in this morning’s meeting, you interrupted them with negative comments.”
Where a vague generality leads to defensiveness, a specific observation is the start of a conversation.
Problem #3: Delayed Feedback
Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the feedback Amena received is that she didn’t hear about it for months.
Without looking at your calendar, you probably don’t remember what you did three weeks ago, much less three months. When you wait weeks or months to reflect on someone’s performance, you have no chance of changing behavior.
Moreover, as Amena shouted in her text, if it was wrong back then, why didn’t you say something? It’s a fair question. Formal performance evaluations should never contain any surprises.
Solution: Do it Now
Encourage and redirect your people as close as possible to the event you’re reacting to. The more time that goes by, the less meaningful your feedback.
One barrier to quick feedback is unclear or vague expectations. One of the most common problems leaders bring us are team members who aren’t performing to their expectations. We always ask two questions:
1) If we asked the person what success looks like, would they have the same answer you do?
(Often, the leader will ask us, “Do I really need to do that? Shouldn’t they just know?” The answer is yes, you do; and no, they won’t. Be clear and eliminate any possibility of misunderstanding.)
2) Have you told them that there’s a problem?
Too often, the answer to this question is version of “No, not really.” It’s magical thinking to believe that someone will spontaneously decide that their behavior isn’t working when all the evidence they have says that everything is fine. Have an INSPIRE conversation that gets results and builds the relationship.
You can transform useless performance feedback into helpful, energizing, and productive conversations when you consistently encourage, correct when needed, address specific behaviors, and share feedback quickly.
We’d love to hear from you, what’s your number one way to prevent no-good, useless performance feedback and have productive conversations that help everyone grow?
When your team just doesn’t get it, you’ve got a chance to level up.
It’s a lament we’ve heard from many leaders—usually accompanied by frustrated pacing or a discouraged slouch with their head in their hands: “I don’t know what else to do. My team just doesn’t get it.”
This is one of the most frustrating leadership experiences. You’re working hard, moving fast, and passionate about what you do, but your people seem clueless. They don’t focus on the MITs (Most Important Thing). They seem lackadaisical about the details that matter most, and they don’t seem worried at all about the strategic issues keeping you up at night.
5 Reasons Your Team Just Doesn’t Get It (and what to do about it)
1. They don’t know what you know.
You earned that insight, energy, and wisdom. You know what’s likely to happen because you’ve been there. But your people might not get it because they don’t have your experience or knowledge.
Have you ever tried to describe the taste of an orange to someone who’s never eaten one? It’s challenging. It’s so fundamental that you’ll use it as a baseline for other conversations: “It tastes like an orange, only more bitter.” But someone who’s never tasted an orange won’t get it. You’ve got to start with them tasting an orange and build from there.
If you want your people to be able to think as you do, give them the same information you used to decide. Connect what they do to the strategic reasons for their work. Help them understand how their decisions affect the customers, their team, and themselves.
2. You haven’t said it so they understand it.
We are professional communicators. We speak for a living—and yet, just this week, Karin said to David, “Can you finish one of those sentences? I’m not following you.”
Later that day, David looked at Karin and said, “I understand all the words you just said, but feel like I’m missing something important.” Communication isn’t always easy—even for professionals!
You probably don’t communicate as clearly as you think you do. In fact, we can almost guarantee it.
The words in your head make sense to you, but that doesn’t mean they’ll have the same meaning for another person—if they even hear all of them. Your message winds its way through an obstacle course of competing priorities, distractions, and the filters each person has in their head.
To guarantee that people hear and receive your most critical messages, use 5×5 communication (say it five times, five different ways) and check for understanding (ask people to share what they heard, using their own words).
When you use five different ways of communicating and consistently check for understanding, you will find the communication tools that work most effectively for your people.
3. You hired the wrong person.
There are also times where someone doesn’t get it because their values don’t align with yours or they lack the skills they need to perform well. One of the most common places this happens is in demanding, stressful jobs. Desperate for bodies, recruiters undersell the challenges and what it takes to thrive in the role.
If you’re regularly hearing exit interviews like “It was way harder than I expected” or “This isn’t what I thought it would be” then it’s time to look at your hiring process.
When a role or culture is demanding, don’t shy away from it. We have both hired for teams that asked more from people than most people would want to give. Don’t hide it; lead with it. Eg: “This role isn’t for most people. It’s demanding and hard. And it will give you an opportunity to make a real difference to our customers, clients, and your career.”
It’s quite possible that you’re the one who doesn’t get it.
Doug is a senior leader who was frustrated by his team’s performance. He’d done an incredible job training them in the methods and processes that he’d introduced and that had fueled his company’s success over the past twenty years.
The problem was that technology had changed. His customers, and the way they consumed his product, had changed. Doug had been a victim of his own success. His people understood their customer and half-heartedly met Doug’s expectations while trying to fulfill their customer’s expectations.
His team got it. But Doug had to relearn what success looked like and how to lead a team that wanted to succeed but needed to do it differently than Doug had.
5. You don’t ask for what you really want.
Another common cause when your team just doesn’t get it is that your measurements ask for something different from what you really want. People focus on getting a score and forget the game. Common examples include:
The target has changed recently, but you haven’t updated your 5×5 communication and measurement strategy. Everyone’s still working toward the old definition of success.
People hit their KPIs, but focus on them exclusively and ignore the strategy or experience that the numbers represent.
Too many measurements obscure what matters most. Eg: Your customer service checklist has 54 items and people can score well on the rubric without providing a great customer experience.
You had a hidden benchmark that you never shared. You likely took this measurement for granted, but then realized that people with different experiences or personalities needed to know it’s important.
The key to solving the measurement problem is to ask clearly for what you want. Help everyone focus on a few meaningful metrics that paint a complete picture of success. Connect those numbers to the strategy and the specific behaviors that make the numbers meaningful.
One way to know that your team gets it is frequently to check for understanding about what truly matters most. Eg “Why do we track these referrals—what does that represent? What should it mean when the numbers are good? What do we do that gets us the numbers we want to see?”
These questions are brief micro-engagements that continually reconnect your people to the strategy and behaviors behind the numbers.
It’s frustrating when your team just doesn’t get it, but it’s also a huge chance to get better and improve your leadership, processes, or communication. We’d love to hear from you: What have you learned when your team just doesn’t get it that made you a better leader?
When it comes to results—no one can touch him. There’s just one problem. He’s a jerk. How do you manage a strong, arrogant, slightly obnoxious high-performer?
A Profile of a Slighty Obnoxious High Performer
They come in all shapes and forms. “Dan” is charismatic and handsome, plus two espresso shots of attitude.
“Megan” is blonde, with a great purse, an MBA from a top 25, and a sarcastic streak that makes everyone in her wake feel like crap.
“Joe” can out-gun anyone with a spreadsheet at twenty paces, but ignores you if you can’t outwit his wittiness.
“Art” knows more about your business than you. He’s seen it all. But instead of helping others learn, he’s constantly talking about how he’s “just about done” with all the rookies.
You didn’t select them, but here they are on your team. They drive results, with implications.
Your bosses’ boss loves them—after all, they’re at the top of every stack rank report they see. So coaching feels tricky.
What should you do?
Door Number 1: Ignore the issues. Be grateful for the results. And pray they move on before they do too much damage to the team?
Door Number 2: Be the brave leader who has the tough conversation, and helps them understand their impact while helping them develop their full potential?
Sadly, I see so many “leaders” grit their teeth, complain to their spouse, and slip quietly through door number 1, praying that the next leader who manages this obnoxious high-performer will have more courage.
“After all, this guy’s clearly high-potential.” (Read that: “I’m worried I’ll work for him someday and don’t want to burn any bridges.”
“I’m not sure I’m as smart as him. I’d better shut up and listen.” (Read that: “I’m insecure.”)
“Sure, she’s obnoxious, but she gets damn good results, and goodness knows we need that right now.” (Read that: “Why not? Everyone else does.”)
“She’s ticking off all her peers, but … maybe she’ll raise the bar.” (Read that: “Crap, maybe this confident humility stuff is all bunk, time to unsubscribe from LGL.”)
6 Tips for Managing a Slightly Obnoxious High-Performer
What To Do Behind Door #2
If you’re leading for long-term success, head directly to door number 2.
1. Show Concern
Start with acknowledging their competence and impact. Something like, “You’re smart and your results are on fire. AND I’m deeply concerned that the way you’re showing up is going to derail your career. Would you be open to some exploration around this issue?”
2. Show Her the Data and Get Specific With Examples
If you’re the boss, your opinion will matter a bit, but not if they see you as a temporary stepping stone to tolerate. Offer a 360-degree assessment, or have him do it himself,
The more you can help them understand the specific behaviors that are ticking others off, the easier it will be to get their attention. It’s quite possible they’re so busy working on results, they’ve lost the peripheral vision necessary for positive relationships.
I’ll never forget the time my boss said to me. “Your peer had a great idea in the last meeting. But you just passed right over it to share yours. You’re not the only one with good ideas around here. How hard would it have been to take out a pen and write that down?” Yikes. Amen.
3. Offer Help
When you’re passionate and great at what you do, it’s tricky to see how annoying you are. Ask for permission to point it out the next time. Invent a secret signal if needed.
4. Set a Goal
Get them focused on a specific goal of supporting another on the team and advocating for their ideas. Build that into their formal development plan. Even if they are not interested in being a people manager, being difficult to work with is never a good long-term career strategy.
It’s easy to get sucked into the trap of thinking you have no choice but to accept the behavior. Be sure you’re looking at the bigger picture and the drain on the productivity and morale of the rest of your team. Are you losing other “A players” (or even solid B players) because they don’t want to work with this person? See also: Why Leaders Should Not Be Afraid to Fire Their Top Performer (Inc.)
What advice do you have for managing an obnoxious high-performer?
Senior leaders share the most important leadership skills to master now.
As we work with senior leaders to build their leadership development programs, the conversation always turns to the most important leadership skills their frontline and middle-level leaders need.
Inevitably, these veteran leaders bring up similar abilities – the skills that differentiate top leaders from their peers. Master these important leadership skills and you’ll build a foundation for success throughout your career.
If you’re responsible for training or building leaders in your organization, how can you ensure that they learn and practice these skills?
The 3 Most Important Leaders Skills
1. Time management
We’ve never met a leader with too much time on their hands. In fact, this is isn’t just a skill that senior leaders identify—every leader we’ve ever met talks about the challenge of prioritizing their overwhelming flood of responsibilities, meetings, and day-to-day crises.
You can’t lead when you’re exhausted or reactively flipping back and forth from one crisis to the next. So how do you master time management?
The first step is to reframe your goal. Most people think of time management as “How can I squeeze more activity into my day?” But more isn’t always the answer. Rather, focus on how you can do what matters most and make the most difference with the time you have.
My mantra is: Infinite need. Finite me. Mind the MIT.
“Infinite need” means that there will always be one more activity you could do. That never ends. You’ll never finish the list. Let go of that desire.
“Finite me” recognizes your limits—limited time, energy, and money.
“Mind the MIT” calls you to focus on what matters most. MIT stands for Most Important Thing. What matters most for your business, your team, and the results you need to achieve? What are the two or three critical activities that will consistently produce those results?
Once you know your MITs, time management is about making room for what matters most. Some of your schedule is outside of your control (though you can have more influence if you can show the RoI), but as a leader, you have several ways to free up time to do the work only you can do.
Own the UGLY and find ‘what’s gotta go’ to eliminate less valuable activities.
Practice direct and quick accountability.
2. Practice Accountability & Tough Conversations
Recently we spoke with a high performing leader about the best leaders in her life. She was unequivocal: “The best leaders I’ve ever had were the ones who cared about me enough to tell me what I was doing that wasn’t working and then showed me how I could be more effective.”
Your ability to achieve breakthrough results depends on your skill at tough conversations. Most leaders live in the twilight zone of vague conversations that don’t directly address struggling performers because they don’t want to hurt the relationship or lose the person.
If you struggle to have direct conversations, start by recognizing that if you really care about someone and their career, a direct conversation honors them and is compassionate. Then, equip yourself with the tools to do it well.
The I.N.S.P.I.R.E. method will help you prepare for and hold a performance conversation that builds your relationship and achieves results.
3. Work from the Why
In another recent conversation, an executive described her most effective managers: “They understand what matters most to our clients and how our KPIs relate to serving the customer. They get that the KPIs are there to serve the customer.”
This leadership skill has increased in prominence over the past decade. Work from the why starts with a clear grasp of your business, how it serves its customers, and how it operates financially.
Working from the why is about helping your team to understand why you do what you do, connecting everything you ask of your team to a meaningful reason you’re asking it, and then helping team members understand the specific behaviors that lead to successful outcomes.
Working from the why transforms “busy” into game-changing results. The connection to meaning and purpose energizes team members and inspires performance.
What are Your Most Important Leadership Skills?
Leaders consistently list these three as some of the most important leadership skills you can have—but they’re not the only ones we hear. Also, high on the list are communication, connection with your team, and motivating your team.
Leave us a comment and add your thoughts: What is one of the most important leadership skills you hope every leader brings to their team?
No one comes to work wanting to do a bad job. Losing is stressful. When the scorecard trends in the wrong direction, how do you help your team win?
And how do you help a strong team get even better?
Focus on the game, not the score.
How to Help Your Team Win
Brian (not his real name) began the team meeting by covering the team’s scorecard and Key Performance Indicators.
“Great work on your sales KPIs, we’re in the top-tier across the board. We are so close to beating Sharon’s district. If everyone just sold one more today, I think we can do it! Also, we seem to be struggling in the customer service KPIs. We have a downward trend and there are four districts ahead of us. I need more focus there across the board. Janet, you are doing the best so whatever you’re doing keep it up! Everyone else, I need you to try a bit harder. Awesome. Thanks everyone, now let’s go make it a great day. Remember, fantastic customer service!”
If that sounds like a team huddle you’ve ever been in, you know why we have a love/hate relationship with KPIs. Brian’s team may understand the KPIs, but they don’t have a clue what they are supposed to do when they leave that meeting.
What should they DO to sell one more?
How DO they improve the customer experience?
KPIs Are Indicators, Not Action
Scorecards and KPIs provide wonderful directional indicators. Good trends point to actions worth replicating. Bad trends shine a spotlight on what must change. A hard look at the data can help you identify the best practices which will help your team win. Comparative scorecards will also help you identify outliers who need more support.
While KPIs are great directional indicators, one of the biggest mistakes we see team leaders make is talking about the KPIs INSTEAD of the BEHAVIORS needed to achieve them.
People don’t change scorecards, they change behaviors.
A focus on KPIs versus behaviors can lead to useless, even stupid, actions.
Almost any behavior applied with enough focus will create a short-term lift in results.
Micromanagement can get you there for a hot minute. Fear and intimidation will work for a while. Heavy incentives and hoopla will create a short-term lift. Ice cream and pizza can’t hurt either.
But, upward trends in KPIs without an underlying change in the right behaviors, can lead to a false sense of security.
When the fear goes away or the sugar wears off, the results go back down.
The Behaviors That Matter (Try This Approach to Change the Conversation and Up your Game)
The only way to build sustained results is to improve the underlying behaviors. Don’t ask a sales rep to make more calls if they don’t know what makes a call successful. Don’t ask a team leader to spend more time on the floor, if they don’t understand how to support and encourage their team.
So what are the right behaviors? Why not ask the team?
Let’s go back to Brian’s meeting. Sales were solid, but the customer experience was suffering. He needed his team focused on the customer experience.
What if Brian started by showing up curious?
“We’ve got a downward trend in our CX metrics, but a few of you are knocking this out of the park. In fact, Janet, you’ve had one hundred and thirty-seven customers say they would recommend you to a friend this month. What specifically are you doing that we can learn from? Who else has a best practice to share? Okay, great. Now, I’m giving everyone three index cards. I’d like each of you to pay careful attention to your interactions with customers today. At the end of the day, I want you to write your very best approach for providing a ‘wow’ customer experience. Please be as specific as possible. For example, showing up confident, energetic and sounding interested in the first forty seconds of the call.
Please give me your cards before you leave today. I’ll look at the themes overnight and tomorrow morning in our team huddle we’ll talk about what we learned.”
And of course, Mark should do a check for understanding to ensure everyone knows what they’re going to do. “So, just to ensure I’ve communicated this well. What are you going to do with the cards today? And what will we do in our huddle tomorrow?”
This easy exercise works at multiple levels. First, it ensures everyone focuses on your customer’s experience that day—as they are paying attention to their behaviors and the impact they are having. And it turns your collective conversation the next morning to best practice sharing.
What tools and techniques have you used to ensure the conversation focuses on behaviors?
How have you avoided the distraction of numbers and KPIs?
We were just wrapping up the first session of a leadership program when “Sal” raised his hand. “How do you help a new manager be more confident?”
He continued, “I mean it’s tricky to have a difficult conversation or run a great meeting when you’re not convinced you know what you’re doing. And the problem is, your lack of confidence makes your team question your competence. Which of course you can sense, which makes you feel even less adequate.
And then the whole thing just goes downhill from there. I want to get in front of this as fast as I can to help this new manager, what advice do you have?”
3 Ways to Help a New Manager Be More Confident
I’m so glad Sal asked that question because the struggle is real.
It’s tricky to show up confident when you’re not convinced you know what you’re doing. So, if you’re looking for ways to help a new manager (or yourself) show up with more confidence start here.
1. Train Them on The Fundamentals
This sounds obvious, but most managers we talk with tell us they wish they had received some fundamental leadership training when they first started their role.
By the time they land in one of our foundation programs they say, “Wow, I wish I had learned this ten years ago! It would have saved me so much heartache and frustration.”
“I tried to give my team recognition and no one seemed to care, so why bother…”
The truth is, sadly, our brains are wired to remember the bad experiences more than the good ones, which is not helpful. Confidence-building questions can help your new manager bring more positive memories to the forefront and balance their thinking.
Here are a few starters:
What does your team love about your leadership? How does that help them to be successful?
Tell me about a time you had an awesome _________ conversation. What made it so successful?
How did you learn to do ____? What ideas do you have about how you could teach that to your team?
(For a new manager promoted over their peers) What is one behavior that you know led to your success in your former role? WHY did that work? How can you help your team better understand the “why” and “how”?
3. Break it Down
When a new manager takes over a team for the first time, there is so much to learn and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. Help them focus on one skill and outcome at a time.
Here’s an example (just to get you started …):
Week one: Get to know your team by having a one-on-one with each team member (learn about who they are as people.)
Week two: Establish your top MIT (Most Important Thing) priorities.
Week three: Work with your team to communicate those priorities and check for understanding.
Week four: Build your 5 x 5 communication plan. (How will you communicate those priorities five times, five different ways?)
Week five: Help your team identify their most critical behaviors for achieving their MIT priorities
Week six: Focus on recognition. Celebrate what’s going great. Where do you see the behaviors in action? How can you recognize these behaviors in ways that are specific, relevant and timely?
Just a start
So that’s a start. What would you add? What’s your best advice for helping a new manager build confidence and competence?
To promote the best first-time leaders, focus on more than results.
Your decisions about who you put in management and leadership roles are some of the most important leadership decisions you’ll ever make. It’s a decision about who you will trust with your most important asset—your people. With so much at stake and riding on the quality of your leaders, what do you look for when you want to promote the best leaders?
Many leaders look to their high achievers—the people who are very effective at what they do. The best programmer, the top salesperson, the teacher who consistently helps students overcome obstacles and achieve. Others look for a person’s willingness to speak up, take charge, and “get things done.”
Unfortunately, neither high-performance nor a commanding personality are reliable indicators that a person can lead well.
Some high-performers are fantastic leaders and others struggle to make the transition. Some outgoing personalities lead well and others don’t. (And some of your quiet folks may amaze you with their ability to bring people together to get things done.)
The Problem with Performance
We’re not saying that a leader’s technical proficiency and expertise doesn’t matter. It does.
People need to trust their leader and their competence at work. Being a remarkable example goes a long way.
It’s not that dissimilar from how you hire for roles requiring technical competence. You look for competence at the fundamentals, but excellence in their area of expertise matters even more.
In the same way, when you’re looking for leaders, you want good performance. But, the number one ability you are looking for is their capacity to lead.
One of the biggest mistakes we see leaders make when promoting high-performers to leadership positions is using performance or personality as a surrogate for leadership.
Promote the Best Leaders (even if they haven’t led before)
So how can you tell if someone has the capacity to lead—before they’ve actually led?
Start with these foundational characteristics:
Technical knowledge and expertise and a strong track record of results (they know what they’re doing and command the respect of others up, down, and sideways.)
Integrity (you can count on them to do the right thing consistently.)
Accountability (they do what they say they will— and hold others to a similar standard.)
Vision (they see opportunities where others don’t and can rally their peers around a compelling vision.)
Commitment (they care about the success of the team— beyond their own results.)
Confidence (they are willing and able to stand up for what matters and speak the truth—in a way others can hear.)
Humility (they surround themselves with people who will challenge them and encourage new ideas.)
Most employees don’t come to you with all of these characteristics fully developed. In fact, apart from integrity, character, and personal responsibility, the others will always develop over time.
This means that you will need to invest in building these traits in your employees and give them opportunities to demonstrate these abilities.
Whether you use formal 9 box succession planning or a more informal process, you’ll want to train leadership skills, and then give people a chance to lead. These opportunities reveal leaders and build leadership capacity. You’ll discover who can influence before they have formal power, and who can exercise influence without abusing the privilege.
Ad hoc projects, interdepartmental teams, committees, interim-assignments when a supervisor is absent, as well as employee-sponsored initiatives are ample chances for your team to practice their leadership skills.
As you evaluate potential (and pitfalls), don’t forget to follow up these assignments with a debrief about what worked, what they learned, and what they would (or could) do differently next time.
To promote the best leaders, look for the people who lead where they are and don’t need position power to get things done.
We’d love to hear from you. Leave a comment and share your number one strategy to develop leadership and promote the best leaders?