Four words to help you build a more powerful team

4 Words to Help You Build a Powerful Team

One question leads to a powerful team.

“David, I just don’t have time. There’s so much to do that some days I just want to give up!” Lynn was a midlevel manager in a mid-sized healthcare company. She’d sought out coaching because the demands of her job felt unbearable. She needed a powerful team, but that seemed impossible.

Between day-to-day problem solving and her supervisor’s expectations, she’d been working 60-hour weeks, her health was suffering, and she’d reached the end of her rope.

Have you ever felt like Lynn?

As we talked, it became clear that Lynn cared. She was passionate about her people and their patients. But her passion had caused her to take on way too much and fail to build a powerful team.

To course-correct, we started with four words. Lynn began to ask one question regularly: “How can I help?”

Have You Lost Your Mind?

When I was an overwhelmed manager and a mentor first suggested that I ask my team, “How can I help?” I thought she was nuts. I’m sure I looked at her with the same stare of incredulity our clients give us when we make the same suggestion today.

When you can barely keep your head above water, the last thing you feel like doing is to go ask your team how you can help. You’re just asking for more work, right?

Actually, no.

This is a common misconception about what it really means to help your team. As a leader, you are in a unique position to help your team in specific ways that no one else can.

However, this does not mean doing their work for them. What it means is to ensure your team has what they need to be effective, to remove obstacles to success, and to help them develop their own abilities to take responsibility and problem solve.

When you give your team the help they genuinely need, that only you can provide, two things happen. First, they become more productive, and second, you have more time for the work only you can do.

What to Look for to Build a Powerful Team

When you ask your team “How can I help,” listen for three specific areas of need.

1. Equipment and Skills They Need

Early in my leadership career, I had a superstar team member named Sue. She was a fabulous person and a wonderful team member. She was motivated, always thinking about how to improve her work, and an outstanding goal-setter.

One morning, we sat down together for a quarterly meeting. During these meetings with Sue, I often took notes, just trying to keep up, as she covered all her projects, goals, and ideas. She appreciated a sounding board to process her ideas and determine which ones were worth pursuing. After we processed her projects and goals, I stood up to leave and said in passing, “You’ve got a good plan, anything else I can do to help?”

She thought for a minute and said, “I’m not a technology person, but my computer’s a little slow.”

“Why don’t you show me?” I replied.

She walked me over to her computer and turned it on.

Twenty minutes later, it had finally come to life. That computer wasn’t just slow – it was glacial.

How embarrassing! One of my highly productive team members did not have the basic resources she needed to do her job well.

When you ask your team “How can I help?” be on the lookout for areas where they lack the resources that they need to be effective. Also, pay attention to skills and training.

In rapidly changing work environments, it is all too easy to assume people have what they need to do their job. Don’t assume—ask! It’s sad to think about how much time she would have lost and how many opportunities she would have missed if Sue hadn’t got a better computer.

2. Obstacles You Can Remove

The second area to listen for when you ask your team “How can I help?” includes red tape, bureaucratic nonsense, inter-departmental foot-dragging and all the other silly barriers they encounter inside your organization. Work is tough enough without those sorts of things dragging down your team’s productivity.

When your team encounters these obstacles and they’ve done what they can to solve it themselves, it’s time to pick up the phone or go have a visit with the people creating the barrier.

Have a conversation where you judiciously use your position and influence to remove those barriers, cut through red tape, or ask a “How can we?” question to meet the needs of both groups and get things moving.

3. Gaps in Critical Thinking and Problem Solving

The third thing to look for when you ask “How can I help,” are gaps in your team’s ability to solve problems.

Do you do your team’s thinking for them? Wish they would solve problems on their own? Or get so involved with their projects you don’t have time for your own work?

If so, these are signs your team needs to develop their problem-solving skills. Other signals include team members repeatedly making the same errors or frequently saying “I don’t know” when you ask about the next steps.

When you pick up these signals, resist the urge to chastise or jump in and solve the problem. Neither option builds a more powerful team.

Instead, use this opportunity to help them develop their problem solving and critical thinking. Your most effective leadership tools in these situations are coaching questions.

A good question or two can quickly move the conversation back to the employee owning the problem and analyzing potential solutions, but they have to be good questions.

Poor questions place blame and dwell on failure. Eg:

  • Who screwed up?
  • Why did you do that?
  • What were you thinking?

In contrast, healthy questions focus on learning and on the future, to generate ideas and solutions. Eg:

  • What’s your goal?
  • What have you tried?
  • What are your options now?
  • What would happen if you tried that?

Our 9 What’s Business Coaching method is a great way to help your team get on track, strengthen their ability to solve problems, and learn how they think so you can help them work through issues.

For Best Results

“How can I help?” is a powerful tool to help you grow a more powerful team, but you have to use it consistently. If you only ask when something is going wrong, your team will associate those words with a problem.

Be intentional to ask how you can help when you know things are going well. One of the best responses when you ask “How can I help?” is for your team to say, “We’re good—thanks!”

Your Turn

Regularly asking “How can I help?” lets your people know that you care and support them while giving you the insight you need to help them grow and become a more powerful team.

We’d love to hear from you. Leave a comment and share your favorite questions that help you build a powerful team.

Your might also like:

How to Develop People When You Don’t Have the Time

Two Talent Development Mistakes Leaders Make (podcast episode)

A Better Way to Address Performance Issues

The Fastest Way To Better Results

It happens on teams, it happens in training classes, it happens on dates. A rush to achieve without connection will backfire. It’s tempting to rush in, get started and get stuff done. Sure the out-of-the gate progress feels great at beginning, but if you don’t take time to create genuine connections and build relationships, somewhere down the line you’re going to derail.

Shelly’s Story

Shelly (not her real name) was completely frustrated with her team’s call center results. She’d brought in extra training, introduced a clever incentive program, stack ranked and managed the outliers, implemented every best practice she could find, and even invited her boss in for a quick motivational talk.

Nothing worked.The team’s results still sucked.

“What can you tell me about the folks on your team?” I asked. Her response was filled with “attitude problems,” “absence issues,” and a smattering of stats.

I tried again, “what can you tell me about the human beings on your team? Are they married? Do they have kids? What do they do for fun? What do they enjoy most on the weekends? What did they do last weekend?”

I got a bit of a blank stare, and then “With results like these, I don’t have time to ask about all that. Plus, this is business, it’s not personal.”

“Which team leader is knocking it out of the park?” I asked. “Joe” (also not his real name). “Please go talk to Joe again. But this time, don’t ask him about best practices, ask him how he connects with his team.”

She came back with a laundry list: meeting each employee at the door as they came in; spending the first 2 hours of his day doing nothing but sitting side by side with his call center reps; starting each one-on-one talking about something personal; birthday cards; following up on “no big deal” stuff like how their kid did in the soccer game last week. She tried it. Yup, you guessed the outcome.

Business is always personal.

If you could use a starting point for connecting your team, you’re welcome to use this free worksheet (connectionsworksheet) I wouldn’t suggest pulling it out in front of your team members, but it can serve as a great trigger to remind you what to ask about and to jog your memory to inspire more meaningful connections.  If you give it a try, please drop me a line and let me know how it goes.

Help Your Team Become More this Year

“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.”
~ John Quincy Adams

At the turn of one new year, I remember my eyes were crossing and my neck was twitchy after 27 conference calls to finalize our New Year Performance Agreements. We’ve debated what defines a “balanced scorecard” and negotiated performance objectives down to the decimal point. As is par for the course in big companies, standardization is vital to ensure we’re fair and consistent. But nailing the perfect performance formula alone won’t inspire game-changing ideas or grow deeper leadership.
If you’re mired in similar new year performance activities, be sure you take time to engage deeper conversations. Encourage your team to become more.

Questions to Help Your Team BECOME More

Start by discussing specific behaviors to ensure your team will nail their KPIs. I’ve watched far too many leaders miss this step. Then go deeper. B.E.C.O.M.E. more.

Discuss …

B- Boldness: Scary dreams, deeper challenges, courageous moves and daring decisions

  • What could you accomplish this year if you had unlimited resources? What is a different means to a similar end?
  • Where (and with whom) are you playing it safe? At what cost?
  • What dreams are you saving for later?

E- Energy: Passion ignitors and life-force zappers

  • When, where, and with whom do you feel most alive?
  • Which aspects of your work exhaust you?
  • What will you do to renew your energy this year?

C- Callings: What or who is calling for more

  • What work would you pursue, even if you weren’t paid?
  • Who most inspires your professional life? How can you attract more people with those qualities?
  • Which of your gifts lie dormant in your current role?

O-Openness: Possibilities, awareness, and receiving the unknown

  • What possibilities are you ignoring?
  • How and where will you find creative inspiration?
  • How will you invite input and feedback?

M-More: Seeing bigger, broader, and giving more

  • How will this year be categorically different from last year?
  • What do you most want to be known?
  • Who will you serve?

E-Execution: What actions matter most (and least). Envision breakthrough success.

  • What would make this year the best in your career?
  • Who else can you invite to join your leadership pit crew?
  • What could get in the way of your success?

Invite each member of your team to choose 2 or 3 questions that would best serve them this year. Discuss the questions in your one-on-ones. Encourage the team to pick a few questions to discuss as a team. Set the stage for a breakthrough year of becoming.

Finding The Perfect Gifts For Your Team: A Development Exercise

Jack gets very excited this time of year. He stumbles on a perfect gift that he knows EVERYONE on his list must have. It’s clever, and he finds it useful. Convinced his friends and family can no longer live without it, he buys a dozen or so.

Watching the excitement in his eyes, I know it’s not laziness. He’s convinced. The sad part comes when the reaction is not as he hoped. He begins “selling” to inspire excitement. As leaders it’s tempting to take such an approach to employee development. We offer the development that comes naturally.

“People with great gifts are easy to find, but symmetrical and balanced ones never.”
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

Development is most meaningful when we leverage our unique gifts with the areas the employee is looking to develop. We won’t be able to fulfill their entire developmental wishlist. That’s okay. Great leaders are developmental matchmakers.

Just the Right Gifts – An Exercise

An easy exercise helps match your gifts with your employee’s needs:


  • Step 1 – Consider your best leadership gifts. What are you in the best position to give this team member? Write them in the left hand column.
  • Step 2 – What’s on your team member’s developmental wish list? What do they want (or need) to work on most?
  • Step 3 – Identify where your strengths and their needs best align.

Interpreting The Results

  • Green a direct match you can coach (e.g. you’re great at speaking, they want to be a better speaker).
  • Yellow a nice synergy to partner> (e.g. your a good listener, they want to be a better speaker). Share how you use effective listening in speech preparation, delivery, and in Q&A)
  • Red, areas to look for additional support. They’ve got a need that you’re not in the best position to support. Work together to brainstorm and identify co-workers, mentors, or coaches who can help.

Call for Submissions: December Frontline Festival, is all about Gifts (widely interpreted).

Submissions due December 13th, post goes live December 20th.

People with great gifts are easy to find, but symmetrical and balanced ones never.

Graphic by Joy & Tom Guthrie, Vizwerx

Leadership Development Made Easy

Leadership development used to be easier. Early in my career, my team was small, and I was in HR leading other HR folks. We all spoke the same language, and everyone believed in leadership development.

Then a move out of HR to a team 50 times the size in a union environment. More tricky, but all in a few large call centers. I could physically model the leadership I was looking to grow.

Next to a sales role, with a team of 2000 spread out in 100 locations within a 9 hour radius. Still close enough to show up to support as needed, and to easily pull groups together for leadership development sessions.

Today I lead a team in 22 locations across 3 time zones supporting 7 companies. We need to develop leadership capabilities on our internal team and influence 10,000 leaders and followers. I have fantastic leaders at each level contributing to this mission. Leadership development is up to all of us. I could just delegate, but this is vital. How do I also personally touch as many leaders as possible?

The easiest way to build leadership in a large, remote team is to let them inside.

Easy Leadership Development

Many leaders overlook this vital approach. Teach leadership not only by modeling on the outside, but sharing the feelings, thoughts and struggles happening on the inside. With a large, remote team, this requires even more trust and time. It’s worth it. I choose to.

  1. Leverage social media – Sure I write for you. I’m also highly sensitive to my team. If there’s a message someone (usually someones) needs to hear, it’s in the blog. I can’t tell you how many notes I get from folks saying, “that one was about me, wasn’t it?” It usually isn’t, but if the shoe fits. Sure, I could write using company tools, but then they’d miss the interaction of LGL community. Plus, by separating this as my personal blog, I preserve the right to be edgy. And I can contribute more broadly to you, them, and the rest of the world.
  2. Speak deeply into the microphone – When my team is together, I leverage time to let them in my head. Sure we talk strategy and plans, but we go much deeper. I encourage challenging questions, and they know I will shoot straight. I start. They share too. We talk about:

       •  What scares us and why
       •  Weaknesses we’re working to develop
       •  Challenges we face
       •  What makes us angry
       •  Mistakes, regrets and failures
       •  Hopes and dreams

  3. Real-time learning – We stop action to dissect teachable moments. I debrief my executive interactions and what I’m learning. I call them right back after conference calls to discuss their approach. We hold “virtual teambuilders” on topics we’re wrestling with. I’ll pose a simple question, such as “leaders stop learning when _____” And everyone responds to all via email. Amazing level-less leadership connection.

    Oddly enough, I’ve received more feedback about personal and leadership growth from this large, remote team, than in any other role in my career. We’ve also experienced the important side effect of A players and other “crazies” lining up to join the team.

    Why? We let one another into our heads.

  4. Real leadershipLearning is the 4th Branch of the REAL model. Don’t miss future discussions, enter your email to subscribe.

How to Surface Conflict

5 Ways to Surface Team Conflict and Live to Tell About It

We all know deep in our hearts that teams need conflict.

Conflict is “healthy.”

Leaders and teams have been talking about Tuckman’s forming, storming, norming, performing model since the mid 1960s.

Teams were storming long before that.

We get it intellectually.

We’ve even seen the value of addressing conflict play out practically.

But conflict is uncomfortable.

Sometimes addressing conflict does more harm than good.

Stirring the Pot

I am a pot stirrer.

If you have ever worked on a team of mine, you know I am constantly encouraging you to “air and discuss your concerns” with one another.

I will listen (for a minute) and then immediately send you back to the person with whom you need to engage.

People love that or hate that– that too, can create conflict.

When the pot gets stirred, and the going gets tough, that’s when the calls usually come in from all parties. My stance remains the same.

“I don’t need to hear the play-by play. Everyone gets an extra smile from my heart for working it through. I’m glad you are talking. Have as many secret meetings” as you need. I won’t take sides.”

The biggest worry seems to be, “what if I get exposed?” The truth is, there are at least two sides to every story. I know that. If your boss has any sense, she knows that. If YOU are the boss, same rules apply.

Once the storming is over, I love to ask “what did you learn about how to do conflict better?”

The truth is I ask myself this same question every day.

Sometimes I screw it up.

Conflict is never handled.

Conflict Survival Tips

Here’s what folks have told me they have learned (from addressing conflict in real situations). I hope this helps.

1. Don’t wait too long
Your issues become less relevant and feel more stupid to the recipient as time passes.

2. Own it
No one wants to hear “everyone is saying” comments

3. Carefully consider the input of others
Don’t let your response feel like retaliation

4. Watch your facial expressions when giving and receiving feedback
Everyone is watching those more than your words

5. Be prepared to give specific examples
Even if you are absolutely right, it’s difficult to digest and even more difficult to take action without the details.

??? My list goes on but, I’ll stop here and let you play. what would you add?

The Scary Secret to Great Meetings

The first time it happened, I was devastated.

After all the hard work on building relationships.

All that investment in the team.

All that transparency.

All that work to create a level-less organization.

Why had my direct report team started holding “secret” meetings without me?

Why was that necessary?

What was I doing wrong?

Was this an indication that I had become the proverbial “boss” an image I had tried so hard to avoid?

It’s About Us

I shared my concerns with a member of the team.

Karin, this is not about you. This is about us. We need this. Relax.

I still don’t know exactly what happened in those “secret” meetings. Perhaps they talked about the work. Perhaps they settled some of their own conflict. Perhaps they complained about me. I am not sure it matters.

What I do know is those meetings transformed our organization.

Each leader began stepping up in new ways. They helped one another solve problems. They worked on each other’s projects. They mentored one another’s employees. They brought well-vetted options and solutions to our staff meetings.

My questions became more strategic. So did their answers.

Results kept climbing.

When you strive to be a servant leader, it can be tough to feel your team doesn’t need “serving.” You want to roll up your sleeves and support them. Sometimes the best support you can offer is to step away and give them the space to create, argue, and perform.

Now I welcome and encourage secret meetings.

Could your team use a “secret meeting?”