by Kelly Vandever
The group wasn’t happy about being acquired by a new company. They had a successful product and doubted the tenacity of the acquiring company’s offerings. What’s more, they were not impressed with the acquiring company’s executive management that had already visited their offices. And now, the group was getting a new manager who would manage them…from more than 700 miles away! Imagine what you would have thought if you were in this group!
Getting to Know You
Whether you’re managing new people 700 miles away, or working with employees who sit in the cube across from you, one of the hardest things for any leader to do is to really get to know each person on your team as an individual. Why? It takes time. It takes effort. It takes trust. As leaders, we’re busy doing the work of our role and often don’t make the time, take the effort or develop the trust to really, truly, get to know the people in our group.
It’s far easier to assume that everyone believes the same way and wants to be treated the same way. And of course that same way would be the way we best understand – the way we the individual leader of the team believe and would want to be treated. It’s much harder to take into account individual team member differences such as the one team member who learns better in a classroom setting and the other team member who learns better with a book and time to tinker. It would be so much easier if they could all take an on-line course the way our organization is pushing toward training team members.
Every aspect of every person – from learning preferences to the way we like to receive information to the way we like to be rewarded – is unique. So how do you approach the variations and the needs of your individual team members that you lead? What is a leader to do?
Perhaps some of the principles below will help you on that quest.
It’s OK to Ask
Somewhere along the way, many of us seem to have gone down this path that as leaders, we need to magically be able to discern what we need to know. If we don’t know all the answers, we might be perceived as weak. Or maybe we’re concerned that we’re prying into people’s lives and going beyond our boundaries as a leader. To both of those concerns I say, “Hogwash!” When it comes to something as important as getting to know the people on your team, give yourself permission to ask!
Whether you’ve worked with your team for years or you are just starting to work with a new person or a new group, take the time to ask questions and listen closely to the answers. The best way to find out what a person thinks or wants is to ask him or her.
Start by setting up a time to speak with each person individually. Let them know in advance that you’re going to meet with each person individually and that you’ll be asking a series of questions – then provide the questions in writing. There are several reasons for this approach.
First, by meeting with them individually, you are letting them know that you care and want to hear from each and every person. As an effective leader, you need to have followers that are willing to voice their opinions, advise you as the leader and speak up for what they need to be successful. Communicate this to your followers – then of course, reinforce this message through your actions.
Next, people process information in different ways. While some people are perfectly comfortable answering questions off the top of the head, others will want time to think about what they really want to say. Providing the questions in advance gives those people who need the time to mull things over the opportunity and space in which to do that. And for those top-of-the-head folks, well, it might be a good idea for them to spend time with the questions as well.
And finally, these questions may be hard for some people to answer. They may not have considered what they want to get out of their job or what they’re passionate about. You may be the first person to ever ask them to talk about their strengths. By sending the questions out in advance, you give them the opportunity to start contemplating the answers, even if it takes them a few more days, weeks, months or years to really understand their deepest held answers to the questions.
The questions below were inspired by the Franklin Covey 7 Habits for Manager workshop, the books, Now, Discover Your Strengths by Marcus Buckingham and Donald O. Clifton and First, Break All the Rules by Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman, and by my own personal experience. These again are questions that you’d want to send out in advance of the meeting and then review with the team member when you meet. In my experience, the discussions are more in-depth and meaningful if I do not have the team member return their answers to me prior to the meeting but rather having them discuss their answers during the meeting. I have also found it helpful to ask follow up questions based on how the team member responds. For instance, if they say, “I’m a good leader” I ask them to tell me how that looks, what does it mean to them to be a good leader. We each define terms differently based on our life experience. A few follow up questions beginning with phrases such as “tell me what you mean by…” or “can you give me an example of…” can reveal important information about how my definition may differ from theirs.
Here are my suggested questions but do not limit yourself to just these. Add questions that can help you get to the particular nuances important to your group or the person’s role.
- What do you love to do?
- What are you really good at?
- What do you find most challenging about your current role?
- If there was one thing you could change about your current role, what would it be?
- What are you most proud of in your current role?
- Do you have the information and the materials you need to do your role? If not, what else do you need?
- What are the strengths that you bring to this role?
- What areas in your role do you struggle with or do you not enjoy?
- Name as many things as you can think of that you’ve been complimented on more than once? Tell me more about those compliments.
- If I wanted to express my appreciation to you, what are the ways that are most meaningful to you to receive praise?
- What areas do you want to develop additional experience or skill in?
- What do you hope people say about you when they comment on your contribution in your role?
- What else do you think would be important for me to know about you as your leader?
What not to ask
The questions above are relevant to the person, to the role and to the organization in which you lead. But there are some questions that are generally not appropriate to ask, and in a work environment, may actually be illegal. Those would be questions relative to items protected by law such as race, religion, national origin, gender, disabilities and so on. And unless your organization is specifically supporting a political cause or candidate, avoid questions about politics as well. I am not a lawyer so please consult an employment law attorney before posing any questions aimed at areas that are protected by law.
There will be times when issues such as race, religion, and health will come up. As you are working with your team members and building a relationship, they may share with you how they appreciate that you were willing to take a chance on a person of their race, or that they can’t work on a particular day because of a religious belief. They may also have a health concern that they bring to your attention when you ask them the question “What else do you think would be important for me to know about you as your leader?” I was told the story of a leader who asked that question of an employee once only to find that the employee was gravely ill. The employee was in a very stressful job and the doctors told him he only had a year or two to live. That particular manager worked with that employee to find them a job with less stress and the story told to me was that the man was still alive five years later. You may not hear life changing information when you ask these questions. But that story made such an impression on me that I am still asking the question 25 years later.
Make the Investment
As you may have guessed by the introductory story, I was that manager who managed from 700 miles away. Using a variation of the questions above, I was able to start down the path of establishing good working relationships with the individuals in this group. As a leader, your success rises and falls on the success of your people. And the success of your people can be greatly impacted by the answers to the questions above. Make the decision to invest the time, the effort and the trust that it takes to build the relationship and understand the individual’s answers to the questions above. I’ve seen first hand that the dividends on this investment will pay off in the long run.
Kelly Vandever is a leadership and communications expert who helps leaders and organizations thrive in today’s attention-deficit, entertain-me-now, wait-while-I-post-that-on-Facebook world. Connect with Kelly and discover how being professionally human can bring you better business results.
Contact Kelly by phone at 770-597-1108, email her or tweet her @KellyVandever.