Leading with Trust

10 Questions Great Bosses Regularly Ask Their People

Great leaders ask great questions.

Too often leaders think they are the smartest person in the room, so they are quick to offer advice, give direction, and share their perspectives on how things should be done. Most leaders do this instinctively, because after all, it’s the type of behavior that caused them to rise through the ranks. But when you become the boss, your role shifts from being the one to make things happen to empowering your team members to get the job done. You can’t do that if you’re always dominating the conversation. You need to draw out the best thinking and performance from your team members, and the way to do that is through asking great questions.

If you’re not sure what questions to ask or where to start, give these a try:

1. What are you excited about in your job? The answer to this question allows you to understand what motivates and excites your team member. When you know the kinds of tasks, activities, or projects that energize your team member, it allows you to guide them toward current and future opportunities that are similar in nature. It results in team members playing to their strengths and interests which results in greater engagement and performance.

2. Why do you stay? This is perhaps the most important question that leaders never ask. Do you know why each of your team members chooses to stay with your organization? If you did, would it change the way you relate to them? I would hope so. Knowing the answer to this question will drive the way you structure job opportunities for those employees you want to retain. For employees who have “quit and stayed,” the answer to this question will give you insight into why they are choosing to remain stuck in their current position (usually fear of change, they’re comfortable, or they’re beholden to their current salary and lifestyle).

3. What might lure you away? This is the sister question to number 2. If you’re like most leaders, you probably don’t know the answer to either one. If you knew what would lure away your top performers, you would know what you need to do to get them to stay. Asking this question sends the signal to your team members that you know they are a valuable contributor and you’re not blind to opportunities they may have elsewhere. It lets them know you are committed to doing what you can to keep them happy and engaged with your organization.

4. What would we need to do to get you to stay? Don’t wait until your employee resigns and has one foot out the door to ask this question. By then it’s too little, too late. Ask this question on a regular basis as part of longer term career development discussions. Similar to questions 2 and 3, this question allows team members to express the things they think about their employment experience that they would never say to you in any other context. Just the very fact that the leader is willing to acknowledge the employee has the potential for other opportunities and cares about retaining him/her, causes the employee to feel valued and respected, which inspires loyalty and commitment.

5. What new skills would you like to learn? Most people want to keep learning and growing in their jobs, and in fact, this desire often ranks higher in surveys as being more important than getting a raise or other forms of recognition. Many managers are afraid to ask this question because they aren’t sure if they can deliver anything in return. Even the most mundane, clear-cut jobs usually have some room for creativity or improvement, but it takes a bit of work for the leader to think outside the box to uncover those opportunities. One good place for leaders to start is to examine their own jobs. What could you delegate or share with your team members that would allow them to learn something new?

6. Are you being __________enough for now? (challenged, recognized, trained, given feedback, etc.) You’re probably starting to see a theme to these questions by now, aren’t you? Along with the others, this question allows you to probe into areas of performance that wouldn’t normally surface in your typical 1on1 conversations. We all fall victim to tyranny of the urgent and tend to focus on the immediate tasks and deadlines we face. We have to train ourselves to periodically step back from the daily grind and have discussions with team members about the bigger picture issues that define their employee experience.

7. What is making your job harder than it needs to be? The people who usually know best about what’s working and not working in the business are those on the front-lines of the action. Ask your team members about the things that are holding them back from performing better or experiencing more joy in their work, and then get to work on addressing those issues. Leaders can often make a greater impact on employee performance by removing obstacles that hinder productivity, rather than spending time on trying to create new systems, processes, or skill development programs.

8. What are your ideas on how we can improve things around here? Do you like it when your boss asks your opinion? Of course you do! It makes you feel like the boss respects your knowledge and expertise, and values your perspective on issues. Then why don’t you do the same with your employees? It’s a truism that no one of us is as smart as all of us. The power of a team is unleashed when the leader leverages the collective wisdom and experience of all its members.

9. What should I be doing more of? Unlike the other questions, this one is about you, the leader. It opens the door for you to hear from the employee about what you’re doing right, and obviously, the things you should keep doing. You may not see much value in asking this question because you believe you already have a good sense of the answer, but I encourage you to ask it anyway. You may be surprised that some of the behaviors you consider insignificant are actually the things that carry the most weight with your team members (like asking them about their weekend, how their kids are doing, taking an interest in them personally).

10. What should I be doing less of? It’s important you know this critical principle about leadership — most people won’t speak truth to power unless they believe it is safe and acceptable to do so. As a leader, it’s incumbent upon you to foster a culture of trust and safety that allows your team to give you honest and unvarnished feedback. You do that by explicitly giving permission to your team to give you feedback, and most importantly, receiving it with openness and a willingness to modify your behavior. Too many leaders only receive feedback from their bosses during the annual performance review, and although it can be helpful, it’s often from a limited and biased perspective. Great bosses seek feedback from where it matters most — their team.

Being a great boss isn’t easy. If it was, the world would be full of them. Instead of relying on the natural tendency to solely focus on the here-and-now in your interactions with team members, take a step back and consider the bigger picture. Start incorporating some of these questions into your 1on1 meetings and watch for the positive impact it will have on your team members’ level of engagement and productivity.

Depressed Over Losing a Star Player? Consider These 5 Benefits

star-playerA few years back my team underwent a tremendous amount of change as several of our long-term, star players moved on to other opportunities both in and outside the organization. For several years the composition of my team had remained relatively stable, but we entered a new phase of growth, which was both scary and exciting. It seemed like each day I was having the old Abbott and Costello “Who’s on first?” conversation with my managers, as we tried to sort out who was going, who was staying, and how we were going to get our work done.

It’s easy to get discouraged when top performers leave your team. The immediate reaction is often to look at all the challenges that lay ahead — How do we replace the intellectual capital that’s walking out the door? Who is going to cover the work while we hire replacements? Will the new hires be able to match the productivity and contributions of the previous employees? All those questions swirl through your mind as you ponder the endless hours you’re going to have to invest in recruiting, interviewing, hiring, and training new team members.

Rather than being discouraged, I get energized and look forward to the future because the long-term benefits outweigh the short-term difficulties. Here’s five benefits I see to losing top performers:

1. It proves you’re doing something right. Huh? Doesn’t it mean that something must be wrong with your leadership or team dynamics if you’re losing your top people? Well, if you’re a toxic leader and your team’s morale and performance is in the tank, then yes, there’s something wrong. But if you’re doing a good job of leading it means you’re hiring the right talent and developing them to high performance. I take pride in knowing that other leaders see the immense talent I have on my team and they want to hire them away.

2. Your team is better off for their contributions. The contributions of my star players have helped raise the level of professionalism, productivity, and capability of my team over the last several years. They have redefined what “normal” performance looks like and we’ll be looking to existing team members and our new hires to reach that same level. We are better off for having them on our team and I believe they are better off for having been on our team.

3. It provides a chance for existing team members to step up. Losing valuable contributors is an opportunity for other team members to step up their game, either by moving into higher levels of responsibility or by taking on short-term duties to cover the gap. When you have several high-performers on a team, it’s easy for other valuable team members to get buried on the depth-chart (to use a football metaphor). Losing a star player allows second-team players to step into the limelight and prove their capabilities.

4. You can bring in new blood. Having long-term, high-performers on your team brings stability and continuity. However, stability and continuity can easily become routine and complacency if you aren’t careful. Hiring new people brings fresh perspective, a jolt of energy, and a willingness to try new things you haven’t done before. Teams are living organisms and living entities are always growing and changing. I see this as a new era to bring in a fresh crop of star players that will raise our performance to even higher levels.

5. It facilitates needed change. Bringing in new team members is a great time to address broader changes in your business. You have new people who aren’t conditioned to existing work processes, systems, or ways of running your business. They aren’t yet infected with the “that’s the way we’ve always done it around here” virus that tends to infiltrate groups that stay together for a long time. It’s a time to capitalize on the strengths and ideas of new team members to help you take your business to new heights.

Losing high-performers is never easy but it doesn’t have to be devastating. I’m grateful to have worked with star players that are moving on to other challenges and I’m excited about developing a new wave of top performers that will lead us in the years ahead. It’s time for change…Bring it!

Infographic: New Managers Aren’t Getting The Training They Need to Succeed

Infographic New Managers TrainingIn a recent survey conducted by The Ken Blanchard Companies, more than 400 managers were asked to rate different types of training by order of importance. Here’s their top ten, ranked in order from most important to least important type of training (see infographic.)

At the top, managers identified communication skills, help with transitioning to a leadership role, and interpersonal skills as the most needed training.

In the middle, they identified setting goals, directing others, and managing conflict as next most important.

In the last four slots, the respondents identified training on delegating tasks, dealing with performance issues, understanding HR policies, and conducting performance reviews as somewhat less important.

Scott Blanchard, a principal with The Ken Blanchard Companies and coauthor of the company’s new First-time Manager program prioritizes a similar list in the September issue of Ignite.

“A new generation of managers is moving forward. But we’ve found that first-time managers are not getting the training they need in key areas—including communication skills, transitioning to a new role as manager, and interpersonal skills. As a result, more than half of the people we surveyed said they were not prepared for their first manager role.”

Blanchard highlights results from the same survey showing that only 39 percent of new managers with fewer than 3 years on the job reported having received any leadership training. Just 34 percent had received any mentoring. And a mere 31 percent had received coaching.

According to Blanchard, if new managers are going to succeed, organizations need to be more consistent and proactive in their approach. Otherwise, managers are left to their own devices with mixed results. In fact, research from CEB indicates that as many as 60 percent of new managers underperform or fail within their first two years.

“With over two million millennials stepping into first time leadership roles each year in the US alone, we need to take steps immediately to better train new managers for their first roles,” says Blanchard.

To address this, Blanchard recommends that organizations focus their new manager training curriculum on two areas: communication skills and conducting work-related management conversations.

“We teach communication skills drawn from our Coaching Essentials program—including Listening, Inquiring, Telling Your Truth, and Expressing Confidence.  Then we take a deeper dive into four conversations we feel are foundational for new managers: Goal Setting, Praising, Redirecting, and Wrapping Up.

Blanchard’s goal is to increase the winning percentages of new managers one conversation at a time.

“Our work relationships are contained and maintained in our conversations. Every interaction you have with an employee moves that relationship in a positive or negative direction. We believe the quality of a relationship over time is a result of the net impact of all the different conversations that have occurred.”

You can read more about Blanchard’s approach to first-time manager development in the September issue of Ignite. Use these links to download a PDF or PNG version of the infographic.

4 Ways to Develop & Retain Employees When You Can’t Give Promotions

Climbing the corporate ladder has long been the traditional view of success in an organization. The main strategy for developing and retaining key talent has been to keep them engaged through a series of promotions and title changes that satisfy an individual’s need for growth and recognition.

Corporate Ladder vs Lattice

Credit: The Corporate Lattice, Deloitte University Press

Well, in most organizations these days, the corporate ladder has been replaced by the corporate lattice. The flat design of most organizations has eliminated the ladder—multiple layers of structure—and instead created an environment where growth has to be achieved in a zig-zag, network pattern of project-based assignments or leadership experiences. So when leaders don’t have the ability to hand out promotions, how do they grow, engage, and retain their key talent? Here are four approaches:

1. Ask your team members what they’re interested in doing — Asking someone what they want…novel concept, huh? Many leaders choose not to have this conversation because they are afraid they won’t be able to provide what is requested. Instead, frame the conversation with your employees as a time to explore opportunities with no strings attached. I tell team members that nothing is off the table when we have these conversations and I balance it with also saying I’m not making any promises. We’re simply exploring options, yet I make it clear that I’m in the employee’s corner and will do everything in my power to help them achieve their goals if there is a way we can find alignment between their interests and the needs of the organization.

2.Don’t be constrained by job descriptions — My HR colleagues may cringe a bit with my philosophy, but I believe leaders need to think beyond job descriptions when it comes to employee growth. Too often we get locked into job descriptions as the defining scope of a person’s responsibilities, including who reports to who in the chain of command. In reality, we need to consider the job description as the broad outline of how and where the person will contribute to the organization. Growing in the corporate lattice requires people to take on BHAG’s (Big, Hairy, Audacious Goals) that allow them to develop new skill-sets and competencies. Leaders should frame growth as an individual’s chance for resume enhancement that will benefit them in the future, whether at your organization or somewhere else.

3. Give away parts of your job — Most leaders have far too much on their plates to accomplish on their own, so why not delegate some of your key responsibility areas to competent and motivated team members? It’s hard for some leaders to go this route because it means giving up control and trusting others. It can also be threatening to your ego, as if it’s an admission you aren’t capable of doing it all on your own. Actually, smart leaders use this strategy because it’s a win-win for everyone. Your employees get to take on challenging goals and they earn the satisfaction of contributing in important ways, and you deliver on the key objectives for your team and develop a strong bench of capable and committed team members.

4. Adopt a mindset of being a developer and exporter of talent — Leaders should consider it a fiduciary responsibility to help their people grow, even at the risk of having them leave for greener pastures at some point in the future. My experience has shown when employees clearly know you are on their side and will do whatever you can to support their growth, they devote even more loyalty to you and will stay with you as long as possible. Who would want to leave an environment where they know their boss bends over backwards to provide opportunities for growth and development? Not many.

The corporate ladder doesn’t exist in many organizations these days and leaders don’t have the ability to hand out promotions like they were candy. We’ve got to have ongoing career conversations with team members, look for areas of growth beyond the boundaries of job descriptions, delegate key responsibilities to others, and be willing to invest in developing people, even at the risk of them ultimately leaving the organization. Using these strategies to navigate the corporate lattice, combined with financial models that facilitate income growth, will help you develop an engaged and passionate workforce that fuels personal and organizational success.

Stop Measuring Employee Performance and Start Evaluating This 1 Thing Instead

ValueYour performance reviews are doing very little to impact the results of your organization. Although they are an annual ritual in most organizations, the traditional performance evaluation of whether an employee “meets” or “exceeds expectations” or “needs improvement” is missing the mark. It’s measuring the wrong thing.

Instead of measuring an employee’s performance or effort against some generic set of competencies or how well they did in accomplishing their goals (which are almost always ill-defined or not completely within their control), we should be measuring the value they are creating and adding to the organization.

What does value look like compared to performance? Cy Wakeman’s recent Forbes article sparked an interesting discussion with my leadership team this past week. She has an interesting perspective on what value creation looks like in today’s business environment and I have to say I agree with her. The bottom-line is that adding value to the organization is much more important than meeting the minimum level of requirements in your job. Value is about delivering results that tangibly move your organization forward in fulfilling its purpose and mission. Value is about making you and your role indispensable to the organization, not just showing up to do a job.

Here are five practical ways you can move from just doing a job to truly adding value:

1. Adapt to change, don’t resist it – What did you say? You don’t like change? Get over it! The days of landing a job at a large company, plugging away for 30 years to earn your pension and a gold watch, then retiring to play golf or do needle-stitch the rest of your life are long gone. It’s 2015, not 1955. Flexibly adapting to change is one of the most critical skills needed in today’s business environment. What you’re doing today may not be what you’re doing tomorrow. The goals of the organization today may look different tomorrow when a new competitor enters the arena or economic conditions change suddenly. You have to be ready to adjust the sails and move in a new direction at a moments notice.

2. Keep improving your skillsEvery day at work is a job interview. As employees, all of us should expect our employer to help develop us in our role, but career development should be seen as a privilege, not a right. Organizations have an obligation to provide the right training, tools, and resources to enable employees to maximize their potential in the job they were hired to do, but career development (promotions, moving into new roles, etc.) is a privilege and is not the employer’s responsibility. Is it a smart thing for employers to facilitate career development in order to attract and retain key talent? Absolutely! But it’s up to you to keep learning, to further your education, improve proficiency in your job, and develop new skills in alignment with the direction of your organization’s goals and strategies. No one else except you is responsible for your career development.

3. Be easy to do business with – Results have to be delivered and you have a choice in how that happens. You can choose to make it hard or easy. Hard looks like staying in your box, not considering alternatives, and religiously adhering to policy and losing sight of the spirit behind those rules and regulations. Easy looks like creative problem solving, understanding the needs of your customer, and changing systems and processes that may get in the way of serving them effectively. Easy looks like developing a brand reputation of being a “go to” person, someone who will find a way to get things done in spite of internal barriers and frustrations. Easy to do business with also means you have a no-drama factor. In fact, your emotional contribution to the organization adds value rather than taking it away.

4. Deliver results – Adding value is about contribution, not effort. Many people work extremely hard in their jobs but don’t necessarily contribute to the organization’s bottom-line. Working hard is a necessary ingredient for success but it’s not the end game. The end game is helping your team and organization succeed. Your hard work needs to translate into tangible results that contribute to the success of the organization. Delivering results means you’re constantly looking for ways to improve systems and processes, both personally and organizationally. It means you’re a problem solver and not just a problem spotter. Are you more valuable to your organization today than you were yesterday? People who focus on delivering results, and not just fulfilling the requirements of a job description, make themselves invaluable contributors to the organization whose worth grows day by day.

5. Have an ownership mentality – How would the value of your contribution be different if you acted like you own the place? Would you be more emotionally invested and passionate about the work you do? Would you produce higher quality products? Would you be a little more prudent or cautious with company expenses? Would you care a little more about the customer experience? People who approach their jobs with an ownership mentality care about these sorts of things. They view themselves as stewards of the company’s resources and work hard to promote the success of the entire organization, not just their particular role, team, or department.

Measuring performance is a good start but we can’t stop there. We have to move toward measuring value contribution and it’s our job as leaders to help our employees see the difference. Most importantly, we as leaders have to see our jobs differently. We have to see our jobs as facilitators of value creation and not just managers of performance.

Feel free to leave a comment and share your thoughts about how you, as an individual contributor or leader, are adding value to your organization.

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