Simple conversation-starters for managers and leaders

August 12, 2008

One of the best tools a blogger has is a statistics page that provides the search terms people use to arrive at your blog. Today one of my search terms caught my eye: “simple conversations with tag questions.”

It struck me, I’ve talked about why simple conversations are worth your time, but I didn’t say how to start! Here are a few starters that will get your people talking about the things your business needs them to talk about:

  • What questions do you have for me? (I covered this one before as well, but it’s worth repeating.)
  • What do you know about ______? (whatever it is: latest corporate initiative, big new account, sales targets, etc.)
  • What’s going well for you at work these days?
  • What was frustrating for you at work this week? (Followed by the much-appreciated: Is there anything I can do to help?)
  • How do you think we could improve the way we’re doing this?
  • How would you approach this problem?
  • In a perfect world, what would you like us to do?
  • What do you think?
  • What feedback do you have for me?

Employees have questions. They have concerns. They have ideas. They want to share them, but they want to feel welcome to do so. And that’s why it’s so important for managers and leaders to create a safe, welcoming environment that encourages these exchanges.

No doubt there are many, many more questions you could ask employees to get them talking. What are some of your favorite conversation-starters?


What is your unhappy employee telling you?

August 7, 2008

Recently I had coffee with a friend I’ve worked with for more than five years — long enough to know when something’s up. So we found ourselves some comfy chairs in a quiet corner and I said, simply: “Spill it.”

That’s all she needed and she was off, telling me one sad, disheartening story after another about trying to work with her new manager. I could fill a lot of space trying to explain all the frustrating details that are keeping my friend awake nights. But funny enough, this unhappy employee’s rants organized themselves neatly into three tips that could benefit any manager:

Do you know what kind of work your team does? I am constantly surprised at how often managers aren’t very familiar with their team’s daily work. That may fly for your first 30 days. After that, it’s negligence, pure and simple. You must have a working knowledge of what your team does, if for no other reason than to understand the challenges your team faces every day.

Are you accessible to your team? If you’re a manager, your greatest responsibility is enabling your team to do its work. If you are never around, how can you answer questions, approve decisions, remove obstacles, redirect, etc.? You’re in charge of your calendar, right? Schedule yourself some “butt-in-seat” time and make sure your team knows when it is. They’ll thank you for it.

What are you doing when you DO make an appearance? Maybe this has happened to you: Your boss is unavailable all week, and then when she shows up on the floor, she’s barking orders or making unrealistic promises to her own supervisors. All you can think is: you’re not helping!! When you can spare time with your employees face-to-face, experiment with shifting your priorities. It’s not really about what they can do for you. If you’ve cleared time, if you’ve committed to being accessible, it’s actually about what you can do for them. How can you help? How can you simplify (not complicate)?

My friend’s problems would be solved if her manager gave a little more thought to these three points. My guess is we could all find a happier place at work if more managers took these to heart. What do you think?


Allow your personality to shine through! Part 2

July 28, 2008

Role Model by Joan Hasselman

In my last post, I gave you one good reason why you, as a leader, should reveal your personality when you talk to your stakeholders. As if that weren’t convincing enough, here’s another benefit of letting the real you shine through:

“When you want your values to guide the organization, you need more than carefully articulated words. The more you reveal your personality, the more your people will see you’re a whole person, understand what you really mean and then, like you, demonstrate those values in their thoughts and actions. If you communicate candor in your own personal way, you will provide the model your organization needs — to follow the leader. People get values from people, not from statements.”

Again, this idea belongs to Anett D. Grant, and I love it because it’s so true. To be effective, be genuine with your people to demonstrate that you expect authenticity from others as well. Here’s a terrific instance in which the most effective communication is allowing your actions to speak for you.

At least one more post on this… see you then.


Allow your personality to shine through! — Part 1

July 25, 2008
Karen Combs quilt Inner Glow

Karen Combs quilt Inner Glow

 

I found a very compelling argument that explains why you, as a leader, should reveal your personality when you talk to your stakeholders, whether they are employees, shareholders, customers or community members. I’m tackling this is three parts, and here’s the first:

 

Reveal your personality to inspire trust.

“When you work closely with people, one-on-one or in small groups, you establish trust in a natural, evolutionary way. But as your span increases, relationship-building over months transforms into impression-making in just a few minutes. Rather than having your people get to know you and then trust you, your people have to feel they know you and then trust you. By revealing your personality, moving from official to authentic, you will be able to establish that feeling, and build trust.”

This idea belongs to Anett D. Grant, whose executive speaking program was highly praised by my PR professor. He shared one of her speeches* as a model of effective speech construction, but the content itself is what captured my attention, obviously!

Managers, how many of you find yourselves in this situation? Many of you are lucky enough to build those relationships with teams over time. But for those of you out there whose span has increased a bit, how are you making it work? My next two posts — at least — will cover more on allowing your personality to shine through. See ya then.

* Note: If this speech has a home online, I’ve been unable to find it. I have a Word doc I’d share with anyone who wants it, complete with Ms. Grant’s copyright.

Another aside: Anyone who digs the image above should check out the work of Karen Combs, whose quilts are like none I’ve seen.


Here’s a secret to manager success

July 21, 2008

I care a lot about employees. I’m not a manager, I don’t have a team of people reporting to me. But as a professional communicator, I am always thinking about the employees who will read our messages. What will they think? How will they feel? What will they do? Will what I’m about to say help them feel connected to the organization… or not?

This thought process naturally means that employee engagement is looming large on my radar screen these days. Corporate America could accomplish so much, employees could be so happy / satisfied / passionate about what they’re doing… if only we could engage them.

So here’s an idea, courtesy of Tim Wright at Culture to Engage. His recent post, To Ask Is To Answer Is To Ask, shares the secret of one of his best managers. You should read his whole post, but here’s the punchline. Just add this one question to your repertoire:

What questions do you have for me?

Genius! Notice how it assumes employees have questions, because they do. If you start asking this enough, people will start to answer. They’ll save up their questions because they’ll know their opportunity is coming soon. Then, provided you Shut up and listen, you will have started a conversation. And that, folks, is employee engagement. It’s fast, it’s easy, it will cost you nothing — and yet there’s so much to gain.


Leadership = Sharing Information

July 16, 2008

Yesterday Chris Brogan posted Am I Too Naked in reaction to a comment from a potential customer. She expressed doubt that Chris could offer anything more as a paid consultant because he shares so much free information on his blog.

This reminds me of one of my favorite takeaways from a book called The Leadership Challenge by Kouzes and Posner. They say:

“Leaders accept and act on the paradox of power; you become more powerful when you give your own power away” (251).

Think about that for a sec. Does the idea knock you out? It should. There are so many people out there hoarding their knowledge, hoarding their information, jealously guarding their intellectual talent. Sure, that’s one way to go. I see what they’re up to: “I want everyone to think I’m irreplaceable. I want to be the only person who knows how to do this! Because if someone else knows it, they might threaten my position. I could lose some of my power… and I don’t want that!!”

This thinking is just plain wrong. In Chris’s case, he never would have met that skeptical would-be customer if it weren’t for the information he shared on his blog. By consistently posting intelligent, useful information, he demonstrates himself as a resource, a font of knowledge that seemingly doesn’t dry up. Does she really think there’s not more where that came from?

What if managers and leaders embraced this model of sharing information? I can think of so many ways that sharing your knowledge and power with your team could benefit you:

  • Establish a common language / pool of knowledge
  • Cross-train employees
  • Boost productivity
  • Streamline processes
  • Improve service
  • Decrease the chances of duplicated work or effort
  • Increase satisfaction with the outcome
  • Avoid misunderstandings / confusion

What else? There must be success stories out there from managers who “give away their power.” I’d sure love to read some.


Why should managers and leaders care about communicating?

July 9, 2008

Whatever else you thought your job was about, chances are it involves a lot more writing than you ever imagined — through just email alone! But if you’re a supervisor or program manager, communication takes an even more prominent role in your work… or it should. Here’s why:

  • Someone wants to know what’s happening in your department. It might be your supervisor. It might be an auditor. It might be an HR person. Whatever the case, are you prepared to talk about how your team is performing?
  • Your project or program requires that you create messages to employees or customers, whether the messages are emails or brochures or fliers or web content or some other swanky medium. Do you know where to start?
  • Undoubtedly your department or project team has a list of goals to accomplish, all on different timelines. To accomplish these goals, your team has to be humming along at a pretty good clip, right? How can your team be the efficient “machine” it needs to be if the team members aren’t talking?
  • More than that, as a manager or team leader or project lead or whatever you want to call yourself, you have a unique opportunity to influence the lives of the people you’re working with. Their interaction with you can be positive or negative. To use a lovely boating metaphor: Think about the wake you’re leaving.
  • OK, now hold on while I get a little deep. Remember those department or project goals you had? What happens if you miss? What happens to the company goals or business strategy? This stuff matters. It matters if you’re a public company with obligations to shareholders. It matters if you work in a private company in an economy like this. It certainly matters if you’re in the nonprofit world. So, connecting the dots, if your team can achieve its goals by communicating better, couldn’t the organization achieve its goals if every department were communicating better?

It sounds a little cheesy, but I have this vision that we might actually be able to improve not only our happiness at work but also the way our organizations perform, if we — as leaders — get better at communicating. This doesn’t have to be hard or painful or embarassing. Just talking. Just thinking about things a little differently maybe, or being open to new ideas. Whaddaya think? Can we fix anything just by talking about it?