How To Listen Your Way To Success

How many conversations have you had with your boss, your team and your employees that were wasted opportunities? At some point did you delude yourself into thinking that you were the do-all, end-all and be-all of the business world? When was the last time that you really, seriously, honestly listened? Most of us would really like to think that we’re avid listeners. We would love to believe that we’re empathetic, sensible, helpful and the like. But the truth is that many of us are too busy to actually listen to a real and honest conversation.

When Ben from accounting gave you your last update in your office — one that he had really spent time preparing for — did you listen? Probably not. Ben may have spent a great deal of his off time crafting a presentation, but were you too busy thinking about the upcoming merger to actually listen to the information he prepared? You’ll have to change your ways or you’ll lose a very competent employee, and you’ll have to spend money, time and effort to replace him. Employees lose patience quickly when their supervisor or manager can’t be bothered to actually listen. Yes, you’re busy and overworked, but so are they!

As Mark Goulston says in his book Just Listen: Discover the Secret to Getting Through to Absolutely Anyone, “People have their own needs, desires and agendas. They have secrets they’re hiding from you. And they’re stressed, busy and often feeling like they’re in over their heads. To cope with their stress and insecurity, they throw up mental barricades that make it difficult to reach them even if they share your goals, and nearly impossible if they’re hostile.”

How’s your team going to shine when they all feel as if you routinely dismiss their thoughts and needs? If you can’t or won’t spend the time to sincerely listen to your individual employees, your team is going to lose focus fast. When meeting with your employees, remember to do the following:

Ask questions. So many people in the business world today issue ideas, orders and assignments. When was the last time you took the time to actually ask a pertinent question of your specialists? You hired them for a reason! Listen to what they have to say.

Pause. Remember the acronym W.A.I.T., which stands for “Why am I talking?” As the old adage goes, there’s a reason why you have one mouth and two ears. Consciously stop and think before you start talking or continue.

Do your very best to not interrupt. Don’t talk when one of your team members is speaking and trying to make a point. Reiterate what the other person has stated. Don’t act like a tape recorder and repeat it word for word. Show that you’ve listened, and internalized the information. Confirm the idea by taking the time to tell the person what you’ve heard to make sure you’re both on the same page and actually understanding each other.

Find common ground. Plan to make an important conversation a cooperative conversation. What do you have in common with the other person in the room? How can you meet on common ground?

Don’t see conversation as a competition. In a conversational competition, nobody wins. If you’re only listening for a pause in the conversation so you can break in and express your opinion, you aren’t listening. You’re only pausing between lecturing your opinions or truths. Do your best to create a safe environment for the speaker. Your job is to listen, not to argue and not to judge. No one should be a “winner” or a “loser.” That isn’t the way to a resolution. A productive conversation isn’t a debate.

Don’t jump in and try to solve the problem. On that same note, a useful conversation should be full of give and take. Allow the speaker to truly specify what the issue is before you jump to conclusions.

Ensure that all distractions are put away. No cell phones, no computer screens and no tablets should be active or present. This is a time for both parties to be fully present.

Pay attention to body language. No matter the words that are being used, they may contradict the body language that’s being communicated by your subject. If you suspect the words that are being spoken contradict the body posture, your colleague may be miscommunicating to you by accident or on purpose.

In Nixaly Leonardo’s book Active Listening Techniques: 30 Practical Tools to Hone your Communication Skills, she explains “Active listening is a powerful skill. It can not only help you get your message across, but it can also help others feel connected to you and positively influence your relationships, self-esteem and career success. If you practice it consistently, the people around you will feel heard, understood, cared for and respected.” The most important thing to remember when you’re trying to communicate with your colleagues and your team is to recognize that the communication skills must be taught and passed down by leadership, and that’s one of your main jobs. Lead with active listening and others will likely follow suit.

This article has previously been featured on  Forbes.

Be A Better Boss

How would you like to have a more productive team? What if you could reduce absenteeism, employee errors and employee turnover? It might sound pretty pie-in-the-sky, but it’s actually attainable if you’re willing to put in the effort. It’s a simple plan, doesn’t cost a thing except time and is expeditious to implement. What could this magic plan be? The only thing you have to do to achieve all of these benefits is to be a better boss.

The days of ruling with an iron fist are long gone. If you believe the best way to manage employees is by fear and intimidation, you’ll be setting yourself up for constant employee turnover. You’ll also have a smaller and smaller hiring pool of potential employees once the word on the street is that you are a terrible boss to work for. With all the good managers out there, why would anyone waste their time being constantly stressed out by you?

In their book Mind Tools for Managers: 100 Ways to Be a Better Boss, James Manktelow and Julian Birkinshaw explain, “A more universal characteristic of effective leaders is that they are authentic: They bring a human touch to their work, they play to their strengths, and they are highly self-aware. To make the same point in reverse, we can all spot a boss who is faking it — someone who is trying to be the larger-than-life, charismatic leader that they have read about in business magazines. These types of people are a turn-off, not just because they seem phony but also because they are unpredictable and hard to read, which makes our jobs more difficult.”

What you need to do is take a good, long look in the mirror. Be honest with yourself and list each of the behaviors you currently have that are nonproductive. Schedule some time to meet with some of your colleagues, your boss and maybe even some friends or family members who are aware of your tendencies. The only way to change behaviors is to acknowledge that they exist.

A large amount of employee satisfaction relates to their interaction with their immediate supervisor. With that in mind, it’s important to think about things in a way you may not be used to. The article “The Boss Factor: Making the World a Better Place through Workplace Relationships” in the McKinsey Quarterly suggests, “In many ways, there is only one question any manager need ask: How do I make my team members’ lives easier — physically, cognitively, and emotionally? Research shows that this ‘servant leader’ mentality and disposition enhances both team performance and satisfaction. Moreover, studies also suggest that managers themselves are happier and find their roles more meaningful when they feel they are helping other people.”

If you were promoted largely because you were a high-performing employee with exceptional technical skills and a personal drive to get ahead, you are among good company — many employees are promoted for those very reasons. However, if no one has ever taken the time to mentor you and teach you the people skills necessary for managing employees, you may be at a disadvantage.

If you now have a boss who exhibits those qualities, seek advice. Make a plan to grow the new skills necessary to again become a high performer in your new position. Some managers would rather dictate than lead. In your work life, you’ve probably experienced at least one boss with that mindset, and you know how unmotivating that is. If you lead and inspire people, they will follow you.

I worked with one executive who thought once he was promoted, all he had to do was bark orders and then sit in his office, door shut, checking email, focusing on his to-do list and only reappear when it was time to bark more orders. I had to coach him to recognize how important respectful human interaction was. Eventually, he became comfortable having meetings, asking employees questions and actively listening to their answers. He learned to support a team so they would work together to realize success on their projects instead of having every person out for themselves.

Praising associates when they do something right is worth much more than criticizing them when they do any little thing wrong. After enough criticism, all you’ll end up with is an employee who is shut down and will only do the minimum to get by. Making your team feel useful and appreciated is a sure way to form a cohesive unit.

Involve your team in the problem-solving process. After all, they perform the tasks every day. They will have insights into the flaws in the process that you didn’t know existed. Once they learn to troubleshoot more problems themselves, the more you’ll be freed up to get your other tasks done.

Realize that their failures are part of the growing process. When that happens, don’t get angry — help them fix the problem and then move on. They’ll acquire the confidence to take on more challenges without fear of your reprisals.

Understand that each one of your employees is an actual human being. People have lives outside of work. They have challenges, triumphs and tragedies just like you do. It’s an oldie, but a goodie — treat them the way you would like to be treated when it comes time to take into account the problem they’re having might not have anything to do with their work. If you have a high performer who’s suddenly having problems, ask what is going on and what you can do to help. A simple display of humanity never hurts.

This article has previously been featured on  Forbes.

Make The Most Of Your Next Performance Review

Is it that time of year again? How did the months roll around so fast? If you’ve taken last year’s performance review to heart and made progress toward your goals, you’re probably feeling like you’re in a pretty good place. However, if you’ve failed to prepare for your performance review, you may be anticipating it with dread.

If you want to get ahead of the game, here are a few ways to prepare so you can walk into your next appraisal feeling confident and self-assured:

The easiest place to start is with the performance goals you’ve agreed upon in the previous year’s review. Take the time to study them and write out a plan to make them a reality. They’re not going to magically complete themselves.

You may be working very diligently, but are you working on the things that matter? The things that are going to advance your career? If you find yourself consistently spending the majority of your time putting out fires, you’ll be getting nowhere fast.

After mapping out a plan to meet each of the major goals you were tasked with, ensure that each separate plan contains well-thought-out steps (and sub-steps if necessary). Keep these where you can review them daily and note your progress. If you find that you aren’t making much headway on a particular goal, review your steps. If you need to make some course corrections, do it. Don’t let your plans go by the wayside. Don’t be afraid to ask your manager or your mentor for assistance or clarification.

Log Your Accomplishments

Over the course of the year, keep an accurate log of your accomplishments, and then try to qualify and quantify them. It’s not very impressive to tell your boss something like, “I did much better this year on managing the production of widgets in my department.” However, if you say “By modifying the widget-making process in my department, our production rose by 7% this year with no extra manpower,” it really carries some weight.

Now that you’ve spent the year tracking your progress, it’s time to compile it in a format that your boss will appreciate. Everyone has their own method of processing information. If your manager isn’t a detail-oriented type of person, don’t overwhelm them with minutiae; just hit the high points and report the most important facts and figures.

Develop A Communication Strategy

If your manager prefers more frequent updates, send the information monthly or weekly as they prefer. Your boss is busy juggling multiple things, just as you are, so don’t complicate their life by giving them information presented in a way they don’t want. Clarity is your friend and you want to make an impact here, so do your best to illustrate the value you bring to the team and the company.

I’ve seen this issue again and again in my work. Instead of communicating the information in a way the manager wants, the employee stubbornly continues to submit information in a format the manager finds annoying, uninteresting or over-explained. Then, the employee wonders why the boss doesn’t offer any input or praise.

If you report to someone who is fairly uncommunicative throughout the year, the responsibility of requesting periodic feedback is up to you. It’s not at all productive to spend an entire year focusing on one goal when at review time, you find out that objective was the least important one to the person who manages you.

The University of Northern Iowa Human Resource Services department writes, “Supervisors should discuss positive performance and areas for improvement throughout the year. However, it is in the employee’s best interest to open up a discussion about performance during the year, even if the supervisor does not initiate it. The sooner employees know where they are with regard to performance, the sooner priorities can be shifted or problems can be fixed. Communication is a shared responsibility.”

If your boss is constantly busy and not a naturally communicative person, you may have to ask when you can schedule some time to meet — whether that’s at regular intervals or on a more sporadic basis. Use that time to ask brief, but important questions, but don’t let your attention wander or get off track. You should respect your manager’s time.

Address Your Challenge Areas Throughout The Year

Ask for clarification on any assignments you’re struggling with. Confirm that you’re on track for the year and ask if there is any specific area in which you need to improve. If they do offer you advice, take it to heart even if it’s something you don’t feel is worth doing. Making amazing progress at something just because you’re good at it will not help you at review time, especially if it isn’t something you were supposed to focus your attention on.

If you run into an important issue during the year, bring it up and ask for assistance. No one wants to listen to an employee who’s just venting. Come prepared with possible solutions and an open mind. Actively listen to any suggestions offered to you and act on them.

Preparation Is Key

During your next performance review, come prepared. If any improvement is suggested, don’t be defensive about it. See it for what it is — a chance for you to improve. Be open to new opportunities. If your manager suggests you should take on a task that they have been performing, take it on with a willing spirit. You can’t grow into a higher position if you’re not willing to stretch. If no new opportunities are presented, take the initiative and ask what more you could take on to help the organization.

Your annual performance evaluation is your golden opportunity to showcase everything you’ve done during the last year, so develop the habit of tracking your accomplishments in order to make the best of it.

This article has previously been featured on  Forbes.

There’s No Time For Monkeying Around: How Managers Can Delegate More Effectively

I wish there was a more delicate or polite way to tell you this, but there isn’t: If you want to be a successful manager, you’re going to have to learn how to get those monkeys off your back!

Of course, I’m not talking about an actual animal, but rather problems and decisions. And those cute but pesky primates are the perfect metaphor because monkeys are curious and temperamental by nature, and boy are they clingy. They can gang up on you in a hurry!

If your directs are used to passing their monkeys on to you, the only person to blame is you. In other words, don’t accept the monkeys. However, I recognize that for many, this is easier said than done.

The reason you’re in a leadership position is because you have proven that you can manage a situation, a team and any circumstances that might infiltrate your arena of business acumen. Therefore, you might jump at the opportunity to help solve problems, but this can be detrimental to everyone involved.

In his book Shifting the Monkey, Todd Whitaker writes, “You can easily handle your fair share of normal monkeys, as long as you feel valued and supported. But you can just as easily become overwhelmed when you get stuck shouldering other people’s inappropriate monkeys. Some monkeys simply shouldn’t be your problem. Anger Monkeys, Guilt Monkeys, and Attack Monkeys are just a few of the monkeys people use to shift their burdens to others.”

Early on in my career, I suffered from an abundance of monkeys. I was dealing with ensuing public relations problems with the other units in the division, was expected to complete my work and merge two very different teams into one cohesive unit. I also had 14 employees reporting to me from eight different locations and was constantly inundated with phone calls.

My direct reports expected me to fix every problem, both real and imagined. Most of them didn’t know any better. They had been “trained” by my predecessor to call with their issues at all hours.

In his article, “The Art of Managing Monkeys,” Ken Blanchard outlines four rules of monkey management. I’ve found the rules to be a helpful tool in giving executives the ability to refuse and return monkeys without being accused of buck-passing or abandonment. Here’s how I apply them and advise others to do the same:

1. Label the monkey. Define its parameters and specifically outline the next steps that need to happen to care for the monkey. Let the new owner ask questions. Having an employee agree to take the monkey because she thinks she has no choice isn’t effective.

2. Allocate the resource(s) to handle the monkey. The monkey should be assigned to the lowest organizational level reasonably equipped to handle it. Minor monkeys shouldn’t be allowed to climb up the administrative ladder.

3. Assure the monkey will be handled. When you divest yourself of a monkey, you can’t just drop it on a desk with no instructions. It’s imperative you ensure it will be taken care of — make a plan, get buy-in from the monkey owner-to-be and proactively put in place consequences if the monkey isn’t handled in a proper and timely manner.

4. Confirm the monkey is healthy and thriving. Check in with the owner to monitor the progress on a regular basis. This doesn’t mean pestering the employee who now owns it; it means taking the time to confirm progress is being made.

I found that with a bit of encouragement, and a firm explanation of why a particular monkey was assigned to them, my employees started to change. They began to embrace their responsibilities and were motivated by their own successes in problem-solving. It took time, patience and understanding, but eventually, they realized my days of taking care of monkeys that weren’t mine were over. Not only did their morale increase, so did mine. I was once again invigorated because I was being challenged by my assignments and was no longer performing tasks I had outgrown. I wasn’t constantly interrupted to act as a referee, a psychologist, a technician and a peacemaker.

The ongoing development of a more independent team means that everybody wins. When each member understands their role, their duties and their responsibilities, “the machine” runs more smoothly. If you teach people that their team members are some of their most valuable resources, you give them the tools to gain more knowledge than they could ever get by just working alone. If you teach people the skills of how to obtain the answers they need, you’ll free yourself up to be available to help them when higher-level issues do arise. You’ll also be able to help in a sincere, mentoring way because you won’t be exhausted by all that monkeying around.

Monkeys, monkeys everywhere! Don’t you have enough to do? Isn’t there enough on your plate? Get those monkeys headed in the right direction and everybody wins.

This article has previously been featured on  Forbes.

Pass Greatness On And Watch It Grow

When you think about your growth and advancement, do you automatically stop to think about bringing your best and brightest along with you? It is no small task to inspire your team members to greatness. If they can grasp the extent of your enthusiasm, they may be able to hitch their wagons to your star. Those great performers who automatically share in your vision tend to be few and far between.

The question is: How do you get the rest of your team to follow suit? How can you get them to catch the wave of your passion for the job at hand? How can you possibly show them the path you see in your vision for the team, the division and the company? It’s not easy. It takes patience, creativity and perseverance. Most of all, it takes a big dose of leadership.

When I work with executives who want to know how to begin the process of empowering their employees, I suggest starting with an exercise in introspection. What are your leadership strengths? Perhaps more importantly, what are your leadership weaknesses?

Have a look at yourself from the outside. Leave any emotion or ego out of it as you imagine how you are viewed by your team, how you are viewed by your peers and how you are viewed by your management. Chances are you are viewed differently by all three.

If you decide some work on the perception of you is in order, start with your team. They are the most important piece of the success equation.

When you spend the time mentoring, teaching and leading your team to greatness, one of the many payoffs is that your peers and leaders will notice the difference. When you pass your inspiration and desire for excellence on to others, it grows your own at the same time.

If you plan to develop team members and give them the opportunity for growth, you’ll need to inspire them. It’s important to make them feel connected to the purpose of their daily tasks, actions and the processes by which they’re expected to adhere. Let them know how their work supports the work of other teams and other divisions and, ultimately, improves the satisfaction of the customer. If you don’t, you risk leaving behind mediocre performers who think that all they do is check off boxes on a form day after day. Where’s the enthusiasm in that?

People will follow you if you honestly feel passion and purpose in their work and in your own. It’s immediately obvious if you’re faking it — and job title alone won’t encourage top performance. If you don’t know how or aren’t willing to learn how to lead, it’s unrealistic to believe anyone will follow. Don’t just talk the talk. Demonstrate your integrity and trust and behave ethically at every turn in good times and bad.

Practice active listening with your team members. Hear what they are saying and even what they’re not saying. Ask questions for clarification. Keep calm, even if they admit a failure. Provide solutions, not criticism. Be the boss that you’d like to have and the one they need.

Demonstrate your commitment to development and growth. It may be difficult for you to delegate projects and tasks if you’re used to being in control. The trick is to give serious thought to each team member and where they are in their progress. Susan may be ready for the challenge of taking on that high-level report summary, whereas Mitch is currently better suited to tackle the calculations for the graphs in the report. The key is to assign the task with the right difficulty level, which will stimulate headway and set them up for success.

When success does occur, don’t be stingy with the praise or the reward. Although the task may have been nothing but a cakewalk for you, remember there was a time when it wasn’t. There was a time when someone else challenged you with it to help you succeed.

In their book Being the Boss: The 3 Imperatives for Becoming a Great Leader, authors Linda A. Hill and Kent Lineback explain: “Full mastery comes slowly, as with any serious craft, and requires steady progress in a world that keeps throwing up ever more complex challenges and opportunities. We know highly competent managers who consider themselves still learning even after years of experience.”

Resist any urge to take credit at the next staff meeting when your team produces an excellent product — give credit where it’s due and celebrate. Pass along any praise to your employees so they understand that their work ethic is being communicated upward.

When success does not occur, use it as a learning experience for your team. Analyze what went wrong and where without assigning blame. Focus on the positive. How can we fix it? How can we avoid the mistakes we made in the future? How can we do it better next time?

Marala Scott in her book Passion Inspires Greatness: A Journey with Purposereminds us, “There are people that will identify your lack of self-control as a weakness and use it at their advantage in competition or when it is critical to exposing your character. Being great does not mean you are great when things are going well. What it means is that you apply self-control when they are not.”

Present an optimistic view of the future. Know that when you put in the work to lead your team to greatness, you create something superior to a team that performs well. You are planting the seeds for future leaders to grow and mature to be their best selves.

This article has previously been featured on  Forbes.