If Employees Aren’t Listening, Reflect on Leadership

Worried that people who should be listening to me, aren’t listening to me. Think about my employees, and ask myself, “If they’re not going to listen to their boss, who are they going to listen to?” How can I keep from getting pushed out of the way?

Thoughts of the Day: Take a look around you. Make time to think about what you want, and whether the habits of communicating are getting you there. Figure out how you can get better at communicating. Lower your perception of the consequences if things go wrong. Think before you speak. Plant seeds.

Is it really just you who’s being ignored, or are others having the same problem? Is it all employees, or just some? Is it the same employee over and over, or different employees at different times? Is it all the time, or just some of the time?

Figure out the conditions under which you observe that you aren’t being heard. Compare that to your observations about what others experience under similar conditions. Do a reality check on who, when, what, and how people go their own way without dialing in to you.

Then ask some questions. Are they attempting to spread their wings, trying to fly solo with new skills they’ve acquired? Are they repeating a habitual way of behaving with you – as in, they always dial you out? Or is it somewhere in between?

Now do a reality check. What happens if specific people do or don’t listen to you? Do they get better results with, or without your input? Or do they come out about the same either way? Do they get enough value from your input that they can achieve higher level outcomes? Are you making requests that make their life easier or harder? Try looking at it from the receiver’s viewpoint.

Time for a bit of self-reflection. How do you come across as a leader? Are you positively motivated, and are you positively motivating the people around you? Can you inspire confidence?

Think about this. If you’re not ready to empower yourself to achieve success, how will you impart that to others? On the other hand, if you’re leading and no one is following, why is the whole group following a different path? What is it about how you’re coming across?

Can you take as good as you dish it out? If someone isn’t listening to you, ask them why. But be prepared to hear some things that might make you uncomfortable. Listen without defense in order to learn.

What in your style of presentation is irritating people or pushing them away. It often comes down to what you say and how you say it. Is it all about getting what you want? What gets in the way of perceiving or responding to what the person across from you needs?

Negative approaches tend to generate negative responses, and vice versa for positive ones. Keep doom and gloom to a minimum – it’s neither inspiring nor motivating. Instead, search for purpose. Put people on a mission.

Give people a visual of how things might turn out. Make sure it’s one that they’d actually want to achieve. Make it something worth having, something worth reaching for, from theirs, not your, point of view. To do that, you’re actually going to have to invest some time figuring out where the other person is coming from.

Remind yourself that it takes a village to build well rounded solutions. Plant seeds. Ask for small changes. Encourage behaviors you want to see continue by saying, “thank you, I appreciate that.” Talk honestly about problems, but also build people up by showing them how changes they are making lead to a better world. Take time out to celebrate wins – more than the time spent moaning over losses – a lot more.

Looking for a good book? Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action, by Simon Sinek.


Enlist a Team of Leaders to Avoid Micromanaging

Someone suggested recently that I spend too much time plugging holes and fixing problems. I thought it was my job as owner to ensure things run well. I realized that I’m not my staff’s backfill; they are my backfill. Can you help me get my head around this change?

Thoughts of the Day: A pyramid cannot stand on its point; it needs to stand on its base. Build your pyramid by building a group of strong, cross-supporting people under you. Expect people to help each other become leaders. Unleash results that come from people who willingly deal with difficulties and challenges. Take the weight off your shoulders by stepping back.

Think of your company as a total structure made up of individual blocks, built up from foundation to pinnacle. No one block could hold up the entire structure, but when set together in a common structure, interlocked, cross-supporting, they create one of the strongest structures on the planet — a pyramid.
Give people more opportunity to come up with answers, not less. Give them more room to crack open problems, inspect details and learn by making mistakes as they strive to develop winning solutions. Hold everyone, individually and as teams, accountable. If they come to you for answers, provide guidance but challenge them to develop their own solutions.

Your goal is to have a group of people who see themselves as colleagues serving a common mission, each leading in their own way while collaborating to achieve common results. Build a team of people who are ready to lead and able to back up each other. That gets you free from the drudgery of the day to day. That means more time for you to work on the strategic opportunities and long-term development of the business.

Develop leaders by treating all the people in your company as leaders. Foster leadership by giving people control over decision-making. Ask people to brainstorm together how to get the company where it needs to go. Put everyone in charge of protecting and nurturing the organization’s future. There should be no more looking to one person for a solution.

Make it clear to everyone that they are in it together. If they work as a group, collaborate and support each other, they will tackle more issues, identify more opportunities and come up with better overall solutions.
When team members back off of a problem or get stuck, have them reach out to each other rather than coming to you for the answers. Facilitate conversations, if necessary, by asking team members to gather. Instead of playing a director role in the conversation, sit back and watch how the dialogue unfolds. Ask pointed questions if you think the group may be missing something: “What about … ?” “What if you tried … ?”. Then back out and let the team work on solving the problems.

Do provide an overall framework: “We need to be on a mission this year to achieve a, b, c.” Then ask everyone to come together to create their plan, detailing the goals and actions they believe will lead to the accomplishment of that mission. Think of it as laying out a challenge, and let the group formulate how they think that challenge can best be met.

Encourage people in the company to form many teams, or mini pyramids, breaking down barriers to cooperation and collaboration, in order to accomplish the work ahead. People working across disciplines can often solve problems that people in silos can’t even begin to understand.

Looking for a good book? A Team of Leaders: Empowering Every Member to Take Ownership, Demonstrate Initiative, and Deliver Results, by Paul Gustavson and Stewart Liff.



Managing to Keep Key Employees

We have a couple of people who are really important to the business. We call them our key employees. It’s no joking matter – I worry about it all the time – if one of our key employees were to leave, or if something happened to them, we’d be screwed. How do I protect the business from something bad happening to these important individuals?

Thoughts of the Day: Key employees have probably earned the right to that designation over time. Keeping people engaged is essential to the well-being of the company. Protecting the business from unexpected events is part of any owner’s job. Know what your people want, where’ they’re going, and how your company fits into their overall plans. Make sure to build back-up solutions as part of a well-rounded contingency plan B.

Key employees are called that for a variety of reasons. Some have unique knowledge of the business. Others have special skills that are hard to replace. Some provide a level of support or planning that has taken a long time to figure out how to do it. Some could be very valuable to competitors.

When thinking about how to protect the company from the loss of a key employee, the first step is to insure you know who is considered to be key. There is host of reasons why people are considered essential. The list usually includes more than top executive. Think about who in your company might be seriously missed or difficult to replace if they left or couldn’t make it in for work.

Take time to reflect on each key individual. Is he fully engaged with the work he’s doing? Is she aware that the company values her contributions? Are plans in sync – yours for where you want to take the company, theirs for what they want to achieve. Do you even know what each key employee wants personally and professionally?

Many business owners, used to being in the position of command and control, make the mistake of assuming they should map out a future for each key employee. Actually, it’s a two way street, starting with a dialog about the future. Have an open and frank conversation with each key person – where do they want to be in 3-5 years, what does their life look like, what would cause them to say they were satisfied, want concerns do they have.

Listen carefully, without judgment. Try not to take control. Be open to the possibility that the person you’re talking to may want to go somewhere else for work sometime in the future.

Tune in to what motivates each individual, and what needs each has. Think about how you can use the resources of your company to help each key individual achieve what they want, as they help to get your company where you want it to go.
Be willing to think outside the box as to how you can help a key employee, but make sure it’s a fair trade.

Do they want to get additional education? Offer that, with the agreement that they’ll stick around for a period of time post-graduation, or reimburse part to the tuition if they leave sooner. Planning to have a family? Consider flexible work schedules. Many key employees work long hours and have concerns that they may not be able to spend quality time with their family. Get back-up so they can.

Consider ways to bond people to the company. Ask every key employee about why the company is important to them. It may be how your company treats its employees. It may be about the type of work or the clients served. It may be about the community they share. Look for common themes you can build on to create a culture to bond people together.

It may be possible to meet employees’ financial growth needs through profit sharing. Shares of stock may be valuable, but make sure to keep ownership internally focused by having a stock ownership agreement requires shares to be returned to the company when the employee leaves.

Make cross training a requirement for every key employee. It may take more than one employee to perform the functions of one key employee. Whatever it takes, make sure that someone can back-up every key employee up so that they can take a vacation, get sick, move on to learn something else, or even leave the company, and the company continues to function well.
Looking for a good book? Retaining Your Best Employees, by Patricia Pulliam Phillips and Jack J. Phillips.


Individual Mistakes Highlight a Company’s Needs

It feels like lately we’re dealing with a lot of unreliable people that work for us – a constant battle – and I keep having to play clean-up. I find that when people screw up they do say, “I’m sorry”. They act as they’re off the hook because they apologized. I know that sometimes it is easier to turn around someone than replace them; how do you know when to quit and move on, when to put the time in.

Thoughts of the Day: Reliability is a big issue – make sure you know where the problem is coming from. Teach people that the problem isn’t over until it’s solved – permanently. Attitude and behavior are where to look when trying to decide if you keep someone or let them go. Make sure that you don’t get in the way of letting others take the reins when it comes to problem solving.

One word in this problem puzzle caught my eye: It feels like “lately” . . . Many companies are getting busier as the economy picks up. And yet as owners, we hesitate to commit to hiring what we need, for fear that things will turn down again. After all, most companies are still repairing their balance sheets, and most business owners can still recall the uncomfortable days agonizing over decisions about cutting staff, who to let go. No one wants to get caught out on a limb with too many people on payroll when they’re not completely sure that the business will grow.

However, when problems start to increase, maybe it’s not the people, maybe it’s the workload, the fit of skills to work, or the fact that people have no more stretch to give. When business picks up, different parts of the business get busy. The busier people get, the more likely they are to take shortcuts and risk mistakes.

As new work comes in, as the company seeks to expand in any direction, in order to get back on a growth track. Maybe old customers are asking for new and innovative solutions. Or, perhaps new customers are coming in the door with a different set of expectations and product needs. People used to doing things the old way get caught short. But as the volume picks up there’s less and less time to train. Old habits die hard. And problems escalate.

One big challenge for most organizations is that they’ve learned to function just-in-time. An hour of overtime is sometimes necessary to get work out the door. And then it becomes 2 hours of overtime. Then 3 hours. Sooner or later, there is no more give. People aren’t machines. They need time off to refresh and rest up. And if they don’t get time off, they get worn out, mistakes go up, recovery time puts everyone further behind. And problems get out of control.

So if you’re wondering why things are getting worse “lately”, check if it’s time to hire more people.

On the other hand, when problems crop up all around, you can’t be the one to step in and fix it every time. That just increases the load you’re carrying. It’s time for you to start leading the organization forward to a more successful way of doing things.

Slow it down. When things go wrong the temptation is to rush in order to catch up. Instead, encourage people to stop and fix one problem before moving on to the next set of challenges. Make fewer demands and avoid introducing new issues until the old ones are taken care of. Ask people to tell you how they’ve solved problems, and really listen to their explanation. Then figure out how to make their solutions permanent.

Move people around. It’s human nature to want to succeed. The question is, are the actions being taken actually leading to success? Ask people to look with a new perspective. Maybe the old way of doing things isn’t the best – it’s hard for someone to see that if they’ve been doing the same thing over and over.

Make realistic promises to customers. Ask the people around you what they think. Just because the customer wants it a certain way, or delivered by a certain date, doesn’t mean that’s the best way to do things. Keep in mind that the extraordinary request often leads to headaches. Make sure you have the time and resources needed before you commit.

Watch what people do more than listening to what they say. Are certain people okay with failure? Always trying to fix a problem instead of preventing it? Acting like their way is the only way, even though there’s problems all around them? Running around leaving chaos in their wake? That’s not good. Give them a deadline to start doing things right. Reward people who step up to the plate, admit their mistakes, and then take responsibility for permanently fixing the problems they encounter.

Check your own ego at the door. You may know how to fix things. But if you do, someone else doesn’t get the chance to learn. Get out of being in the middle of things. Step back to let others take charge. You may not feel as essential and that’s a good thing. You’ll live longer if you let the people around you take action to fulfill the mission you’ve created.
Looking for a good book? Accountability: The Key to Driving a High-Performance Culture, by Greg Bustin.