One of the things that strikes me as being ever important in leadership roles is to regularly start over. Okay - that sounds a bit dramatic but as one who has had a number of different roles, jobs and even careers in his life - I am struck by how much I learn in the first few months of any new role.
Now there is some pretty obvious stuff here of course, such as where is the washroom and how do I go about getting a cup of coffee? The more important things on the list include:
As anyone who has read this newsletter before can attest, I could write pages on each of these topics but this month in the interests of respectful of your time, I want to narrow the scope down a bit to just the people element.
Whenever I start a new job, I make a point of "interviewing" the people I will be working with. Most recently this has included a board of directors, but the same philosophy holds true for direct reports, customers, clients and others. This in and of itself is not that special - I am quite certain most leaders coming into a new role have this activity somewhere on their hit list or 90 day plan.
What I find interesting is what happens after these interviews are completed. In other words, once the "operation" or "project" gets started, it is very rare that we revisit the foundational elements of the relationship. I have to admit that I have not done a good job of revisiting these intake interviews but now I see this as both a huge gap and tremendous opportunity. Now please note that I am not talking about a "feedback" session or a performance review. I am a big fan of ensuring those around me are well aware of where they stand and what support they can expect in their ongoing growth and development. The "intake" interview process I am referring to is quite different and I think well worth repeating on an annual or biannual basis.
Why do I think this is important? Firstly, when I am coming into a situation cold - I have few preconceived ideas about the individuals I will be interacting with and for me that means I am giving them the benefit of the doubt. In short, they are all hard working, interested, capable and professional people. This is a great starting point but of course after a year or two (or even five) - this openness has now invariably been narrowed somewhat by virtue of our shared experience and relationship. What am I missing as a result of this narrowing in the span of possibility? I believe quite a bit! And this has been confirmed by the number of times I have been surprised to learn something quite unique about an individual that I felt I knew quite well!
As an example of this, I once worked with a receptionist for close to two years and she was great at her role. We chatted quite regularly and I felt I had a pretty good relationship with her until one day I came into the office on a weekend and there she was at her desk. To say it struck me as odd that our receptionist would be at work when the office was closed would be an understatement. When I asked what she was doing, she apologized saying that her computer at home was broken and she was using her work computer to do the payroll and bookkeeping for her church! Up until that point, I had no idea that she was interested and able to do this kind of work!
The second reason I think it is important to reset the relationship is that invariably both people in it will have changed and grown over the years. While their beliefs and value systems may not have changed, they may certainly have different impressions of what is possible, what is true and certainly how they see their potential contribution. In general, our relationship may be evolving nicely and yet a huge portion of that relationship may well be based on assumptions, inferences, and projections. It does not have to be this way.
I remember sitting with a manager whom reported to me at the time and our conversation included a discussion of our various strengths and weaknesses. My perception at the time was that while we shared a lot in terms of values and beliefs, we both had virtually opposite natural work styles and preferences. In short, I saw him as the reflective and practical "optimizer". Only once we got into this dialog did I realize how wrong my perception was. While he was certainly capable of optimizing existing processes etc., his passion was in creating the systems and processes to translate the vision into reality. He had little to no interest in actually running the processes and fine tuning them on an on going basis! In fact, he found that sort of routine and detail orientation to be quite stifling. The unfortunate thing was that we had this conversation near the end of our working relationship. Had I had a better grasp of his natural interests, I am convinced we could have done even better work together than was the case.
So - I am now a big fan of a regular (and repetitive) on-boarding process with those I am working with - employees, clients, suppliers and bosses. This process is not a look back at where we have been nor is it an opportunity to provide feedback. It is a great opportunity to reset the relationship all over again with the assumption that we have in fact both changed over the intervening period. So - what is the process? Well here are some of the things that I am interested in learning about people:
There are many other such questions of course however the key here is to keep these questions future oriented and open ended. In the coaching process, we often refer to this as accelerating the relationship or designing the alliance because we want to ensure our clients get value from the very first coaching session onward. It is a process that can also push back the boundaries of our personal experiences of one another in a relationship so that both parties are in fact operating on the most recent and current "data".
As a side note - I have also facilitated dialogs with teams around these questions and while it is often difficult to document the "deliverables" from such a shared experience, the outcome invariably provides a fascinating peek into how we are all very different and how a team or leader can use these differences to improve both individual and collective performance. I strongly believe that if a leader were to take his or her team aside once a month for an hour or two and ask one of these questions of everyone in turn, all of the team members would not only respect one another more but they would also have much more interesting and relevant information to inform and influence their working relationship.