Helping People to Develop Problem Solving Skills

In my last blog post, I wrote about Setting SMART Goals, a Directive behavior. In this post we’ll talk about Facilitating Self-Reliant Problem Solving, a Supportive behavior.

To refresh your memory, Supportive leadership behaviors are things you do that develop mutual trust and respect with your team member, resulting in increased motivation and confidence.

If you want the people you’re leading to be strong and resilient, you have to teach them how to solve their own problems. This can be one of the hardest challenges for leaders, because most of us have risen to our positions by being great problem-solvers. We’re good at identifying problems, coming up with solutions, and making improvements. However, those very strengths can be weaknesses when it comes to developing resilient team members.

Resist the urge to rescue team members by providing them the answers to problems. Instead, ask them open-ended questions to lead them through the process of solving the problem on their own. Follow these steps:

  • Ask them to define the problem in one sentence.
  • Help them brainstorm options of addressing the problem.
  • Ask them to list the pros and cons of these various courses of actions.
  • Cheer them on as they work toward solving the problem.

Many leaders shun this approach because initially, it requires an investment of time and energy. If you hear yourself thinking, “Forget it—it will be easier and faster to do it myself,” you’ll know what I’m talking about. I guarantee that the time you spend helping people develop problem-solving competence will save you time in the future by building bench strength on your team. Once you encourage people to tackle tough problems, you’ll be amazed by the creative solutions they’ll find.

An example my coauthors and I wrote about in Leading at a Higher Level concerned the management team of a large organization that was struggling with a severe traffic problem on the road leading to its location. The road crossed four miles of protected wetlands, so it could not be widened without significantly impacting the environment. Each morning, the traffic leading to the site was backing up the entire four-mile length of the road, adding an hour to commuting time. The resulting delay and aggravation caused a significant drop in productivity.

Three years earlier, the management team had hired traffic consultants to solve the problem. The consultants’ attempts to a devise solution failed miserably. As a last resort, management decided to assemble a team of their own employees to brainstorm solutions. The employees met twice a week for a month, at which time they provided some practical recommendations.

The simplicity of the employees’ recommendations surprised management. For example, they suggested that trucks be prohibited from making deliveries to the site between the hours of 6 a.m. and 9 a.m. Since there were many deliveries to the site at this time, putting this suggestion into practice immediately removed some of the slowest, most cumbersome traffic clogging the road. That and a few other recommendations resulted in an almost instantaneous improvement in the traffic flow.

This story brings home one of the key benefits of practicing the SLII® Supportive skill of Facilitating Self-Reliant Problem Solving: tapping into the creativity and talent of your team members. As I’ve often said, the people who report to you aren’t just hired hands—they have brains, too!

Google co-founder Larry Page once famously hung up copies of documents showing the dismal financial performance of the AdWords search engine (now known as Google Ads). Across the top of the documents he wrote, “THESE ADS SUCK.” It was only a matter of days before team members tackled the problem and improved the service, which now generates the bulk of Google’s $162 billion earnings.

While I might not use Larry Page’s leadership communication style, I appreciate the way he facilitated self-reliant problem solving by pointing to the problem and allowing his team to discover a solution. Now, if he’d told his employees, “you suck” instead of “these ads suck,” that would be a different story!

So far we’ve covered two Supportive and one Directive micro skills of an SLII® leader. Over the next few weeks I’ll be exploring more of these micro skills, so stay tuned!

A Fresh Look at SMART Goals

If you are familiar with SLII®, our company’s leadership model for powering inspiring leaders, you know that effective SLII® leaders are highly skilled in the two primary areas of leadership behavior: Directive and Supportive.

We define Directive leadership behaviors as “actions that shape and control what, how, and when things are done” and Supportive leadership behaviors as “actions that develop mutual trust and respect, resulting in increased motivation and confidence.”

In my last blog post, I wrote about Listening, a Supportive behavior. This time I’ll be refreshing your outlook on Setting SMART Goals, a Directive behavior.

What is a SMART Goal?

The concept of SMART goals has been around for decades. Different people and organizations may have slightly different ways of explaining the letters in the SMART acronym. Our twist on this familiar concept is the order in which you should write the goals, which is: S, then T, then R, A, and M. I’ll explain as we continue.

S is for Specific. A goal should state exactly what you want to accomplish and when you want to accomplish it.

T is for Trackable and Timebound. Performance standards, including a timeline, must be in place to enable frequent tracking of each goal. Are you making observable progress toward goal achievement? What will a good job look like?

So first, you decide exactly what you want to achieve—S—and then determine how you are going to track or measure progress toward goal accomplishment—T.

Once the S and T are in place, use the other three SMART criteria—the R, A, and M—to check if the goal is truly SMART.

Relevant. Is this goal important? Will it make a difference in your life, your job, or your organization?

Attainable. A goal has to be reasonable. It’s great to stretch yourself, but don’t make a goal so difficult that it’s unattainable or you will lose commitment.

Motivating. For you to do your best work, a goal needs to tap into either what you enjoy doing or what you know you will enjoy doing in the future.

Example #1: A Personal Goal

The first example is from the book Fit at Last: Look and Feel Better Once and for All, which I wrote with Tim Kearin, my good friend and personal trainer. Although my initial goal wasn’t exactly SMART, it was specific: I envisioned going to my 50th class reunion at Cornell and hearing my classmates say, “You’re looking good!” My less critical goals were to be able to do the limbo and to learn how to tap dance. (Again, maybe not so SMART.)

Fortunately, Tim helped me write the following goal. It’s rather long but it is SMART and, I’ll admit, a big improvement over the goals I had written.

SMART Goal: In one year, through an effective eating plan and exercise program with guidance, support, and progress tracking from Tim Kearin, I will weigh less than 200 pounds. I will gain 1 inch in height through posture-specific exercises, reduce my neck circumference and chest circumference by 1 inch, reduce my waist measurement by 5 inches and my hip measurement by 4 inches—and get rid of my “fat pants”.

This goal is Specific (we knew what we wanted to happen and by when); Trackable/Timebound (I knew Tim would keep great records and set a reasonable deadline for completion); Relevant (health is more important than almost anything else in life); Attainable (I knew I needed help and Tim was the perfect trainer for me, and our numbers were realistic); and Motivating (I looked forward to feeling better, looking better, living longer, and having healthy numbers for future doctor visits).

Example #2 – Career-Related Goal

The second example is taken from a recent Indeed.com article and involves a person with their eye on a promotion.

SMART Goal: I will earn a promotion to senior customer service representative by completing the required training modules in three months and applying for the role at the end of next quarter.

This goal is Specific (the person knows exactly what they want and when); Trackable/ Timebound (completing training in three months and applying for job the following quarter); Relevant (important to rise to a new level and make a difference in income and stature); Attainable (training first will provide skills to qualify them for the promotion); and Motivating (exciting career move, new challenge, higher pay).

Example #3: An Organizational Goal

The third example of an effective SMART goal is taken from FitSmallBusiness.com regarding employee training.

SMART Goal: Confirm that 90% of team members have completed new inventory management software training by the end of third quarter.

This goal is Specific (the company knows exactly what they need and when they want it); Trackable/Timebound (90 people will need to complete training, deadline set for end of third quarter); Relevant (important for entire team to merge together to new platform, which is more efficient than current platform); Attainable (majority of people have completed training, which is web-based and easily accessible); and Motivating (eager for better overall productivity, motivated to get the rest of the team trained).

Remember—all good performance starts with clear goals. If you don’t know what you want to accomplish, there is very little chance you will get there. So whether it’s for your personal life, your work life, or your organization, make every goal a SMART goal. It’s the best way to ensure success!

6 Practices That Will Make You a Better Listener

As we begin to come out of the coronavirus pandemic and run smack into the turmoil around continuing racism in our country, I think it’s a good time to review an essential leadership skill: listening.

So often the key to overcoming a difficulty—whether it’s in the workplace or at home—is to stop talking and start listening. I often like to joke that if God had wanted us to talk more than listen, he would have given us two mouths.

Yet few people have mastered the art of listening. Why is this seemingly simple skill so difficult?

Research published by Wendell Johnson in the Harvard Business Review examined one way the listening process goes wrong. Johnson found that because of how our brains work, we think much faster than people talk. As we listen to someone talk, we have time to think of things other than what the person is saying. As a result, we end up listening to a few thoughts of our own in addition to the words we’re hearing spoken. Usually we can get back to what the person is saying, but sometimes we listen to our own thoughts too long and miss part of the other person’s message.

To sharpen your listening skills, learn to apply the following six practices.

  1. Resist the Temptation to Jump In. Sometimes people need time to formulate their thoughts. Particularly if you’re an extrovert, control the impulse to finish people’s sentences or fill silences with your own opinions and ideas.

 

  1. Pay Attention to Body Language. Listen with your eyes as well as your ears. Watch a person’s face and body movements. Are they avoiding eye contact? What about the tone of their voice—do you hear confidence, eagerness, or perhaps irritation? Be aware of clues that their silent behaviors provide, while being sensitive to your own nonverbal signals. For example, is your body language encouraging someone to continue with a conversation, or silently telling them to stop?

 

  1. Ask Questions. This is not about interrogation or control. Use well thought-out questions to seek information, opinions, or ideas that will help you understand exactly what is being said. Use open-ended questions to encourage communication; for example, “Can you tell me more about that?” Ask clarifying questions to check for understanding; for example, “When did this happen?” Ask prompting questions to encourage deeper thinking; for example, “What do you think caused this to happen?”

 

  1. Reflect FeelingsAcknowledge any emotions the person is expressing and show them you understand by restating their feelings back to them in a nonjudgmental way. This demonstrates that you not only understand their message but also empathize with their feelings.

 

  1. Paraphrase. Again, resist the temptation to respond with your own thoughts. Instead, restate in your own words what the person said. This demonstrates that you heard what they said and assures that you heard them correctly.

 

  1. Summarize. State in a nutshell what was communicated during the entire conversation. Don’t worry about repeating the exact words. What’s important is to capture the main points and general sequence of what was said. This is where you want to reflect the speaker’s conclusion back to them to indicate that you understand.

 

These practices are not easy—they require time and effort to master. But once you do master them, you’ll build more satisfying relationships. You’ll also avoid a lot of the errors, frustrations, and inefficiencies that come from unclear communication. Think of how our homes, workplaces, nation, and world could change for the better if we all learned to listen to one another.

Listening is one of the seven supportive micro skills of an SLII® leader. Over the next few weeks I’ll be exploring more of these micro skills, so stay tuned!

 

 

Take Time to Build Meaningful Connections

If you’ve followed me for a while, you’ve probably heard me say “The best minute of the day is the one you invest in your people.” Why do I believe that? Because leaders who invest time in their people are building meaningful connections. Those connections create inspired people and inspired leaders who benefit from those great relationships, and achieve great results, together.

Leadership is not about you. It’s about the people you are trying to influence. The more you understand about your direct reports, the better you’ll be able to help them achieve their goals. Taking time to work side by side with a direct report to determine their development level on a task lets them know you are interested in meeting them where they are. And it allows you to use the right leadership style, with the right amount of direction and support, to help that person get to the next level.

Here’s another way you can take time to build a meaningful connection with each of your people: schedule one-on-one meetings where the direct report sets the agenda. These meetings don’t use up a lot of work time—just twenty to thirty minutes every other week. There’s no better way to show someone you care about them as a person than to set aside time to chat about anything they wish. It’s a great opportunity for both manager and direct report to speak openly with one another without interference or judgment. This leads to a trusting relationship that generates respect, loyalty, and accountability on both sides.

And don’t forget to take time to celebrate people’s talents, skills, and successes. Celebration doesn’t have to mean a big, expensive party. It can be as small as taking one person aside and praising them for their input at a meeting. It can be as quiet as sending someone a gift card in appreciation for the role they played on a special team. Or it can be as grand as allowing everyone in the department to stop working two hours early on a Friday afternoon. Celebration lets people know they are doing things right. It builds morale and camaraderie. And—let’s face it—it’s fun!

So take time to let your people know you’re glad they are with you. You see their gifts and also their potential. You want them to win. And you’re there to help them achieve their goals. Take time to build those meaningful connections. It’s the best investment you’ll ever make.

SLII®: Powering Inspired Leaders

One of the things we’ve learned in recent weeks is that when change disrupts business as usual, effective leadership is more important than ever. Businesses today must be nimble and responsive, able to apply creative solutions to unprecedented problems. But an organization can only be as agile and innovative as the people who lead it. That’s why it’s critical to empower inspired leaders.

Can inspired leaders be developed? Absolutely! SLII®—the most widely used leadership training program in the world—creates caring, skillful managers who build meaningful connections with coworkers to unleash their potential and create exponential impact.

Now, “exponential” is not a word I would normally use, but it perfectly describes the multiplying power of SLII®. When one manager develops these proven leadership skills, their positive impact can affect the entire organization.

People Must Be a Priority

The days of rigid management styles are over. Especially now, when it’s imperative to tap every resource an organization has, “we” leadership rather than “me” leadership is the formula for success. Our research shows that when leaders sincerely care about the people who work in their organizations and see them as a top priority, strong financials follow.

Leaders trained in SLII® know that meaningful relationships are built through authentic conversations. Whether it’s talking with a new hire about getting a job done or serving as a sounding board for a highly experienced employee, SLII® leaders drive performance and unleash talent. Skilled in the art and science of having conversations targeted to people’s development level, SLII® leaders understand what inspires their team members. They care about their growth. They see their promise. They’re there for them, no matter the situation.

The Bottom-Line Benefits of Good Leadership

Inspired leaders trained in SLII® create business environments that encourage diverse ideas, brilliant solutions, and above all, an engaged workforce. When people feel valued, they bring their all to the job. They’re committed, and that makes the difference between an organization that thrives and one that doesn’t.

Sometimes this commitment shows up as cost savings. In 2018 a couple of inspired BMW employees figured out how to increase the efficiency of the central electronic control unit in every vehicle, saving the company about $42 million in the very first year.

Sometimes this commitment shows up as the brainstorming of revenue generating ideas. For example, one of Amazon’s most popular site features—Prime Now—was created by an inspired employee.

You can always tell an organization that powers inspired leaders. These are places where employees shine, putting the whole company in a positive light. I’m thinking about the fabulous employee at a ShopRight supermarket in New Jersey who delighted customers by singing the old Police song, “Don’t Stand So Close to Me.” This made customers smile but more importantly, reminded them about social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Helping businesses to thrive—not just survive—is why we’re so passionate about what we do at The Ken Blanchard Companies. It’s a joy to watch SLII® leaders throughout an organization build meaningful connections that drive great results and make the world a brighter place.