Asking for Input

In my last several blog posts, I’ve been writing about SLII® micro skills—leader behaviors that help direct reports get things done while increasing their motivation and confidence. In this post I’ll focus on Asking for Input—a supportive behavior that not only develops mutual trust and respect between leaders and direct reports, but also benefits the organization.

Why should a leader regularly ask direct reports for their input? There are multiple reasons; I’ll talk about three of the big ones here.

Asking for input engages your direct reports.

The Gallup organization—famous for its employee engagement research—has long recognized that one of the primary reasons employees become disengaged is because they feel their thoughts and opinions don’t count. This disengagement has a significant negative impact on productivity and the bottom line.

The leader who charges ahead and makes decisions without asking for input from followers contributes to employee disengagement. A study conducted by John Izzo, author of Stepping Up: How Taking Responsibility Changes Everything (Berrett-Koehler, 2012), found that the number one reason employees don’t take more initiative at work is that their leaders fail to get their input before making decisions. This is right in line with our own research on organizational change. When those who are being asked to change are not asked for their input, the change is likely to fail.

Whether it’s on a small project or a large change effort, the principle is the same: by asking for input, leaders can turn disinterested employees into an engaged ones.

Asking for input sets up a mutual, two-way conversation.

In the old days, leadership was regarded as a top-down conversation. The assumption was that the leader was the one with all the answers and the people doing the work were merely “hired hands.” Today, we recognize that leadership is more of a side-by-side endeavor, where both leader and direct report work together to create results.

By asking for input and listening well, leaders create connectedness and build trust with those they lead. A climate of trust leads to more productive employees and a healthier organization. In our research of more than 1,000 leaders, 59 percent of respondents indicated they had left an organization due to trust issues, citing lack of communication as a key contributing factor.

Asking for input also reduces the chance of miscommunication. For example, suppose you’ve just given instructions on an assignment to a direct report. To ask for input, you might say, “I’ve been talking for a while and would like your feedback. Why don’t you recap for me what you’ve heard, so I can make sure I’ve given you the direction you need to be successful?”

Asking for input stimulates people’s best thinking.

Not only does asking for input improve employee engagement, but it also taps into people’s inherent intelligence and creativity. Let’s face it: direct reports often know more about their jobs than their managers do. They also have far more power and potential to contribute to the organization than leaders often realize. From the 3M Post-It® Note to the Starbucks Frappucchino®, stories abound about employee innovations that went on to become multimillion-dollar revenue earners.

But even when focused on everyday projects, asking for input invites employees to participate in problem solving and contribute their expertise. The positive results are two-fold: The employee has more job satisfaction and the organization benefits from the employee’s knowledge.

If leaders don’t ask for input—and value that input—they may be hurting their organization more than they know. Keep in mind that when Steve Wozniak was an engineer for Hewlett Packard, he tried five times to get management interested in his idea for a personal computer. Wozniak finally left HP, teamed up with Steve Jobs, and founded a little company named Apple. Talk about a missing out on some good input!

In the coming weeks, I’ll be covering the remaining SLII® micro skills, so watch this space!

Direct Report Brand New to a Task? Show and Tell Them How to Do It

In my last few blog posts, I’ve covered one Directive and two Supportive leadership behaviors—micro skills commonly used by SLII® leaders. In this blog post, my focus is on Showing and Telling How, another Directive leadership behavior. Directive behaviors are actions that shape and control what, how, and when things are done.

As part of our company’s SLII® training, we teach that when someone is new to a task or goal, they need specific direction from their leader. One aspect of this direction involves the leader showing and telling the direct report how to do the task correctly. After all, if someone doesn’t know what a good job looks like, how can they be successful?

As simple as this seems, many leaders have a problem with showing and telling how. Why? Because they believe it’s inconsistent to manage some people one way and others a different way—so they choose a leadership style they are comfortable with and use it all the time, on everyone. But suppose a leader’s preferred style is Delegating—assigning a task to a direct report and then leaving them alone to figure it out. That style simply won’t work on a person who has no idea how to do the task. The leader is setting the direct report up for failure.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Here’s an example. Let’s say you hire a smart, likeable, outgoing person to sell your service or product. They possess many of the qualities a great salesperson needs, but no actual sales experience. On the other hand, they have a positive attitude and they’re eager to learn and committed to being a successful salesperson. In terms of sales, according to SLII®, this person is an Enthusiastic Beginner who needs a Directing leadership style.

Knowing this, you give your new hire specific direction about everything that has to do with sales. You go with them on their first sales call. You have detailed discussions—even role play with them—on how to close a sale. You show them what experienced salespeople do and let them practice in low-risk situations. You create a crystal clear picture of what a good job looks like, and you remember the importance of checking for understanding all along the way. Throughout this showing and telling process, both you and your direct report know that you are setting them up for success.

As an SLII® leader who uses all four leadership styles as well as the Directive and Supportive micro skills, you are building meaningful connections with your team members—and you’re inspiring them to take on the new challenges of our ever-changing world.

Watch this space in the coming weeks for introductions to more SLII® micro skills!

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!

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.