Great Managers Listen

My biggest failure as a manager occurred when I did not hear the needs or woes of my team. I did not pay attention, did not read stressed faces and paid mind only to my own tasks. Your core mission as a manager? Get results out of others. If you do not understand your team because you have not listened to them, then you cannot possibly know their strengths and weaknesses enough to optimize results. You cannot tap into people’s drive if you have no grounds to empathize with them. It takes time and energy to “be there” for your team. It takes patience to hear every word and understanding to process everything. It often takes forgiveness and humility to avoid taking things personally. It takes regular interaction to stay current (people change, after all). More than anything else, it takes open ears. Listen to your team, hear them out. If they don’t speak, ask questions. Schedule a meeting. Go out for drinks or a meal. Whatever it takes to make your people comfortable enough to speak their mind.


Earn Leadership

English: Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth Presid...

You cannot snap your fingers and wake up a leader; you must earn it through the respect of people who might follow you. Good leaders earn respect on their own, without nomination or title inheritance. Strong leaders grow through decision-making in everyday life, in small groups and in situations where no one else stands up. Picking a place to eat and pushing solutions to problems are small decisions that, if successful, will help you build a full portfolio of respect. If not earning credibility enough to become the President of the United States, your immediate circle will at least look to you as a problem solver or for restaurant recommendations. Leadership and title come in many shapes and sizes, so it’s important for you to choose how you want to contribute to the world. You can lead few or many, intimately or anonymously. Earn respect by mastering your trade, making a difference or showing compassion for others. Demonstrate your actions in public. You cannot fancy yourself a leader until other people fancy you a leader first.

Let It Flow

If you want to foster a culture of open ideas, you cannot stand in the way. Do not shoot suggestions down, do not fight back and never stifle the feedback loop. Close your mouth and bite your tongue if you have to. Whatever it takes to let your team know that they are being listened to and that there is room for their ideas. After ideas have been heard, let open debate ensue. Invite extra opinions and open your ears even wider. Make sure opinions are genuinely collected and heard. Show the idea collection process with surveys, emails, whiteboards, etc. if you think it will help your team see and appreciate your reception to their opinions. And do not fear disagreements. Disagreements are healthy – they suggest that ideas are being contributed and tested. As with any relationship, team relationships stand to grow and strengthen through overcoming disagreements.

If you need to make a quick decision and do not have time for collecting feedback, don’t close the deal immediately. Help everyone understand why you feel the way you do and thank them for their understanding. At the very least, it shows you respect their autonomy and the other contributions they make.

Agree On the Mission

Before doing anything else, you should check to make sure your entire team agrees with and can own the mission at hand. It’s very important to make sure that you are on the same page with everyone before embarking on a collaboration. If people diverge in completely different directions, you stretch the project thin and go nowhere. You cannot easily push the cart in one direction if your partner is pulling it in the other. Discuss the mission and agree on the meaning behind the problem you are trying to solve first before setting out to find a solution. If everyone is pushing in the same direction, you may have enough momentum to get the cart out of the mud.

What or Who Are You Competing Against?

Do you even know? No one can genuinely create a sense of urgency without cause or reason. Everyone is competing against the clock (we’re mortals, after all), but why? For what reason? Is it a race? Against whom?

If you have a clear opponent to beat, that’s easy. Wave the enemy’s flag in spite and embrace competition as a positive energy in your organization or life. Move forward and fast, as if it were a fun game.

If you are a startup or non-profit without grasp of a market, what are you competing against? Most small organizations compete against sinking bank accounts. Young companies not yet cash-flow positive must sweat their burn rates and execute on their vision before running out of money. If the money drain is your greatest enemy, make a big deal about that, too. Don’t hide it from your people; share the bank statement with managers if you want them to understand that particular sense of urgency. They will understand.

You cannot motivate people from scratch. You can only give them the tools, information and environment to hopefully inspire them to motivate themselves. As a leader, you must know what you are competing against. And do not forget to share that information with your people who suffer the whip every day.

Treat Impatience With Patience

Stress and impatience crescendos when met with more stress or impatience. Two impatient fools in a room don’t make a right. When your friend, spouse, child or boss unleash momentary wrath on you, you can fight back and feed the wrath – or go into monk mode and stay calm. If you enjoy conflict and saying things you don’t mean, go ahead and lift your verbal sword. Otherwise, be the better man or woman. Treat impatience with patience.

Culture of Experimentation

Every company claims they are open to new ideas. But ego and fear of change tend to deflect outside forces. There is a major difference between accepting feedback and acting on it. A feedback culture can only get you so far. After all, actions speak louder than words; what you do is more valuable than what you say. An organization truly interested in keeping an open mind must open its doors – not only to ideas, but also to active change. Companies must encourage every employee to tinker in genuine “ask forgiveness, not permission” fashion. Harsh punishment should not land on failure, but instead on apathy or closed minds. Any person or obstacle stifling healthy ideation must move out of the way.

Let your people play. Design and enforce a true culture of experimentation.

Get Out of the Way

Just because you are leading or managing a team does not mean you need to have your nose in everyone’s business all the time. Process and management techniques should not be invasive to or stand in the way of your team. You are responsible for providing your people with all the tools they need to succeed and getting out of the way. The less you are involved and the better your team performs means you’re doing a good job. Implement processes that take everyone as little time as possible. Wind up the clock and let it run on its own.

Communicate With Nouns, People!

Lives are short and people talk fast. More often than not, they talk too fast to be heard or understood. More than half of that, I’ve noticed lately, comes from a noun deficiency. People assume listeners understand who or what they are talking about and resort to using pronouns (or nothing at all) to frame the sentence. By doing this, you run the risk that listeners will think you are talking about something completely different.

“They’re pretty cool, aren’t they?” “What, spider monkeys?” “What?! No. Our stuff.” “Oh, I was thinking about spider monkeys. Wait, what stuff?” “Our products, dude. Are you listening to me?”

The subject plays an important role in a sentence and should NOT be glossed over. The ridiculous exchange above could have been averted with a better handle on the subject in the first question – “Our products are pretty cool, aren’t they?” In leadership and management, it’s on you to make sure people understand the context of your conversation – not the listener.

I received an email like this before and it boggled my mind: “Mike is trying hard, but Dan is just not up to it. Think we’ll need to let go.” What the hell does “need to let go” mean? Let go of what? Let go of the project? Let go of Mike or Dan? Let go of them both? If I acted on that email without confirming the object of the second sentence, I could have really messed things up. But whose fault would that have been?

Use nouns, people! It won’t sound silly; it will sound specific and productive. And whether listeners know it or not, they will appreciate it.

Give Employees Feedback Permission

Seth Levine made me think a lot today about feedback loops within organizations. Employees fear giving feedback to their managers or superiors. Makes sense – if you take constructive criticism too far, you may find yourself on the street. Tragically, most managers and executives want and need advice to help them do their job better. While leadership coaches may help, third parties are not close enough to the conversation. Only people within the organization spend enough time around you to identify a specific and timely list of your faults. More importantly, outside help cannot understand all of the personality types you lead. Every team is different and takes a different approach. At the end of the day, you must own a leadership style that fits your team.

Fortunately, there are people who can help – your employees. By giving your team permission to provide feedback, you open a door to better-understand your style and flaws. Permission is not enough, however (remember: people fear the guillotine) – you must build structure to provide feedback. Some managers approach this anonymously, with surveys and the like. Others organize reciprocal reviews and have it out one-on-one. The anonymous approach allows employees to craft their responses and be more candid. A more open and direct approach can work for people who can manage tempers like monks. I suggest a combination of the two to get the full picture.

If your team corroborates specific faults across the board, you should take a pretty big hint. By including your people in the dialogue, you can empower them to challenge you to improve. If everyone can set egos aside, feedback permission can radically improve morale in the workspace, the drive for improvement, personal ownership of their role in the company, and collaborative honesty overall. I don’t care what numbers or information you share with your team; you are not truly transparent as an organization until teammates have the freedom to be honest with each other.