Imagine, for a moment, that you’ve been put on an island and handed a sack of rice, some vegetable plants, and a chicken. “Good luck,” says the person who brought you there. “You’ll be responsible for growing your own food now; I know you’ve never done that before, but I have every faith in your ability.” Then he gets in the boat and leaves, merrily waving goodbye.
Why wouldn’t he at least stay to get you started that first growing season, helping you develop the skills you need to plant and nurture your veggies and rice, and keep your chicken alive and laying.
Thousands of brand new managers are handed a couple of employees and told, in effect, “You’ll be responsible for managing these people now; I know you’ve never done that before, but I have every faith in your ability. Good luck!”
How odd this is. If you’re going to be a lawyer, you go to law school. If you’re going to be a doctor, you go to medical school. If you’re going to be a manager, you get promoted one day, and you’re magically supposed to know how to manage.
Now, I could kind of understand this if it didn’t make any difference: if people didn’t care how they were managed, and if their performance didn’t depend at all on how they were managed. But they do and it does. In fact, I would go so far as to say that, in my experience, it’s really difficult for a business to get consistently good results if its employees are badly managed.
Preparing the Soil
Every gardener knows that preparing the soil is the first and best secret of successful gardening. I believe that listening is the management analog of soil preparation, the foundation for all future success. This flies in the face of common wisdom: most of us assume that once we become managers, we’re supposed to stop listening. I suggest that the single most useful thing you can learn to do as a manager is stop talking and start listening.
Here’s one quick, practical step you can take to get you headed in the right direction: Ask before answering. When an employee comes to you wanting a solution to a problem, pause for a moment before responding, and instead of just leaping into answer-person-problem-solver mode, ask a question. Not a fake I’m-supposedto-ask-a-question-here question, but a real one.
A bunch of great things will happen as a result of your doing this. First, your employees’ own problem-solving abilities will be strengthened. For them, asking you for the solution is the easy way out; having to think through it themselves is harder, but ultimately better for them (they grow professionally); you (they become less dependent on you); and the company (it’s always better for a company to have more people who are capable of solving problems).
Second, it lets your employees know that you think they have good brains; that they’re capable of solving problems; that you expect and require that they will contribute to the success of the department or the business. Doing this communicates trust and respect more powerfully than a hundred wall posters about trust and respect!
Plan Before You Plant
Good gardeners think through the kind of garden they want to create before they start buying plants. And having decided what they’re trying to create, they buy plants that will suit their purpose. In the same way, good managers get clear about the kind of team, department, or business they’re trying to create, and then choose the right employees to help them create it.
Picking Your Plants
So, once a gardener has decided what kinds of plants she needs, there’s an easy next step. She just goes to the nursery or garden center, and reads the tags on the plants. They give her all the information she requires about the conditions that plant needs, so she can fairly quickly tell whether it’s likely to do well in the kind of garden she’s creating.
Unfortunately, job candidates don’t come with plant tags (resumes are kind of like plant tags, but they fairly limited… basically they just say “I performed really well in another garden, which may or may not be anything like your garden, but you have no real way of knowing”). So, what’s a good manager to do? Interviewing is your best way to find out how an employee will do in your “garden.”
Unfortunately, most managers are (self-admitted) poor interviewers. Here are two things you can do to immediately make yourself better at this important skill:
Shut up: Most interviewing managers talk way, way too much (I think it’s part of that answer-person thing I mentioned earlier). They lapse into trying to sell the person on the job and the company, or maybe they’re just uncomfortable with the candidate’s discomfort. Whatever the motivation, just stop it. You’re supposed to be finding out about them.
Don’t ask questions to which there are obvious right answers: Interviewers tend to ask questions like, “We really expect everyone we hire to be pretty self-directed, and not require a lot of hand holding. Would you be OK with that?” Unless you’re brain-dead, or really don’t want the job, the only possible answer is some version of “Yes.” Instead, the interviewer might ask something like, “What style of management works best for you—how do you like to be managed?” There isn’t a right answer here—the person has no choice but to tell you what’s true for them (or what they think you want to hear, if that’s the sort of person they are), but—in any case, you’ll get a lot more data on which to base your hiring decision.
To Be Continued...