Ask Questions

December 27, 2010

“He who asks a question is a fool for five minutes; he who does not ask a question remains a fool forever”  Chinese Proverbs

My best boss ever was great at asking questions.

A client called us about making changes to their website.  We were just about finished with the project, so I asked my manager if we could have a phone conference with the client. We were all on the phone and the client said, “The logo needs to be bigger.” In my estimation, the logo was already large enough. I could have articulated several reasons why I did not think making it any bigger was the best direction for the site. However, before I could respond, my manager asked the client “Why do you want the logo bigger?” After some discussion, the client expressed his concern that the brand of the site was not prominent enough. They did not feel like, when you first hit the home page, you would immediately know and understand you were at http://www.whatever.com. Aha! Now we have a problem. See, “Make the logo bigger” is a solution. “The brand is not prominent enough” is a problem. The skill of my manager was that he could ask questions of the client and then let them tell him where they wanted to go with the project.

In an ideal world, it is the client’s job to bring problems and the designers’ job to find solutions. I did not end up making the logo bigger. I did put more white space around it and added a subtle (but effective) watermark of the brand icon in a very prominent position on the page. The point is this: making the logo bigger was only one possible solution to the problem.

Whenever I wanted to get into a discussion with a client or a co-worker and my boss was present, he would always listen and respond with questions.  His goal was always to understand the other person better.

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Open to Feedback

December 20, 2010

To be a teacher in the right sense is to be a learner. I am not a teacher, only a fellow student.”  Soren Kierkegaard

 When I was first hired, I was informed that I would be part of the team that would evaluate my boss. I was shocked and surprised that part of my role would be to give feedback to my boss.

However, this feedback was the basis for why she was one of my best bosses ever.

After I was on the job for about two months, my boss came to me and handed me an evaluation form. Here were some of the sample questions and we were to rank them on a scale of one to four. The reason they used this scale system was so no one could just pick three as the average. Your response had to either be above or below-average.

SAMPLE QUESTIONS:

  • Admits mistakes?
  • Communicates effectively in meetings?
  • Manages conflicts to a productive outcome?
  • Develops employees?
  • Keeps confidences?
  • Dresses appropriately?
  • Does not take credit for others’ work?
  • Does not play favorites?

There were many more questions than just this, but the power of the process was that my manager would invite all the raters to a conference room and then have an open discussion about the feedback.  Not everyone would go, but the ones who did attend gave some very constructive feedback and her strength as a manager was her ability to intently listen to what was being said. She worked at listening and taking the comments to heart. 

There were some things said in those meetings that were painful and difficult for her to swallow, but they were said out of care and concern. You could tell she worked at taking the information to heart. By her openness and willingness to listen, it set a tone for the entire department. Everyone tried to be more open and to listen more carefully. You could tell after the meetings it made a difference with everyone.

The amazing thing was the impact it made on the entire company. As a manager, she grew and became better because of the feedback she was getting. However, the company did not endorse nor use 360-degree feedback. Nevertheless, once word got around that she was using it and the results were positive, within two years the Human Resources Department used her method and taught it to other managers.  

This simple technique changed my first day of being hired, because I was invited to be part of the feedback team for my boss, but it also changed our department, and then ultimately changed our company, because the entire company started to use her method. By watching her work at improving herself, she helped improve the discussions in the entire company.

Teacher and Mentor by Jeff Varney

December 13, 2010

Experience is the worst teacher. It always gives the test first and the instruction afterward.”    Zig Ziglar

 The late Lynn Gernert was the best boss I have ever had.

 In the formative years of my professional growth, Lynn Gernert, earned my respect and admiration with everything he did.

 As a recent college graduate working as an engineer in my very first job, I was surrounded by colleagues of my age and education level who were doing the grunt work. For them it was a very challenging time in their career, they did not sign on to do calculation after calculation. They wanted to be challenged and they wanted to do some higher-level thinking. However, they were not as lucky as I was because, Lynn Gernert was my manager.

Lynn did not assign me menial tasks of a repetitive nature. He would give me a vision of the task because he had the ability to sit down with that vision on a piece of paper and to convey that vision to me.  With Lynn, I did not feel like I was an employee; I felt like I was a colleague and a partner in the project, even though this was my very first job right out of college. Once he assigned the task to me and he was always successful in his vision instruction. However, once I had the task assigned, he gave me the latitude and the leeway to do it my way.  The task did not always have to be done his way. He understood that creative and educated people could come up with a variety of ways to solve a problem.

Lynn also recognized my abilities and could sense when I could only take on so much of a project.  He would allow me to work as far as I could and then he would wait for me to come back for additional instruction.

The real skill was his ability to keep me in the industry when my other college friends were not challenged and wanted to go into another field of endeavor. They were given grunt work and repetitive processes and it drove them nuts. However, with Lynn’s help, I was given the opportunity to do very interesting things.

The best thing about Lynn was his ability to always learn. That challenged me to always learn too. Those were his best skills to inspire me to think and work through projects, to continue to learn and grow and to give me interesting work. Now that I am a manager, I try to emulate his style.

Be an Arbiter

November 29, 2010

 

My best boss was also the toughest. He would not let disagreements in the office grow to the point of explosiveness.  As a teller in a financial institution, my best boss would settle disagreements or teach us how to settle those disagreements.

There was another teller in the office and we did not really get along too well. Sometimes personalities are just different. The relationship between the two of us continued to deteriorate and the signs of tension were visible to everyone. Once it got the point where we were barely talking, the boss summoned us into his office. This was as pleasant as a root canal without anesthesia.

He invited both of us to sit down in the conference room and to share what was going on. He wanted us to get the problem out on the table. However, he set some ground rules for how discussion would go.  First off, one of us would share their side of the story and then the other would share their side of the story. Finally, we would work out the differences between the two of us. However, once the other person talked I could not state my position without restating her position in my own words to her satisfaction. And, vice a versa; she could not respond to my position without first restating what I said in her own words to my satisfaction.  This was the hardest thing to ever learn at work. 

It is not human nature to restate the other person position in your own words to their satisfaction before you respond. Normally, in an argument you just restate or scream your point of view repeatedly. This forced you to listen to their point of view and to restate it before you were able to respond.

She said the problem stemmed from a time when I was in a hurry and I seemed to throw paperwork at her station rather than to hand it to her and ask politely. From that moment on, things just continued to escalate. She said, “I did not think you liked me and so everything you did just grew out of proportion.” I told her I meant no harm and could not even remember the time it occurred. That is classic about disagreements, they just continue to grow. By sitting us down and using this technique, it helped me in the rest of my work world because I learned to listen first, and paraphrase before I responded. That was an incredibly helpful tool in my life. It was one of the hardest skills to learn, especially if you are angry with someone, but it helped get everything out in the open and we were able to work together because we learned to talk that way with each other when the situation got tense.

Compliment

November 22, 2010

“I can live for two months on a good compliment.”  Mark Twain

 My favorite boss knew the power of a compliment.  One day he was walking by my office. He zoomed passed the door because he was always in a hurry, stopped abruptly, turned around and popped into my office. He said “Good Morning, Julie!  You did a great job on the newsletter article concerning IRA’s.  That was great stuff on the power of compound interest and how compound interest grows over time. Keep up the excellent work; our clients need that kind of information. Compound interest is one of the most powerful tools our clients have and you did a great job showing them that power over a lifetime. Thanks for the article.”

Then he smiled and was gone. Poof! It was like a drive-by compliment. He just stops, gives you a compliment and then he is gone.

When I was promoted to management, I went to him and asked him how he gives such effective compliments.  He said, “I use the power of five S’s.” I asked what they were and he asked me to sit, take out a yellow pad and write down the recipe. 

Five S’s Recipe:

  • Short
  • Sweet
  • Soon
  • Sincere
  • Specific

He went on further to say, “The compliments need to be short, not too long. They need to be nice—that is the sweet part. They need to be soon, because compliments go bad with age. They need to be specific.  I will fire a manager who just writes on the annual evaluation form ‘good job.’ The compliment and reinforcement needs to be specific: reward the behavior you want and continue to recognize it. The more specific the compliment or reinforcement, the more power the compliment has. That leads to specific; if the compliment is specific then it will be more sincere.”

Since I had seen him use this technique hundreds of times, I had many examples of its effectiveness. By using the power of the five S’s that made him one of the best bosses, I had ever worked for in my entire life.

Leave a Legacy by Arnold Sandbothe

November 1, 2010

“No legacy is so rich as honesty.”  William Shakespeare

 I have worked for some of the best-known managers in some of the largest organizations represented in my trade association.  However, none of them stand out as my best boss ever.

In fact, my best boss ever was a manager from central Missouri who was in charge of a small financial institution.  Rarely did she have more than six or seven people on her staff at one time.  However, her talent was not in the number of people she led, but in her ability to turn her staff, no matter how small, into leaders and managers.

She would instill in them the belief that they could take over a key and significant role in an organization.  She was able to guide six employees to become CEOs of other financial institutions.  That is why she was the best manager I ever saw.  She left a legacy and helped six other people achieve accomplishments that they may never have achieved without her help.

My wish for all managers is that at their retirement party, people will come up and say, “Because of your belief in me with your coaching, mentoring and support, I was able to achieve…” Of course, you can build buildings and build a lot of wealth, but on your deathbed, the question you will ask yourself if you helped build people.  Did I leave my organization and community better than I found it?

That is the essence of a real manager—a true leader.  It is someone who helped be the difference in the lives of others.  If you can do that, you can leave this world knowing you made a difference.

Focus on Strengths

October 25, 2010

“We confide in our strength, without boasting of it; we respect that of others, without fearing it.”   Thomas Jefferson

At the time, I did not understand the concept of the power of synergy.  However, I soon found out that it means one plus one is sometimes greater than two.

My best boss paired me up on a project with another employee who I was not particularly fond of working with. We were both trainers and the woman who was assigned to be my partner was very skilled at creating workbooks and doing research. My strengths were in the front of the room—it was easy for me to make people laugh and it always seemed that being in front of the room was effortless. Typically, I was surprised they actually paid me to do this job. However, I was always missing the deadline for creating workbooks. I could sense my manager was becoming a little frustrated with this shortcoming.

When my boss assigned the project of working together, I questioned her ability to lead. I wondered how my boss could put us together; we do not even like each other, much less working together. Nevertheless, she said our strengths matched—whatever that meant.

Therefore, we worked on a few projects.  She would create the workbooks and do the research and I would read the workbooks and use my front room skills to educate and entertain. After awhile it became apparent we were jelling as a team, but we still were not particularly fond of each other.

However, after a year I began to realize what my boss meant by the power of synergy.  The two of us together were able to produce more and better training programs. We were able to produce more than we could ever produce by ourselves. My best boss ever, knew the power of synergy, by putting teams together and looking at each of our individual strengths and weaknesses, she was able to create a stronger team.  She recognized that I was strong in front of the room and she knew that my new partner was very strong in research and developing workbooks. The employees got a much better training program and they got our great workbook that they could use as a reference tool long after the training session had ended, which helped to reinforce their learning. In addition, they got my storytelling and my humor, which allowed the ideas to stick. At first, I thought this arrangement was absurd, but after working with it for over a year and a half, I began to realize the power of synergy. I had to tip my hat to my best boss, because she had used that power of synergy to create a very strong training team.

My recommendation to all managers is to use the power of synergy to create a stronger team.  The other great lesson is that my boss did not try to fix our weaknesses.  She recognized our weaknesses—she overlooked them—but she utilized our strengths.  A year later, I asked her how she came up with the idea.  She said she had read the book “First Break All the Rules” by Marcus Buckingham and she recognized the power of focusing on peoples’ strengths. She said when she was a new manager, she tried to focus on fixing weaknesses, but she realized this is a futile attempt at absurdity.  She said, “You cannot take an introvert, send them to Dale Carnegie training for two weeks and turn them into Martin Luther King.” She said, further, that you could take an extrovert, send them to Dale Carnegie training and make them a much better speaker. She said now she just tries to focus on utilizing peoples’ strengths and minimizing their weaknesses, or balancing their weaknesses through team member strengths. She said by putting us together she took my strengths of presentation skills and my partner’s strength of research and documentation and made us a much better team. The two things I walked away with from this learning point was to use the power of synergy and focus on peoples’ strengths. If I can do that as a manager in the future, I can make an impact on the lives of the employees I work with and I can make a strong impact on the organization I work at. If I can do those two things then it was worth it for me to have chosen the path of being a manager.

In the Loop

October 18, 2010

A well-informed mind is the best security against the contagion of folly and of vice.”   Ann Radcliffe

 My best boss ever kept us in the loop of what was going on at the bank.

 At the time, I was working for a large regional bank in southern Florida. I had been working there for about ten years and had a big portion of my career invested in that bank. One day, I began to hear some rumors that we might be in trouble. Of course, my antenna went up and I began to research a little further. Shortly after my research began, a memo circulated that asked all of the employees to attend a mandatory meeting at a local hotel.  About 600 employees attended.  There were no balloons, no festive decorations and no semblance of any celebration at this event.

After everyone was seated, the doors were closed and the CEO took the podium at the center of the stage. He shared with us the shocking news that the bank was in serious financial trouble.  He asked us to keep this information extremely confidential. He asked us not to even share this information with our spouses or parents.  He said if we did, it might cause a run on the bank and cause all of us to lose our jobs immediately. He went on further to explain that we would have career counselors available to help any employees’ transition to new jobs. For those employees who stayed up to the point of liquidation or merger, a severance package would be provided.  He said that although his goal was two-fold, he first wanted to make sure that we heard this information from the CEO. He also wanted to make sure that his employees had the opportunity of a soft landing during this transition.

I was at first shocked and then amazed that everyone in the bank had been given this information. I was incredibly touched that the CEO would trust all of us with this very vital information.  No one in the bank broke the code of confidentiality, although the bank was not successful and eventually merged with another large regional bank.  However, the jobs and careers of hundreds of employees were saved because of the integrity of my CEO, who shared information with everyone in the bank.  This experience is my benchmark for integrity and for caring for employees and an organization.

Hopes, Dreams, Wishes and Aspirations by Rory Rowland

October 12, 2010

Our life is composed greatly from dreams, from the unconscious, and they must be brought into connection with action. They must be woven together.”  Anais Nin

 In the late 90s when I was brand-new to the speaking business, a client arranged for a limousine to pick me up at the airport. It was the first time I had ever had a limousine pick me up while on business. My sense of self-importance was incredible, however that feeling of self- importance was to be overshadowed by what I was about to learn. Rosie was the limousine driver who was to take me from the airport to the World Center Marriott in Orlando, Florida. Rosie was happy, friendly, and quick with a story. Since this is the first time a client had ever had a limousine for me to get from the airport, I really did not know the protocol. Rosie guided me to the limousine and just at the right moment, she held the back limousine door open so I could step inside. Coming from a blue-collar family, I asked if I could just sit up front with her. My father was a truck driver, so obviously I did not know anything about riding in the back of limousines. She smiled and quickly moved to open up the front door for me to climb into.

While upfront, I asked her how she liked being a limousine driver and how she liked working for the World Center Marriott. She said she loved it and would gladly work there for many years. She said that the World Center Marriott was special because the General Manager was extraordinary. The General Manager, she said, knew almost all the employees by their first name. He had also given many of them a nickname. I asked Rosie what her nickname was and she responded with, “Trouble.” Her response showed that smile again and a bit of a laugh. Her sense of pride that she was recognized as important was very evident.

During my stay, I asked other employees how long they had worked there and if they liked it there. They all said yes, with a smile and enthusiasm. I could not find anyone who had worked there for less than five years!  For the service industry, in my mind, that was extraordinary.  Particularly in Orlando, where an employee can leave one job and get another the same day.

After my speaking engagement at the World Center Marriott, Rosie took me in the limousine, (notice I was again in a limousine) and I told her about the extraordinary service I received at the hotel and what a great job they did there. I then asked her to tell me a story that illustrated the General Manager’s extraordinary skills. Rosie shared a story about a housekeeper who always wanted to see Bill Cosby perform. However, since she was a housekeeper in Orlando, Florida, it was difficult for her to travel to Las Vegas.  On top of that, the show tickets would be too expensive.  Since the General Manager was so people-oriented, he knew and remembered many details about his employees.

When Bill Cosby was scheduled to perform in a corporate event in Orlando, the general manager remembered this fact. On his own accord, he contacted Bill Cosby’s manager and asked if the housekeeper could meet Bill Cosby and then possibly see his show. Bill Cosby’s folks were incredibly gracious and not only did they allow her to meet Bill Cosby, but they gave her backstage passes, she had her picture taken with him and she was able to watch the performance with the other folks who were at the corporate event. 

Rosie told me that the housekeeper thanked the General Manager profusely for allowing her to live a life long dream.

The General Manager knew the hopes, wishes, dreams and aspirations of his employees. He used that knowledge to deepen and strengthen his relationships with his employees. Moreover, that knowledge helped him earn the respect, admiration and loyalty of his employees for a lifetime.

Manage by M&M’s® by Carolyn Warden

October 6, 2010

 “The conventional definition of management is getting work done through people, but real management is developing people through work.”   Agha Hasan Abedi

 My best boss managed by using the power of M&M’s®.

 Remember that first job and the pressure you felt.

 You always had to hurry with the constant effort to work fast because of your lack of knowledge. The hurried feeling that never seemed to go away those first few days—always having to rush around in a helter-skelter fashion because you did not know it all, yet.

 When you are at the ticket booth you see customers standing, waiting in line, looking at you and then you read their minds, “Oh this is the rookie, they have no idea what they are doing and we ended up in their line.” Then, you do some more mind reading and they go on further, “Why don’t they get someone out here that knows what they are doing?” The feeling of stress, anxiety and panic just grows. Then magically another employee appears in the ticket booth next to you and they clear the line in no time, with what looked like little or no effort. You experience the humiliation of not being that skilled in processing tickets and the first time in your life feeling a stress your parents cannot fix. Then an employee that was never very friendly says, “When are you ever going to learn this stuff? It’s easy.” The feelings of inadequacy jump out to grab you like a monster at a haunted house. When the stress would pile up and the feeling of inadequacy would rise up like an insurrection, I would go talk to my best boss ever.

 If I had a problem and I went to talk to her about it, she would invite me to sit down and invite me to enjoy some of the M&M’s® that were always in a bowl at her desk.

 Of course, I would pop some M&M’s® in my mouth. She would excuse herself, because at that moment she always seemed to have to make a short phone call. To this day, I really do not know if she was actually making a phone call. She could have been calling time and temperature, for all I know.  However, those few moments allowed me to get a bit of a sugar rush and a moment for myself to relax. Her office was a safe place, a place where I could go to be heard. After eating a few M&M’s® and taking in some relaxing air, even though I did not realize at the moment the importance of just sitting there and breathing, nothing seemed quite so challenging. After she concluded her phone call, she would give me her full attention and then I could tell her anything that was on my mind. Her listening skills were legendary with everyone who worked on the boat. I did not go to her office to talk, I always went to her office to be heard. Being heard is much different from being allowed to talk. She always listened so intently, in a non-judgmental way and after the M&M’s® and a few moments of being heard, I was always able to go back out there and give it another try. She did not just seem to listen; she seemed to really give me a second chance. After talking with her, I felt refreshed, invigorated and recharged, and ready to try again.

 Therefore, the power of this best manager was that she always had something to give us.  Although supplying the colorful and tasty M&M’s®, her best skill was her ability to listen to us regardless of what we had to say.  Because she was such a great listener, she was able to allow us to talk through it and she only asked clarifying questions. This allowed me to hear myself and I presented the opportunity to correct myself. I did not realize the power of this technique until much later in life. I was always grateful that she listened, but I was more grateful that she taught me how to be a great boss. I still to this day keep in touch with her. Her skills and abilities made an impression that lasted a lifetime.