Use your words


I recently was talking with a leader who is navigating his organization through some complicated changes.  There is a big burden on this leader, and we were discussing how he was going to work through it, manage the stress, and be successful.  He mentioned that there were three people that he needed to help him to be able to pull it off. 

 I asked: “Have you told them that you need their help?”  

 He said: “Sure, they know.” 

 “Right, but did you tell them why you need them to be successful in this – and what each of them brings that allows for that success?” 

 “Well, yeah, but not in so many words.”

 “Why not?”

 “They know.”

 “What would happen if you told them specifically why you can’t do this without them, why you want them involved, what you are counting on them for and what you think they will bring to the experience?”

He shrugged and we both laughed.

This leader is thoughtful, well respected and I have no doubt will be successful. He is a leader I choose to follow. And I think he still has an opportunity to tell these people why he needs and is counting on their help.  Sometimes, even when you work closely with someone and have a good relationship, you can help instill strong commitment from them by telling them why you need them.  Be specific in what you are counting on them for and why you are calling upon them.  And be genuine when doing so – don’t put a sales spin on it.  They will likely feel flattered for the specific reasons you cite.  When things get tough, they will know exactly why they need to be there and why they need to push through to support you. Empathy is one of the most important leadership tools – and employees want to feel like their leaders see them. See their strengths, weaknesses, contributions.  When a leader can demonstrate this to an employee, s/he flourishes.  S/he is more engaged, performs more strongly and demonstrates stronger commitment to the leader, even during challenging times. 

 I had my own personal experience with this in my career.  I was working on a high profile, strategic project…one that was transformational at the corporation level.  People were displaying resistance because of the changes.  It was becoming difficult to do what I needed to with obstacles arising daily. I was growing frustrated and felt my days were spent doing things I hated.  My boss at the time saw I was struggling and sat down with me to tell me why he choose me to lead the work.  He told me how he would never be able to do what I was doing (with specific examples) and how he was in awe of the work I was doing.  He told me why he felt I was the right person to make it happen, why my leadership and skills were key and pointed out the impact that I already had.  He then talked about what impact he felt I would have as the work continued.

Something shifted for me in that conversation. The work didn’t get any easier, if anything it only became harder.  But I no longer viewed what I was doing with frustration. I viewed it with purpose. It was clear to me that I was not only responsible, I was the right one for the work. Which made it easier to navigate through resistance and have more patience. I also had new commitment.  The finish line moved to the longer term with a renewed sense of purpose. I shifted my perspective from an all-out sprint to managing towards a longer distance race. 

Coming out of that experience, I always write a letter to people I hire. I tell them the specific reasons for why I choose them for the job. I include what I am counting on them for and hoping for in their career with me.  I also put some strong expectations in the letter – letting them know the big things I am seeking from them.  Employees have shared with me years later that they have kept these letters and shared them with family members.  It helped them start their roles with clarity on what I want from them and made them feel incredible before even starting a day of working with me.

 Whether you are a team leader or team member, don’t underestimate the impact of telling people what you seek out in them and what you need from them.  It opens a constructive dialogue about what each person can contribute.  And it helps each person feel a stronger sense of purpose and clarity on their role.

 Have you told those you work with why you are counting on them and what you need from them?

Update:  I followed up with the leader from the beginning of this post.  He shared since our discussion, he has been more intentional at telling his team when he needs them, even in the smaller moments and actions.  The impact of that and the ripple effect has been fascinating to watch!