The thing about personal/professional development goals is this: If they’re too easy, people get bored by them; If they’re too difficult, people get unnerved by them.
Either extreme falls short of its intended aim. So the key in establishing quality goals is to have them sufficiently s-t-r-e-t-c-h the person, but not overwhelm them.
Here are three ways to do that with your staff:
Trial-and-Error – Try a few things, see what works, what doesn’t, and modify the goals accordingly over time. It helps to realize that you don’t have to get it exactly right the first time; the best learning (and striving) is always iterative.
Report Back – The idea here is for them to create their own goals and then tell you about them. Then build some stretches around what you hear. Just keep an eye out for whatever bias your staffer brings to the process, though – some people will purposefully UNDER-estimate what they can achieve (sandbagging) ; others will OVERstate it (wishful thinking). Your job is to find the sweet spot.
Collaborate – Engage WITH others on random assignments to: (a) see how they perform; and then (b) create their s-t-r-e-t-c-h goals WITH them. Using the best of ways 1 and 2, identify meaningful, relevant, and sufficiently challenging goals that build their skills and are aligned with their interests.
Whatever way you choose, be sure to remind people that you are noticing whether they’re working on their goals (or not) … and watching their progress (or not).
In other words, help them keep their s-t-r-e-t-c-h goals top-of-mind so they actually DO stretch.
After all, the things we pay attention to are typically the things that actually get done.
There’s a real paradox in modern leadership – individual achievement is typically what brings us the recognition we need to get promoted into a leadership role, but it is our ability to help others succeed is what ultimately qualifies us to be a leader.
This sometimes means that you have to let others take credit for the good things that you help initiate/achieve.
And, while this may seem unfair at times, if you help enough people achieve enough success, you become known as someone who routinely helps others do good work.
As they say, what goes around comes around …
P.S. Apologies that the image, above, represents two men as opposed to one man and one women – or two women and no men.
Much has been said about ‘brainstorming’ – and much actually misses the point!
Brainstorming is “a group problem-solving technique that involves the spontaneous contribution of ideas from all members of the group,” and is an excellent way to teach your staff how to think more creatively, constructively, deeply, widely, strategically, consistently and a variety of other adverbs that you’d like them to be able to do when they think through the issues and implications they face.
But when they don’t already know how to brainstorm effectively, what’s a boss to do?
You can brainstorm FOR them – This is how most bosses do it. Rather than coach, mentor, teach, or show how to analyze and assess, most bosses just answers all the questions and surface all the options themselves. Staff’s role is to just back and wait. Does this work? Well, up to a point, yes it does – if by ‘yes’ you mean it brings everyone up to speed on a topic. But if you think it through, you’ll realize that this particular approach actually teaches staff how NOT to think, how NOT to wonder, and how NOT to consider much on their own. Why? Because the boss is already doing all the work (and seems to WANT to do all the work) so staff says, ‘Fine, YOU do it, then.’
You can tell them to brainstorm by THEMSELVES – For more advanced teams, this is actually the choice of choice. But many work groups honestly don’t know where to start or don’t know what to do when the nay-saying kicks in. So for this lesser experienced teams, not much really gets accomplished when the boss just throws an issue ‘over the wall’ like that. In fact, many teams will procrastinate, if not entirely ignore your request, in hopes you’ll either forget about it or will revert back to brainstorming FOR them once they’re reminded.
You can brainstorm WITH them – The idea, here, is to help them get started by framing the issue, providing a possible implication, and then encouraging THEM to identify additional implications, instead of just waiting for you. (Sure, you likely already have some really good ideas, but delegating is not about what YOU know or can conjure; it’s about helping them access what THEY know and what THEY can conjure. So, please, resist the temptation to be the smartest person in the room.) Too, since brainstorming is more about surfacing ideas than evaluating them, it’s important to show how to create a ‘safe place’ for staff to flex their mental muscles in this new way. Your job is NOT to discount – or let anyone else discount – someone else’s ideas – the evaluative/vetting stage comes later. At this point, your job is to simply keep things from getting bogged down.
Increasing the Flow of Ideas
Here are some quick and easy ways to keep the dialogue going:
say you’ll brainstorm together, but they need to go first
for every 2-3 ideas they they come up with, offer no more than one of yours
make sure new ideas build prior ones rather than rejecting them out-of-hand
encourage wacky thinking – the more outrageous the better! – and enjoy a good laugh at the outrageousness
encourage the ‘quiet’ people to contribute as well (“What might we be missing, Mary?” or “What are you thinking, Steve?”)
don’t fear silence – sometimes people need time to think and gather their thoughts
if you think they’ve stalled, get them to move around, change chairs, stretch, take a break, doodle – whatever helps reinvigorate the mood
and don’t lose track of the fact that the goal, at this point, is idea GENERATION, not option prudency. (There’s time for that later.)
Practice, Practice, Practice
If your staff has trouble brainstorming, you may want to INCREASE the amount of brainstorming they do. As people tend to engage more readily with issues that are already relevant to them, tell them you want to help them practice. Then ask them problems they’re having, what opportunities they see, what they’re worried will happen next and suggest you all just kick around some possibilities. Or you could just do it in stealth mode, by asking them, more readily, for THEIR views on a problem or opportunity that’s on your radar.
Remember, the point of the exercise is to get them comfortable with thinking out loud, more insightfully, more strategically, and in increasingly nuanced ways. So start with something other than your Number One high-profile priority. Brainstorming is a skill and to develop fully, skills must be practiced.So don’t worry if it’s slow-going at first. That’s natural.
Learning, after all, is an iterative process – one that brainstorming can definitely facilitate!
As a leader, the pressure to have all the answers is relentless. But trying to live up to that unrealistic expectation, in real-time, is likely more career-limiting than you realize.
The Failings of ‘Boss-as-Expert’
It doesn’t take long to realize that always trying to be ‘the smartest person in the room’ can only lead to problems and missed opportunities – not to mention some significant, lasting limitations to your reputation as a leader:
You miss out on all sorts of great ideas that you didn’t happen to come up with yourself
You discourage others from sharing their good – and potentially great – ideas with you
You end up training your staff to wait for YOU to be the hero – and YOU to come up with all the ideas – instead of THEM learning how to think, and brainstorm, and analyze more effectively, themselves
You never learn to truly leverage the power of delegation (which limits your team’s development and your availability and work/life balance)
You never learn to fully-utilize your staff (which also limits your team’s development and often increases staff infighting and feelings of favoritism and disrespect)
You likely become frustrated by the fact that you’re seemingly the only one on your team that’s doing any of the ‘heavy lifting’
You wind up with far too many tactical responsibilities and too little time to think, more broadly, or plan, more strategically
What’s the Antidote?
So the limitations of boss-as-expert are clear, but how can you avoid it?
Well, a surprisingly simple solution is to to focus on – and proudly share – what you DON’T know!
In other words, rather than asserting you know the answer (even when you don’t) encourage your staff to engage in an Intelligent Debate about things to help you figure them out.
How? by asking them questions that encourage THEM to think and share THEIR views.
“But what if they’re not up to the task?”
Yes, yes. I can hear what you’re thinking. And, realistically, you can’t expect people who you’ve effectively been trained NOT to think to suddenly be fountains of knowledge and insight. So you have to ‘prime the pump’ as it were.
Make sure when you ask the question, you give the team sufficient time to respond before jumping in, yourself. Don’t freak out when their initial response is silence. Silence is OK – it’s a natural response to something new.
If you think they still need more time, let them know a day or so beforehand what you’ll be wanting them to weigh in on. Will everyone be ready? Likely not. But some will and you can encourage greater participation by recognizing and rewarding those who actively engage.
Will all ideas be good ones? No, especially not at first. But that’s okay. Just show a little patience and encouragement and, ultimately, better ideas will start to emerge – with far less brain work on your part, by the way. Just keep saying, “That’s good, but let’s keep going. What’s ANOTHER way we could look at this?” and let things naturally unfold.
Remember: Sometimes the best ideas come as improvements to a lesser idea. So don’t nay-say. Rather, encourage staff to generate as many ideas as possible and let the best ones just naturally percolate to the top. (LeadershipTraction clients can access a Six Thinking Hat Worksheet to help with this at www.leadershiptraction.com/clients/)
Remember, too: To start this process as early as possible – especially at first – so you don’t find yourself backed up against an immovable deadline or deliverable.
The Upside of Intelligent Debate
Yes, asking staff for their input helps THEM develop better thinking and planning skills. But it also helps YOU develop YOUR thinking and planning skills, too.
And the more adept they – and you – become at intelligent debate, the more you help EVERYONE:
Refine their persuasion and articulation skills
Realize how much more they have to offer
Contribute in increasingly ‘deeper’ and more meaningful ways
Appreciate the value-added that their peers have to offer – which is a MAJOR bonus!
Taken a step further, the more your staff practices Intelligent Debate in their discussions with you, the more likely they’ll practice it in their discussions without you. And wouldn’t THAT be a nice upgrade to see?!
What Encouraging Intelligent Debate is NOT
A word of caution: Encouraging Intelligent Debate is NOT about adopting a ‘majority rules’ approach to decision-making. Why? Because as often as not, the majority lacks the vision and courage to truly ‘move the needle’.
Nor is it about giving all parties equal say in a decision. To wit, subject matter experts will likely have more insight as to downstream implications and unintended consequences of certain actions than those who lack such expertise. Ignore this at your peril because the Number One reason that seemingly good decisions turn out not to be is unintended consequences.
Insight and logic can be very, very helpful – especially when it’s insight and logic that you, yourself, haven’t thought of already.
So even if, ultimately, they’re still YOUR decisions to make, you’ll likely be able to make much BETTER decisions if you have others help you identify and evaluate the viable options.
And making better decisions is sort of the point of what you do, isn’t it?!
I am moved when clients – and people I’m just talking with – take a kernel of an idea I offer and make it their own:
Making additional, unexpected edits to their resume or the executive summary they were working on that dramatically improves their messaging and impact
Approaching employee performance discussions and team planning sessions with a joyful creatively that engagingly captures and focuses everyone’s attention
Recognizing (and proactively addressing) the unintended implications of a new policy or practice before the you-know-what hits the you-know-where
All gratifying, indeed. But what’s even more so is when their kernels affect me:
A book or TED Talk they’ll recommend that profoundly motivates and inspires me
An insight they’ll share that dramatically shifts my own thinking about a personal matter I’m grappling with
A question they’ll ask that informs me as to how I might coach them, and others, in more masterful ways
Look Both Ways – It’s a Two-Way Street
A natural tendency of the busy and stressed is to put our heads down and plow forward. In doing so, however, we often miss the serendipity of reciprocity – those unscripted moments where we can (and do) help others, and they can (and do) help us, far more than we might realize. Such giving and receiving can be wonderfully rewarding, even when they have only a one-and-done quality to them. But when you consider that every interaction includes a kernel for long term and ongoing value, as well, it becomes increasingly clear that we must allow ourselves to share, and reflect on what’s shared, far more than we often do.
If this post helped you learn something about yourself, then great! Be sure to share your insight with others as a way of 'locking in' your learning. While you're at it, I'd also appreciate you telling them about the other self-study resources available from LeadershipTraction including: