I’ll never forget the first time I became a leader.
I was elected president of my seventh grade class. I was so excited. When I came home that day and announced my big news, my father — who later retired as an admiral in the Navy — said to me, “Ken, congratulations. I think it’s great you were elected president of your class. But now that you have that position, be sure you don’t abuse it. Great leaders aren’t followed because of their position power. It’s because they have earned the trust and respect of the people around them.” My father always supported and involved his people, yet he demanded high performance.
So how do you go about earning trust and respect when you are a first-time manager? Simple: You talk to your people. But that can be easier said than done. In our first-time manager program, we teach new leaders how to become skilled at four essential conversations: goal setting, praising, redirecting and wrapping up.
- The goal-setting conversation.All good performance starts with clear goals. If your people don’t know where they are going, how will they ever get there? In the goal-setting conversation, managers work side by side with each of their direct reports, coming to agreement on what needs to be accomplished by what date. At the end of this conversation, the direct report knows what good performance looks like, why each goal is necessary, and how it will positively affect theindividual, team and organization when accomplished.
- The praising conversation.After clear goals have been created and set, it’s important for managers to give people feedback on their performance with day-to-day coaching. This calls into play the next two types of conversations a first-time manager needs to master.First, we teach new managers how to catch people doing things right. We call this a praising conversation. In a praising conversation, the manager praises the direct report for the specific behavior as soon as possible and encourages them to keep up the good work. This boosts the direct report’s confidence and helps them feel good about themselves — and people who feel good about themselves produce good results.
- The redirecting conversation. The second performance management conversation is the redirecting conversation. This conversation is used when someone’s performance isn’t going as well as it should. As soon as a manager becomes aware of a problem, it’s important to address the situation. We teach that redirection should not be a one-way discussion — listening is a critical first step. It’s an opportunity for the direct report to discuss their performance problem with their manager in a supportive environment. It’s not about punishment; it’s about helping the person get back on track.
- The wrapping-up conversation.The wrapping-up conversation happens at the completion of a task or project. It’s a chance to celebrate someone’s accomplishment and have them share what they learned along the way. Some managers may be tempted to put off this conversation or may dismiss it as unnecessary. But it’s a great way for a manager and direct report to take a deep breath, debrief and celebrate together, and get some closure on what has been accomplished.
The overall goal with these four skills is for managers and direct reports to increase the frequency and quality of their conversations. I share this advice with new and experienced managers alike — even up to the presidential suite. I once suggested to a company president that he close off the access to his personal washroom. This way, he would be forced to walk down the hall to use the men’s room and go to the locker room at the company gym to take a shower. He would have to get in the habit of chatting with people in the hallway and the gym, at the very least. The strategy worked. It caused a shift in the president’s routine to the degree that he now spends several hours a week walking through the building and visiting with people.
Whether the purpose is to set goals, praise, redirect or bring closure to a task or project, it’s important for not only first-time managers but also seasoned leaders to communicate openly with their direct reports. It builds trust, creates a nurturing environment, engages people and improves the bottom line.