Conversations That Never Were.

Posted by jlubans on November 30, 2015


I usually have a “What I Would Do Differently” moment when I think about my leaderships vis a vis what I have learned since leaving the 9-5 world.
Now, I could do a Willy Nelson, that dear reprobate, and come out with, “No Regrets”, but it’s not that easy for me.
I’ve got some second thoughts, some regrets. Instead of Willy, give me Jo Dee Messina’s “A Lesson in Leavin’”, those painful learnings that only come to us upon reflection from experience.
Not too long ago, the WSJ had a piece on employee retention.
The author, John Sullivan, a management professor, offers up a formula for keeping the best staff. He terms it a “stay interview”, “a one-on-one conversation that’s scheduled every 6–12 months when there are no current emotional retention issues.”
It’s a planned intervention before a crucial employee decides to leave for greener pastures. Note well, this conversation is not about the boss – at least not overtly – it’s all about the employee: her value to the organization or his contribution to the smooth running of the shop. No platitudes or bromides, please. A valued employee deserves well-considered praise and critical insights from you, the team leader. Then, ask about what the star staffer needs in order to keep doing what he or she is doing so well. The boss’s job is to listen and to offer real support. Always keep in mind that this conversation is meant to retain the outstanding performer.
When I read Sullivan’s piece, I thought about all the conversations, real ones, that I never had with some very good people – I called them organizational “spark plugs” – the folks who made things happen and inspired others. I assumed they understood – tacitly - how they were doing and that I appreciated them, so I did not need to do anything special about it. Wrong.
I’d now spend far more time thinking about what the employee is doing and registering to them not only my approval but also how they make a difference; how they stood out from the mundane, the day to day.
And, importantly, I’d want to hear what was most on their minds, job-wise; What do they want to do more of and what do they want to do less off? And, what about me? Should I be more available, what can I do less of, more of?
One thing Sullivan does not mention is preparing the employee for this conversation. I’d do so by clarifying in my verbal invitation what we’ll be talking about and what questions I'll want to raise. No need to have this serious and real talk without some forethought.
OK, OK. You might agree but then you are one busy person. “How could I possibly find the time?” Easy. Trade those wasted hours of performance appraisal, that annual paper shuffling ritual, for this real conversation.
End the conversation with a plan that addresses the issues raised. You’ll fix what you can fix and the employee will know you support them – you know what they are doing - and you have their back.
I’ve been fired a few times (not counting the several times I deservedly got the boot when I worked in construction for my father!). First was when I was a clueless bus boy in a cafeteria, then for insubordinate behavior - once again as a bus boy! - at the elegant Hershey Hotel, and much later when I was an administrator. When I got the ax at the latter, I told the boss showing me the door it was the first time we’d had any kind of serious conversation. That did bring to mind a passable country western song: “The only time you looked me in the eye was to let me go.”
Avoid being that kind of sorry boss.
Why this departure (the last paragraph) from the happy task of praising star performers to the shabby dismissal of alleged underperformersl? Because, as a good leader you do not avoid counseling the errant employee; you guide and advise in an imaginative, constructive way and the best leader sometimes even changes her mind.
Caption: Too many conversations go like this. (Oil by Zack Zdrale,1977)

Off topic, maybe, but here’s a link to my comfort foody article, “Countryside Eating at the Airport”, on an unlikely source for Latvia’s traditional potato pancakes. Please note that only the first two pages will come up. Be sure to click on the “OPEN ARTICLE” tab and scroll down to get to all of the pages, photos, recipes & notes.
Speaking of the Riga airport, I’ll be returning in mid February 2016 to teach my 8-week Democratic Workplace class at the University of Latvia. This will be my fifth time doing so! Only in Latvia.

Leading from the Middle Library of the Week: University of Victoria Library, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada.

© Copyright John Lubans 2015
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