Guilt is a bitch. I’m sure when your head finally hits the pillow and your mind starts reeling with all the things that you wanted to accomplish today but didn’t, those leadership and coaching cans you kicked down the road will be clanging loudly in your ears. Justified or not, the clanging that is keeping you awake through your exhaustion is probably guilt. Let’s face it, your people not only deserve your time, but neglecting them will undoubtedly compound your problems in the future.
While some research suggests that the “ideal” amount of time direct reports want with their managers can be upwards of 6 hours per day, unless your job title is babysitter, I can’t think of anyone who is able to meet that gold standard. Best intentions aside, business realities often require us to spend days or weeks focused “in the business” rather than working “on the business”. The good news for busy managers is that there are techniques you can incorporate to make the most of your limited time. No need to kick those leadership cans down the road any further.
Have a Discussion Plan
Whether you are about to have a one-hour conversation or a five minute one, you need to know what topics you’re about to cover before you start the conversation. There’s no point in taking time out of your busy schedule to initiate a discussion if it’s not going to be meaningful. Beyond the pleasantries of your introduction, make sure you are discussing something useful. When I find myself coaching clients who are trying to manage their leadership duties with very little time, I recommend that they touch on at least one of the following three topics. Location, navigation and destination.
Location: Where are your people now? Not physically, but in relation to their career goals and objectives. As the old saying goes, you need to know where you are before you can figure out how to get where you are going. When you are short on time, ask questions based on in-progress goals and tasks. Your question might sound like this,
“The last time we chatted, you mentioned that you were going to try and delegate a few of your key tasks to Mark to help train him up and give you some breathing room to work on more advanced stuff. What tasks did you ask him to help with? How has he been handling the extra responsibility?”
The point of location is to let your staff know that you care about where they are in the development process, and that you are interested in their ongoing progress. Location can also be a gentle reminder that your staff are in a position of commitment and if they haven’t been making progress, they should be soon.
Destination: Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca is credited with writing, “Every journey has an end.” In the arena of leadership, think of this “end” as the point at which you have accomplished your goal. Working backwards from the desired outcome, it’s entirely reasonable to discuss what’s left in order to finalize a task or goal. Without getting into the details of writing SMART goals, if you want things to get done it’s important to establish timing. When using destination, questions for your people might revolve around the steps they are taking to close any open doors on goals or development tasks that have been previously established.
On the topic of goal timing, keep this in mind. If you are busy, it’s a good bet that your people are busy as well. If you haven’t established a schedule or milestones for development the temptation may be for them to kick their own development cans down the road. Delays in personal development aren’t necessarily the result of procrastination. There will be occasions when it’s completely fair to rationalize shifting things around your development calendar. However, your job as a leader is to understand difference between a good reason and an excuse. Coach and challenge your people appropriately to get them back on track when you see those delays are starting to grow.
Navigation: What path are they taking to get to their destination? Navigation represents a sweet spot when it comes to coaching your people. Even though you might not have much time to communicate, the ‘navigation’ discussion is not about you providing specific direction or actions to your staff. Instead, use your coaching skills to help the other person rationalize and identify their own direction. Even softball questions like, “So, what do you think is the first step needed to get there?”, can prompt important personal reflection. By challenging people to vocalize their decisions and commitments you are helping them to shift from idea to action. Whatever you do, don’t short circuit the process by doing the thinking for them. The point of your discussion with staff isn’t to add to your workload, it’s to eventually lighten it. You can always book a proper sit-down meeting with more detail later, but that’s not the goal for today’s quick conversation.
Finding The Time
So now you have a basic discussion plan, all you need is some time to actually interact with everyone…
Most people are used to their bosses going through busy spells. It’s unlikely your staff are sitting at their desks listening Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s in the Cradle” longing for you to “come home” to them. As long as you stay in touch at a reasonable frequency, lengthy meetings aren’t required to maintain your relationship. The physics may be settled on the fact that you can’t make time, but you can certainly make the most of what little time you have with these three tips.
Call Your People
Use your phone for what it was intended, call your people. Unless you require an electronic copy, forget texting and email when you are short on time. I have no doubt that some of you reading this are amazingly fast at crafting and blasting out electronic messages, but leadership and coaching should not be confused with command and control management. Part of your leadership strategy should be getting to know your people, establishing a personal connection and developing trust. To be an effective leader you need to be attentive to the nuance of the conversations you are having. While it might seem convenient, it’s too easy to misinterpret incoming electronic messages, especially when you are feeling the stress of a busy day. For those of you who have the tech and bandwidth, the gold standard for your leadership conversation will always be face-to-face interaction. Sure, it’s not always practical, but there is nothing like seeing the other persons face when speaking with them. There is a 99% chance that your phone has a camera capable of real-time video chat, don’t be afraid to use it. Leaders who work with cameras turned on during their calls make a stronger communications connection than those who are just using the voice.
Commuting generally gets a bad rap, but many savvy leaders have found ways to make good use of that time. If you can do so safely and the acoustics of the environment permit, the commute can be a great time to check-in with your people. Once you’ve developed the habit, you’ll find that even short calls (5-10 minutes) can be highly effective for improving morale, inspiring action and solidifying relationships. Remember, your leadership call isn’t the time to delegate work or instigate large discussions. This is your opportunity to speak to them about their day, their development and the progress on their goals. Use your “commute-ication” time wisely.
Don’t Talk with Your Mouth Full
I’d be amazed if you haven’t done this already but I’ll state it here for posterity, using meal times to speak with your staff is a great technique for being an efficient leader. While lunch is one of the most obvious periods to have one-on-one chats, there are other times as well. Not being a morning person, I’ve always been somewhat jealous of early risers. However, I’ve always been appreciative of an opportunity to meet up with someone hard to track down for a decent breakfast. Going to a restaurant for a sit-down breakfast might be a rare occurrence for busy leaders, but it can be a much-welcomed change of venue from the office kitchen or typical lunch spots. Don’t be afraid to mix up your pre-or post-work meals by offering to spend it with someone who needs your time. [Side note, make sure that your invite works with the schedule of the person you are inviting. There are plenty of people with families who have standard routines that include picking up or dropping off kids, carpooling or any number of other things. Start with a casual invite and read the response. People can often make exceptions to their standard schedules with a little time to plan.]
In the case of busy leaders, any leadership contact is certainly preferable to none. If you find yourself so busy that the soundtrack of your day is “Yakety Sax” from Benny Hill, you’re not alone. Busy times require making the best of what you have, when you have it. Keeping leadership conversations short and sweet is a perfectly acceptable method of maintaining leadership momentum. Don’t let workload be an excuse for kicking your important leadership cans down the road.
David Johnston is the Owner and Principle consultant for HumanCapitalDevelopment.ca
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