Q: Dear Crucial Skills,
As a manager, I’m guilty of getting very task focused and not taking the time to develop my people. I focus on my customers and put them above all else—usually taking it upon myself to handle the really difficult customer issues. As a result, I fail to give my people a chance to be “bloodied” or to “earn their stripes” with tough, demanding customers.
A: Dear Mixed-up,
I’ve coached leaders for more than thirty years, and you’re wise to recognize that this is a serious problem. Our research shows that nearly half of all managers struggle with the same challenge. It’s a true career blocker.
I think you described the dilemma perfectly. You want what’s best for your customer and you want to minimize headaches and opportunities for potential screw ups. You decide to either handle the customer yourself or assign one of your experienced staff. It may sound like a smart way to operate, but in the long run, you will fail as a manager. Managers need to have every member of their team build the necessary competencies to become “experienced.”
There are lots of ways you might address this challenge. I’ll suggest three potential strategies, and then use one as an example:
1. Build staff development time into your day. For example, regularly have inexperienced members of your team partner with you when you work with customers. Coach them in advance regarding the customer’s situation and assign them a role that requires face-to-face problem solving with the customer.
2. Create a formal mentoring program. For example, assign senior and junior team members to work together.
3. Use pairing across your team. For example, have people work in pairs, and mix up the pairs on a frequent basis.
Each of these strategies can work, but the key is to support it using all six sources of influence. Make sure you document what you do and the results you obtain—collect data and use it to analyze and adjust your strategy.
I’m going to use the “pairing across your team” strategy as an example. Menlo Innovations, a software development firm in Ann Arbor, Michigan, uses pairing across their organization. Programmers work in pairs and share a single computer. They are paired with a different partner each week and never get to write code without a partner looking on.
The obvious question is whether or not having two people at one computer cuts productivity in half. The answer is, “No!” Pairing has cut mistakes and missteps at Menlo Innovations dramatically. It has greatly expanded the number of programmers who can handle tough, demanding challenges and has resulted in amazing levels of customer satisfaction.
What if you tried pairing your people? Imagine you paired people on every project that didn’t involve travel. And you switched up the pairing fairly often. My bet is that you would provide a higher level of customer service while building incredible bench strength within your team.
Suppose you have an important presentation coming up with one of your most demanding customers—a presentation on market analytics. You’d have one of your senior people pair with a more junior analyst and place the keyboard in front of the junior analyst. They’d work together to prepare the presentation, and then tag team in front of the customer.
Let’s suppose you thought enough of this idea to give it a try. You would want to test it in a way that gives it the best possible chance of success. Below are a few ideas, drawing on the six sources of influence:
Measurable Results. The results you want are improved customer satisfaction and improved skills/experience across your team.
Vital Behavior. The vital behavior is to pair up people, always have them work with a partner, and switch the partners often—perhaps weekly so people continually cross train.
Personal Motivation. Take a team to visit Richard’s organization in Ann Arbor, or visit their website to see case studies of how well it works. My bet is that a single visit will convince you and your team to give it a shot.
Personal Ability. Menlo Innovations has been at this long enough to build “people skills” into their interview and selection process. You can begin by setting some ground rules, anticipating concerns, and role playing how to handle these concerns. And, of course, reading Crucial Conversations will help.
Social Motivation & Ability. Partners will motivate each other. Working together increases accountability and focus in marvelous ways. Of course, you will also be a resource by coaching all the pairs.
Structural Motivation. Your organization’s reward system probably focuses on individual accomplishment which can undermine teamwork. Make sure everyone knows their performance review will not only focus on individual performance, you also will review their ability to help their partners succeed.
Structural Ability. The biggest structural change is taking away people’s computers. At Menlo Innovations no one has their own. They truly share. Again, this may be difficult at your organization, but what if you tried it for a month? People would have to remove Facebook and iTunes from their computers, but is that such a great loss at work?
Let’s step back a minute. You might not go with pairing. You might select a different approach to combine mentoring with customer service; however, whatever you choose, make sure you line up all six sources of influence to support your vital behaviors. Evaluate your results and make course corrections as you move forward.
Again, thanks for sharing your challenge. If you tackle this problem, not only will you help your people “earn their stripes,” you’ll make yourself more eligible for a few extra bars on your career jacket.