It is either in my DNA or sourced in an early childhood experience, but I am a compulsive helper. It was my role in the family and, ultimately, a mainstay of my leadership approach. An Ivy League master’s degree in business/public administration afforded me no knowledge of how to lead people. It was (is it still?) strangely absent from the curriculum. Thus, I entered my first job as assistant administrator of an Indian Health Service hospital in Alaska, relying solely on my DNA to find a way to manage others.
In year three of my career, I started an organization in NW Alaska funded by the Federal War on Poverty. It was intended to demonstrate to the IHS that better services and health status could come frond provide their health m having Alaska Natives manage aservices and be more self-determined. At that point, I was on my own, trying to recruit, hire, develop, and manage a team from scratch. Because the intent was to employ Alaska Natives as providers/support/managers, I was recruiting individuals with potential but without a proven work history in healthcare. In short, getting people development and management right was the name of the game.
In those early years, I made lots of mistakes. I learned that real help was not just encouragement and trust but also clear structure, direction, responsive coaching, and problem-solving. I had this misguided notion that strong direction, close oversight, etc., was an insult and sign of lack of faith rather than a source of real help. My early failures were mentally crippling as I found myself to be the cause of failure by not providing what people needed to succeed.
I started a checklist of mistakes I never wanted to make again. Most of them were lapses in direction and engagement. The checklist went into my desk and was brought out for new employees. I later expanded the list after observing lapses I had seen in other managers through my consulting practice, and thus, the list grew to seven key questions.
How did I use them? I would begin a new employee relationship by stating that I had made mistakes in the past in not giving employees what was needed. To ensure that I didn’t repeat those mistakes, I was going to ask a series of questions now and periodically. Each question represented a deliverable that I knew employees needed to be all they could be, and that was the mission I was on. I explained that the only way I could genuinely be of help (my mission, remember) was if I got a “no,” or “usually,” or “sometimes” response to one of the questions. I wanted to overcome the natural reluctance of employees to give negative feedback to their boss. With the questions truthfully answered, we would work together to define what we needed to do to fill the gaps and achieve high performance, i.e., to get to a truthful “yes” to whether they had what was needed. I used the checklist as part of onboarding and then as part of annual (later more frequent) conversations about performance.
Because of my blind faith in people and their potential and my previous lapses, I also struggled with confronting an employee performing below standards. I was quick to blame myself, to justify the poor performance, and hope it would self-correct with time. The checklist of 7 Questions enabled me to determine whether the sub-standard performance was my lapse or the employee’s responsibility.
When I later started teaching leadership/supervision in my consulting practice, I would introduce the 7 Questions at the end of the training. I would ask, “How many of you are uncertain whether you are doing a good job managing others?” Virtually all hands were raised. “How many have difficulty confronting the poor performance of an employee?” Again, all hands. I would then hand out the list of 7 Questions and suggest that they use the questions to determine a) whether they had set up employees for success and b) whether underperformance was the fault of the supervisor or employee. Trainees would approach me at the end of the session and thank me, exclaiming that the 7 Questions were the best part of the training.
Why is that so? I found there are three reasons. First, most people managers get no training before being thrust into that role. Second, they cannot determine whether they are doing well, undermining self-confidence and certainty. Third, needing more certainty and a tool to diagnose the source of underperformance, underperformance is not confronted. The result is that people management for many could be more rewarding and done better. Managers, employees, and performance all suffer as a result.
Creating High Performers and the 7 Questions is not a cure-all, but it is an easy-to-learn method to gain confidence, improve people management and drive good performance. It simplifies people management and shifts the employee-manager relationship from one of judge to that of the coach. Relationships improve, people managers find more enjoyment and satisfaction, and the organization’s culture improves. Feedback from managers who have put this method to work has made all the struggles of writing, publishing, and promoting worth it.
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