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Hosted by Tom Henschel

Engagement & Performance


November 2015

A global VP needs help developing his direct reports into mature leaders. In conversations with his coach, he learns two questions to ask to foster engagement and improve performance.

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November 2015

Engagement & Performance

Tom Henschel

A team needing development

Jason looked surprisingly young for someone who’d been with the company almost 20 years. He bounced up to greet me and I wondered if he’d started as a teenager in the mailroom. Now he was the global vice-president of a department.

Having worked his way up, Jason knew the business and loved it. And people loved him. His team, his peers, and especially his boss, all loved Jason.

But his boss also wanted Jason to help his team. One of the goals for Jason’s coaching was that he develop his four direct reports into more mature junior executives.

When I asked Jason about his team, he was grateful to talk about them.

“They’re all smart. And I think they’re all capable. But things take way too long. And they’re way too hard. It shouldn’t be this hard to get the work done.”

“I’m all for getting work done easily,” I said seriously. “Hard in what way?”

“Well, Yasmine’s the hardest. It’s like she’s cut herself off from the group. We’re always trying to find Yasmine because she doesn’t show up. Or she won’t answer a simple email.”

“But she gets her work done?” I asked.

“As an individual contributor, yes, but I need her to be part the team, too.”

Undermining and opposition

Jason went on. “Then there’s Alejandro. Alejandro’s demeanor is fine. He’s not dramatic. He’s not a shouter. But the only time he comes to me is when he has something negative to say about something someone else is doing. His complaints are always very rational, and they’re always about ‘the best interests of the company,’ but he’s always undermining people.”

“Have you talked with him about it?”

“Actually, yeah, I did. And it improved a little. But it’s still there.” Then he gave a little grunt. “And Corinne. Oh my gosh, she could pick a fight with the pope. I’ve known her forever. She’s always had strong opinions, but it feels like she’s getting more argumentative every year. I’ve talked to her, too, and it’s gotten a little better, but she still can stop a meeting in its tracks.”

“And who’s the fourth?” I asked.

“Oh, right, Steve,” he said with a little sigh. “Steve’s just completely disengaged. It’s like he just doesn’t care anymore.”

“Is he getting his work done?” I asked.

“He’s not going to get a great review this year, if that’s what you’re asking.”

“And you’ve told him?”

“Oh, sure, I’ve told him.” He turned his palms up and cocked his head. “Four fun folks, huh? I’m screwed, right?”

I laughed and put on my best ultra-dramatic voice. “Chin up, buck-o! There’s always a way out!”

He pulled a hand theatrically across his brow, saying, “Whew!”

Marcus Buckingham & engagement

I asked, “Do you know who Marcus Buckingham is?”

“Uh, should I?”

I shrugged. “Maybe. I heard him speak recently so he’s on my mind. I first learned his name back around 2000. He wrote a great management book called First, Break All the Rules. Now he’s all about engagement. He says the only way to get high performance is through engagement.”

“Huh!” he said in surprise, “I wasn’t thinking of this as a performance issue.”

“But it is, isn’t it? You said the work takes too long and it’s too hard. That’s not high performance.”

“I get it,” he nodded in complete agreement. “Are you saying if there’s a performance issue there has be to an engagement issue?”

Has to? I don’t know. It’s not a law. But you’re telling me a story of four people who are not engaged. All in different ways, but all disengaged.”

“Let me see. Steve for sure. And, yes, I guess Yasmine. She’s cut herself off.”

“Literally, disengaged,” I observed.

“Alejandro, undermining. Is that disengaged?” He thought and said, “Yes, I can see it.”

“Me, too,” I said. “If he were really engaged, he wouldn’t be throwing folks under the bus – he’d be driving towards solutions.”

He nodded, “Corinne, too. I wonder if she really is more argumentative these days. And if so, is it because everyone around her is disengaged.”

“Or are they disengaged because she’s argumentative?” I quipped, not too seriously.

“It is like that, isn’t it?” he said. “Which comes first? Are you disengaged because of poor performance? Or are you performing poorly because you’re disengaged?” He smiled and shrugged. “Who cares, right?” 

Two-question miracle

“Right,” I answered then went on. “The reason I thought about engagement in the first place is because Marcus Buckingham said something that night that really got my attention.”

“Which was?”

I told Jason, “You have to picture this guy. He looks like a movie star, with piercing blue eyes. And he’s really funny. Great storyteller. Hops around the stage, having a ball. He’s a Brit so he’s got a great accent and he loves playing with language. This guy’s a rock star.”

“Sounds like it!” Jason said admiringly.

“So at one point, he was showing us a pair of statements that indicate high employee engagement. And we are all hanging on his every word.

“Then, it was like he interrupted himself and went off script. He dropped his hands and said, ‘Do you want know the secret about getting people engaged?’ We all murmured yes. He said, ‘It just takes two questions. Every week. Ask the same two questions every week and, I promise, you’ll see people get engaged. It’s like a miracle. Do you want to know how to make a miracle?’

“Of course we all said yes again. And he says, ‘Ask them, ‘What are you working on this week?’ And ‘How can I help you achieve it?’ That’s all you need.’ Well, that got my attention. All you need to do is ask two questions every week? Really? It’s that simple?”

I stopped speaking. We both thought about it: was engagement and performance really that easy?

Jason spoke first, repeating the questions. “ ‘What are you working on this week?’ and ‘How can I help you with that?’ I like the idea of the first one. It’s not asking for status; it’s asking for what’s next. It’d help them think forward.”

“Yes, it’s hard not to watch out behind you,” I said.

“No kidding. It’s hard for everyone, myself included.” He kept talking about the first question. “It forces some accountability. To answer ‘What are you working on this week?’ they would have to think about the work and make a plan.”

“I agree.”

“The second question does the same thing, now that I think about it,” he said. “If I ask ’How can I help you?’ they won’t know what to ask for unless they’re thinking about what’s coming next. It’d make them accountable. This is great, Tom!”

I agreed, but I wasn’t effusive.

A bit of caution

Picking up on my cool tone, he asked, “You’re not convinced?”

Thoughtfully, I ventured, “I think the leader has to be really healthy for that second question to be effective. Otherwise, over time, the leader either won’t be taken seriously…”

“Because of empty promises, right?”

“Right, the leader offers to help but really never does. Or the leader takes on a whole lot of work he shouldn’t be doing.”

“You mean, I ask ‘How can I help you?’ and they say, ‘Here! Do my work for me!’ ”

“Just like that!” I laughed.

“I can see myself taking on things I shouldn’t. So do you think I shouldn’t ask the question?”

“No, I just think you have to pay attention to your boundaries. Don’t take on things just to be helpful. And don’t agree to things you can’t deliver. But when there’s something you can do from your position that they can’t, do it.”

“So the leader has to be engaged, too,” he said.

“Good point!”

“But, on the other hand, my offer to help really could end up with me having more work to do. Appropriate work, but more,” said Jason, just keeping clear on the score.

“Yes, it could,” I agreed. “But I think the work will have a better nature to it.”

“I see that,” he said. Then he deflated a little. “And I have to ask each person this every week?”

“If you want the miracle,” I deadpanned. “I don’t think you qualify for the miracle unless it’s every week.”

“Well, for sure I want to be in the running for a miracle!” Then, seriously, he nodded. “I see why repetition is important. It’s the whole accountability piece. Knowing we’re going to have the same conversation next week makes it important.” Then he got excited. “Actually this would help me keep track of what’s going on. And track their performance!”

“I think so.”

Assessing engagement

“Hey!” he said, “What were those other questions you mentioned?”

“Which questions?”

“The ones that indicate high employee engagement.”

“Oh, those aren’t questions. Those are statements. Buckingham says that people who can say yes to both these statements exhibit the most engaged behaviors and have high performance. The first statement is, ‘At work, I clearly understand what is expected of me.’”

He nodded. “Okay. Clear expectations. That makes sense. And number two?”

“‘I have the chance every day at work to do something I love.’”

He nodded. “I see why people would be engaged if they felt those two things were true.”

“So to bring this full circle,” I said, “Buckingham is saying that we all want our people to be engaged: the more engaged they are, the better their performance. How do you know if they’re engaged? See if they agree with these two statements: ‘I clearly understand what is expected of me,’ and ‘Every day at work I get to do something I love.’ ”

He picked up the ball. “And to get people to agree to those statements, ask them two questions, ‘What are you working on this week?’ and ‘How can I help you achieve that?’ ”

“Every week,” I prompted.

“Every week,” he repeated with a small smile.

No matter how senior or large your team is, asking those two questions weekly, and listening for agreement to those two statements, will catapult you – and them! – towards The Look & Sound of Leadership™.

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