Jan watched with dismay as her employee Henry forged ahead in his presentation to the senior leadership team, failing to read the body language that should have been signaling to him that the group was clearly not buying in to the foundational rationale for his proposal. She tried to catch his attention, but even when she did, he did not seem to pick up on her concern, and kept right on going. Finally, Jan stepped in. “Let me add some information about Henry’s rationale for this proposal,” she said, and took over the description of the research that had anchored the proposal. When she was sure the leaders were back on board, she asked Henry to proceed. All the questions after that point were addressed to Jan, not to Henry.
Jan approached her coach later that week with her discomfort about the situation with Henry. “I didn’t feel good about stepping in and co-opting Henry’s presentation, but what should I have done? Let him fail?”
A leader faces some tough decisions in real time about development of employees. Stumbles are an uncomfortable part of learning to lead – both for the employee, and for the well-meaning leader looking on with the intent to both accomplish business goals and to support an employee’s development. What makes for a successful learning experience that does not sacrifice business progress?
There are ways to optimize an employee’s development before, during, and after key events like Henry’s presentation to senior leadership. And in the process, the forethought mitigates risks of business progress going awry. Let’s look at some options Jan might have used.
Before a key event (e.g. a proposal submission, a presentation, a committee review of information):
- Have a discussion with the employee about what might be sensitive points, or points that could draw criticism, or points on which there might not be universal agreement. Ask the employee to name these areas of potential challenge; if s/he is not identifying all that you can see, don’t jump in with your own. Instead, ask questions that will elicit a deeper look. Once identified, ask the employee what responses might best address or alleviate the challenges, and what s/he might need to prepare in order to be ready to address any challenges that arise. While these examples relate to proposals and presentations, the take-away for leaders is to help employees to plan in advance to be prepared for as many eventualities as possible in all of their work.
- Discuss personalities, their hot buttons/points of view, informal coalitions, unspoken agreements, etc. Again, ask the employee about his/her observations, and supplement with your own knowledge if necessary. Then discuss how to navigate the conversations. How can the employee assure that all points of view are brought in? How can assumptions be challenged? How can hot buttons be diffused? How will body language or other cues to a deteriorating dynamic be recognized? Allow the employee to explore his/her own methods, and offer coaching where it is appropriate. The key is to help employees develop antennae for reading the climate, and for planning how to address it.
- Discuss where (and where not) you may step in, and how. Come to an agreement on how you will signal each other. The employee may signal a need for support from you; you may signal a need to say something. Agree on limits of your involvement. In general, you’ll want your involvement to be limited to modifying an unproductive dynamic long enough to give control back to your employee as the expert and leader of the conversation, so consider your involvement to be as a group member, not as your employee’s boss.
During the key event:
- Focus on being a productive member of the organization. How would you view this proposal or presentation if it were coming from outside your area of responsibility? How can you keep it moving forward most productively? What legitimate questions/concerns do you want to support? Keep your voice clearly organizationally focused, not defending your team.
- Aid your employee when requested, but don’t try to save him/her from every small misstep. While some stumbles can have serious consequences for both the employee and the organization, most are small enough to have little to no effect in the long run. Resist the urge to rescue, and keep the focus on the employee.
After the key event:
- Recap with your employee what s/he learned. What was s/he prepared for, and what unprepared to address? What signals were caught and dealt with; were any missed or poorly addressed? What caused discomfort for the employee? For you?
- Discuss how you played out your respective roles. Did the employee feel supported but not co-opted? Did you feel the employee requested help if and when needed?
- What were the employee’s observations about his/her own learning? What can s/he take away to use in other situations?
Employee development is not only about exposing your good employees to increasing responsibility and visibility; it’s about helping them to navigate it with confidence. When a leader co-opts an employee in the course of that development, the employee is cheated of a great learning opportunity. The stronger leadership role is to prepare employees to do as well as possible in new situations, then to recognize learnings from their own performance.
Written by Marge Combe, VMC Consultant
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