by Richard, Leadership

Seven Simple Questions for a Great Employee Conversation

0 Comments 03 May 2011

We’ve long advocated that managers move heaven and earth to get out and spend more time with the people they lead. Borrowing a phrase from one of our favorite legendary leaders, Vietnam era Major General Melvin Zais, we call it “sitting on the footlocker”. There’s simply no way to lead when the only contact we have is enabled by electronic means.

In addition to sitting on the footlocker, just observing, free from any specific agenda, being available, and visible, there are times when you want to sit down, face-to-face, one-on-one, and have a meaningful conversation with each person you lead. Doing this once a year, during the annual performance evaluation, is a little like going to church only on that one Sunday when all the women wear fancy hats, like some did just a few weeks ago.

No, we think more frequent is better. How often? As with so many things, it depends. But two or three times a year probably represents an improvement, and so we’d say that’s a good goal to shoot for.

Call it a coaching session, a midcourse checkup, or whatever you like. If you’re like most of us, you sometimes have trouble knowing where to start, and what to say. Here are seven questions that you – and your followers – will find helpful to move the conversation along:

1. How do you think you’re doing in your job?

2. What one thing do you think you could do better?

3. What help do you need to do that?

4. What one thing could others you work with do better?

5. What one thing do you like most about working here?

6. What one thing do you like least about working here?

7. If you were me, what one thing would you do differently?

The list starts with the sublimely simple, and progresses through questions that take a little more courage for others to answer. And perhaps for you to hear.

Before we sign off, some tips on making this conversation as productive as possible:

o Be prepared to be nowhere else but right there, with the person you’re talking with. Shut off the cell phone, don’t answer the landline, close your email client. Clear the decks. Clear your head.

o Learn the meaning of the number one. You’ll notice that five of the seven questions say “What one thing”. Stick to that limit. Otherwise, you’ll likely be there all day. If there are other issues that need attention, schedule a time to explore them. For this discussion, enforce the limit of one thing.

o Listen, listen, listen. You’re in input mode here, not output. Chapter 2 in Rebooting Leadership, and Chapter 7 in Contented Cows Moove Faster can help you here. If you don’t have these books, we can solve that problem for you. (Click here).

o Underpromise, and overdeliver. Make it clear that this conversation is to get your input, not to promise immediate changes. Question 7, in particular, could lead others to think that you’ll implement all of their specific recommendations. Be honest. Unless that’s your intention, sincerely thank them for their input, and then weigh it up with the other feedback you get. But – and this is a big but – if you’re seen to ignore everything you hear, you’ll shut down the flow, and quickly. When your followers see positive changes, based on their input, your credibility, and effectiveness as a real leader, will take off.

Finally, have fun with this. This conversation should be seen as a good one. Anything but a chewing out. They’ll be taking some risks if they’re completely honest with you. Play with that a little. Thank them for it. And then, act.


Richard Hadden is a leadership speaker, author, and consultant who helps organizations improve their business results by creating a great place to work. He and Bill are the authors of the acclaimed business classic Contented Cows Give Better Milk, and Contented Cows MOOve Faster, and the brand new book Rebooting Leadership. Learn more about them and their work at

- who has written 105 posts on Contented Cows.

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Considered thought leaders in the arena of leadership and employee engagement, Bill Catlette and Richard Hadden speak to, train, and coach managers on leadership practices for better business outcomes.

OUR PREMISE: Having a focused, engaged, and capably led workforce is one of the best things any organization can do for its bottom line.


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