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Richard Hadden is an author, speaker, and workplace expert who helps leaders create a better, more profitable place to work. He and Bill Catlette are the authors of the popular Contented Cows leadership book series, and Rebooting Leadership. Learn more about Richard, Bill, and their work at ContentedCows.com.
Speaking Each Other's Language
Let's face it. Communicating at work is tough enough when both the speaker and the listener speak the same native language. Add different tongues to the dynamic and, sacré bleu! You’ve just hit a wall, and not the kind that’s proposed for the US’s southern border.
To be clear, language, as well as literacy (the topic of a future post), are essential job skills for almost any work you can imagine. So how can we possibly hope to get the most from people whose language we don’t understand, and who don’t understand us?
I’ve heard the “This is America. If you want to live and work here, you should learn our language!” argument, and in an ideal sense, I agree. People who speak English in the US have an advantage, just as Italian speakers do in Rome. But we can “should” all over ourselves about a lot of things. Or – and this would be my suggestion – we can take competitive action, and in distinguishing ourselves from our rivals, both for customers and for talent, get better business results.
So, whether you think you should or not, here are two things you can do, if you want to increase the engagement of your team members who don’t speak your language: (These specifics assume your work takes place in English - but the concept works for any language.)
Good Leaders Look Beneath the Surface
One of the most remarkable people I ever worked with was a bank teller named Donna, at a bank branch I managed early in my career. Donna was a customer magnet. Brilliant. Hard working. Always went the extra mile. She was a single mother, and she’d been a teller for 12 years. I recommended to my boss, one of the bank’s Vice Presidents, that we promote Donna to the management training program. He dismissed the idea, ignoring her talent, and citing instead her rough appearance, lack of formal education, and even what part of town she came from.
Donna’s 12 year career with that bank ended when she was recruited into a very responsible position at a competing bank.
When it Comes to Training, Visibility Matters
I was conducting leadership training for a large public utility, in a rural training facility about 100 miles from the company’s headquarters. The Vice President who had brought me in was a full participant in the first class I conducted, and believe me, his presence and participation in the training wasn't lost on anyone.
A few months later, I returned to provide the same program for a different, more junior group. Although the VP had already completed the training, he wanted to put his stamp of support on the program for this group -- even though the event’s timeframe wasn't particularly convenient for him. Despite having an important meeting at headquarters, he thought it was important enough for him to kick off the training session that he took a company helicopter from the main office to the training facility early that morning. There, he delivered a 10-minute message, saying how valuable he felt this training was for everyone there. Afterward, he and a colleague got in a car and drove south to the budget meeting. His validation of the training did as much as anything I did to let people know, this is important. You’ll learn something here, and I want you to use it.
Why Stars Sometimes Fail as Leaders
A bright and promising software engineer, we’ll call him Jay, had made a real mark on his company, developing and innovating some of the most important products and processes in the organization’s portfolio. One Friday, Jay’s boss called him into his office and told him, "You’re so good at what you do that we’ve decided to make you a manager in this department! You start on Monday, and you've got all weekend to figure out how to do the job."
Jay soon found himself in a position for which he was ill-suited and even less well-trained. He knew how to do the work, but not how to lead others to do the same. He’d never had any training, or maybe he just wasn’t cut out for this. Whatever the reason, ultimately, he failed. His boss offered to quietly return him to his former position. Nobody needed to know why. But Jay couldn’t do it. He left. He got another job, as a software engineer. But it didn’t have to happen this way.
Discretionary Effort...When the Show Must Go On
Feb. 23, 2017
This past Sunday morning at 8:30, Ashley Yarham learned that a key member of her team had called in sick - totally legit - quarantined with the flu, and would therefore not be at work that day for her 2:00 shift. Not good.
OK, you say, people call in sick all the time. What's the big deal?
The big deal is that Ashley, a speech pathologist offstage, is also the director of a musical comedy, "City of Angels", playing at Jacksonville Beach's Players-by-the-Sea Theatre, for a three-week run, with a highly Committed cast and crew of more than 30. The stricken team member is an actor, cast in the dual roles of Donna and Oolie (lead characters), and the 2:00 shift is, in fact, the curtain time for that day's matinee performance to a pretty well-sold house, with plenty of walkups expected, thanks to some rave reviews in the local press.
This is community theatre. Volunteer work. Understudies are a luxury they don't really have. If you're familiar with this show (which won the Best Musical Tony in 1990), you know that the Donna/Oolie roles call for some challenging acting, dancing, and singing. With little choice on such short notice, Director Ashley rolled up her sleeves and stepped in to perform the two roles.
What happened next is a perfect example of what Bill Catlette and I have been talking about for better than a decade now - Discretionary Effort - doing that which we CHOOSE to do, not because we HAVE to, but because we WANT to.
What Do You Mean - Contented Cows?
Growing Pains - How Do I Fit in Around Here?
"If you are working on something exciting that you really care about, you don't have to be pushed. The vision pulls you."
- Steve Jobs
People involved in the work of any organization, large, small, or somewhere in between, need to know how they fit in with the purpose of the enterprise. This doesn’t get any easier with growth. In small startups, everybody’s doing everything, including taking out the trash, and the customer line of sight is short, and straight.
But as we grow, it’s virtually inevitable that people will begin to lose sight of where they fit in and how their contribution matters.
In the 21 years that Contented Cow Partners has been in business (no, we can’t believe it either), we’ve worked with some companies that grew substantially, by acquisition, organic means, or both, during the time we worked with them. I remember, specifically, one CEO telling me, “When we had 300 employees, and I knew every one of them, it was easy for most of us to make the connection between our work and our customer. Now that we’re twice that size, we have to work four times as hard to keep that connection as strong.”
It's Not About the Phones
If I hear this question one more time… I won’t be surprised. “How do we get these people to get off their phones and get their work done?”
First point: it’s not about the phones. The phones are irrelevant. They simply represent yet another distraction, and, let’s be honest, a tool which most of us (irrespective of generation) have rendered pretty much indispensable.
Second point: Please don’t rely on the law to solve this problem for you. It has little potential to do so.
In a day and age when we ask people to be electronically available more or less 24/7, we can’t really ask them to put away their phones when we want them to, but take them out when we need them to.
Last week, before speaking to an audience of 900 farming professionals in Chicago, I heard some sage advice from a successful entrepreneur whose farm provides fuel, food, and fibers to a large portion of the US, regarding this very subject. Here’s what he told me:
“I tell our folks, ‘You have a job to do. Here’s what we need, what we expect. I’ll reward you generously for meeting and exceeding our production goals, and for doing it the right way. Falling short will cost you. Because it costs me.