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7 Keys to Working Successfully with Your Direct Reports


7 Keys to Working Successfully with Your Direct Reports

Copyright © 2007 Wally Bock
Used with permission of the author (http://www.threestarleadership.com/bookreviewpermissionform.htm
Author: Wally Bock 
Email: wally@threestarleadership.com
Website: http://www.threestarleadership.com
13 December 2007



The late Chuck Christiansen began his working life in the warehouse at Consolidated Freightways and retired from the position of Executive Vice President. I once asked him what was different about being a top executive and being a crew boss on a loading dock.

"It's really the same," he told me. "You still have to get the job done through the people you deal with every day."

The higher you rise in your organization, the more of the organization you can have an impact upon. You don’t have that impact directly. You do most of it through your direct reports, the people you supervise. Here are seven keys to working with those critical people

Pick Good People

Quality people are the raw material of success. Getting the best results from your team starts with getting the best players you can get on the team. Remember, no matter how much you polish that cubic zirconium, it will never turn into a diamond. It will never cut glass.

Look at skills. Get the mix of skills you need for the team to be effective. That's what made Billy Bean so successful as General Manager of the Oakland A's. When other GMs looked for stars, Bean looked for pieces of a performance puzzle.

Look at values. The folks on your team should share core values about how to do business. One of my best clients ever was MFA Incorporated. Just about everyone on the executive team was involved in farming in some way and they shared common values that made reaching decisions easier.

Look at diversity. The most effective teams have members who bring different perspectives and information sources to the table. This may not always be comfortable, just effective.

Look for strength. You want people who are strong and who put other strong people on their own team.

Don’t' settle. It's easy to do. When I was in Language School in Monterey in the 1960s, many students were housed in barracks that had been built as temporary stables during World War I. Many temporary solutions turn out to be distressingly permanent and energy-sapping.

Set Clear Expectations

You can't hold folks accountable for things they don't know they're supposed to achieve. So tell them what you expect from them. Do this publicly, in meetings, to make sure everyone from your team is on the same page. Do it one-on-one, too, to make sure that each member of your team understands his or her own unique role.

Clear is not enough. Expectations should be reasonable, too. Make sure your folks have the time, money and human resources they need to do what you expect them to do.

One of my clients, Bob, ran a trucking company. After he'd finished laying out his expectations for performance, and making sure he was understood, he always asked one more question. "Tell me how you're going to accomplish what you've just agreed to."

The discussion that followed gave Bob and his direct report the opportunity to test the reasonableness of Bob's expectations. Many times, resources were re-assigned or targets were adjusted to make sure expectations were as reasonable as they were clear.

Give Regular and Usable Feedback

Expectations are just the beginning. You have to talk to your direct reports about their performance. That's easy when performance is good.

But when performance is not up to par, most of the managers I've met don't like talking to their direct reports about it. They come up with all sorts of reasons not to. Here are some of the reasons I've heard for not talking with a subordinate about performance.

"I don't want to micromanage."
"They know what they're doing. I really don't need to talk to them."
"They're executives, they don't need supervision."
"If they don't know that they're doing poorly, then they shouldn't be in that job."
"I don't want to damage their confidence."
"I believe you should hire good people and then leave them alone."

None of those is a good reason. Your job is to get top performance out of your group. If you've got someone who's not performing, it's up to you to fix the problem. It's your job to give feedback, even when that's hard for you to do.

There's a real advantage to catching problems early. The sooner you catch a problem, the easier it is likely to be to solve. I call that the Dinosaur Principle.

Like dinosaurs, problems are easy to kill when they're small. But if you let them grow up they can eat you. Feedback assures that sure your subordinate understands how their performance measures up and what the consequences are of good and bad performance.

Deliver the Consequences of Performance

In my research on top supervisory leaders, I found that the best ones, the ones I call Three Star Supervisory Leaders, have a special way of thinking about reward and punishment. Often, they don't even use those terms.

Using lots of different language, they will tell you that the reward or punishment is the natural result of a subordinate's behavior. As one of them told a subordinate once, "Your performance will get you fired. I'm just the one who notifies you."

Use the consequences you deliver to help get the performance you want. Praise (and other rewards like money, challenging assignments and promotion) will get more of a behavior. Rewards will help you get people to try things. Rewards require a delicate balancing act, though.

On the one hand, most of us don't praise people enough. You don't have to do anything extravagant. In Richland Hills, Texas, Police Chief Barbara Childress passes out "'preciate ya!" cards to folks she catches doing something good.

On the other hand, if you reward every positive result, the rewards lose their value. Rewards are best delivered inconsistently.

Negative consequences, like reprimands and punishment, are different. In the words of one of my trainees, "they should be as inevitable as nature." That's because negative consequences are most effective when they're delivered consistently.

Use negative consequences to get a subordinate to stop doing something. Be careful though. If you use negative consequences too much, people will stop trying anything.

Take Responsibility for Communication

You're the boss. You're the one who's responsible for the performance of the whole group. Take responsibility for making sure that you're communicating effectively with your direct reports.

Those direct reports are like the repeaters in an electrical system. You can't reach everyone in your organization directly. Your direct reports will carry your message. Make sure they understand it.

Start by making sure you understand your key messages and that they're clear. Limit your key messages so you only have one or two.

Then test those messages on folks outside your organization. My friend, Mike, had teenaged daughters. They were bright, articulate kids. But they didn't care a bit about his business, which was just fine for his purposes.

He tested his explanations of business strategy on his daughters. Since, like most teenagers, they were fearless, they told him what they thought and helped him sharpen his messages.

When you're clear yourself, make sure your subordinates understand what's important. Use communication tools like Active Listening to assure that you're getting your message across.

Find a Way to Discover Reality that Doesn't Depend on Your Subordinates

One of the toughest challenges you'll have as a top executive is getting the truth about what's going on. That's because the people who pass information up to you tend to filter it and shape it for their own ends.

I'm not talking about conscious deception here, though that happens sometimes. I'm talking about the natural human tendency to avoid giving the boss bad news.

Develop your own way of getting to reality. High tech tools like web research and news alerts can help. Simple methods work, too.

Leonard owned a successful and busy machinery sales business. As the boss he had lots to do, but he took time, whenever he was in town, to open the mail.

Opening the mail was Leonard's way of staying in touch with reality. Other executives do some form of Management by Wandering Around (MBWA), pioneered by the legendary Rene McPherson of the Dana Corporation. Still others use an electronic open door policy that lets anyone in the organization send them an email that they promise to answer.

Set the Right Example

The job of a leader is influencing the behavior of others using the tools he or she has available. Your most powerful tool is the example you set for your people.

The people who work for you watch you carefully. They pay attention to the things you pay attention to. They will be as ethical or not as you are. What you notice and reward, they will value.

Make sure that your talk matches your walk. The folks who work for you will know in heartbeat if what you do and what you say don't match up.

Shelly Lazarus is Ogilvy and Mather Worldwide Chairman and CEO. She's also considered a role model by many people, especially women. She's not entirely comfortable with that, but she takes being a role model seriously and she works consciously to make sure her actions and her words match up. Here's how she sets the example for her people.

"I know that work-family balance is important … I choose always to go to the school play, and field day and all that [because] it gives other women in the company, or clients, the confidence to be able to say, 'I'm going, too.'"

It's not always easy to be the role model for everyone. But if you're the boss, that's part of the job.

Your job as a leader is to influence everyone in the organization to move productively in the same direction. How you work with your direct reports is critical to achieving the results you want.


Wally Bock helps organizations improve productivity and morale, as well as deal with the challenges of massive Boomer retirements. He is the author of Performance Talk (http://www.performancetalk.com/). He writes the Three Star Leadership blog (http://blog.threestarleadership.com/), coaches individual managers, and is a popular speaker at meetings and conferences in the United States and elsewhere. Read more about him in his own words: http://www.threestarleadership.com/learnwally.htmand contact him at email: wally@threestarleadership.com and website: http://www.threestarleadership.com
Click here for more resources to help you deal with the challenges of the Boomer Brain Drain.
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