A New Year’s Resolution: Learn Continuously

reflectionA friend from my corporate America days recently decided to become an entrepreneur and leave the rat race behind, opening a specialty shop that reflects her personal interest. She used to head a department of 1,000 offices and several thousand employees. She now has one store and two employees.  She is happy.

She sent me a note about a lesson she learned with her two new employees.

While a corporate exec, comprehensive, written communication was a necessity. To her credit, she visited offices and talked with employees more than her counterparts, but there is only so much time.

In her new world, she approached communication with her two employees in the same comprehensive way – an email containing updates on the business along with a schedule for the coming week.  She checked in with them to see if the email communication was helpful.

“Not really,” they said. They commented about email inbox overload, and said the missive was a bit wordy. She quickly switched gears to a simple “post the schedule, take a picture, and text it” approach. The employees loved it.

My friend, being the continuous learner that she is, reflected on what just happened, and realized that she was trying to tell her employees every single thing she thought they needed to know, when they really only wanted to know when to come in.

I love this story for a few reasons.  First, she listened. Second, she defaulted to “simple is better.” Finally, she made it personal.

Perhaps there are lessons here for all of us.

Ask and Listen

Most successful business leaders don’t come to work thinking, “I really don’t want to hear anything from my employees.” Even if the employee is whiny, there is a nugget of good information that any good leader needs to know.

We ask (or don’t ask) for employees’ thoughts in different ways. Many times we simply ask “what are your thoughts?” Sometimes however, through non-verbal messages we unintentionally say, “I really don’t want to hear what you have to say.”

Asking for input from employees is an important leadership skill – it is an art form. It means having a desire to know and understand, instilling sincerity in the question, listening carefully, and having a plan to deal with whiners after the appropriate amount of time.

You have to ask with interest before you can listen. Then you have to listen and respond.

Leaders who don’t ask and don’t listen may not even be aware of the oversight. They may to too busy, anticipating the negative, or worried about how to respond before they even know what the employee will say.

Feedback from employees is a gift.  It says “I care.” Learning to ask and listen provides insight into the employees’ needs, and usually the customers’ needs because the employees are closest to the customer.

Make it Simple

I love the way my friend backed up, reflected and shifted to a simple system, as opposed to explaining the complexity of watchmaking when asked the time. This is a delicate balance, because providing some background actually is “the why,” which is important in providing context for any communication.

A leader who is sensitive to her audience, knows their interests and tolerance, can effectively tailor communication to a simple message that is timely and relevant.

In these days of communication overload, we all appreciate it when one less email hits our inbox.

Make it Personal

Leaders who recognize the individual employee and talk directly to them build solid relationships. Each employee is different, and part of leaders’ responsibility is building a trusting relationship with members of their team.

Leaders who have large teams have a challenge. Communicating uniquely with each individual team member is unrealistic, but checking in to see “what was heard” is not. Regular face-to-face time that is focused on mutual learning is important to set aside with each and every individual. Check out their words, but listen to their body language too. It speaks volumes.

Ask good questions, and listen carefully to the answer.

The Importance of Reflection

My friend is a continuous learner; there is always a lesson in life for her. This has served her well in corporate America, and will continue to do so as an entrepreneur.

Do you take time to reflect? Do you think about what you might do differently to achieve a different outcome? Do you think about where your team is, collectively and individually, and ask good questions to gain important insight?

What a great way to begin the New Year! Set aside time from the busy, daily grind to reflect on what’s really going on. I can guarantee you’ll learn something important.

Photo credit: Someone took an amazing picture but I don’t know who. I snagged it from a blast email with several equally awesome pictures, figuring I could use it someday. It is perfect for this story.

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