In many companies and organizations, new managers are selected as a result of their success in technical and operational roles. This seems to be a sensible approach, as the manager needs to understand the challenges facing his or her direct reports. At the same time, it’s fundamentally flawed. The skill set required to excel in a technical/operational role is different than the skill set required for success as a manager.
This paradox rears its head in virtually every business and organization. As an executive coach, I work with clients from diverse industries who are transitioning into management roles, such as a talented software engineer who was promoted to manage four teams of engineers; a physician with superb clinical skills who was assigned to chair a hospital division; and a salesperson with strong revenues who was told to stop selling and to start managing the firm’s 25 salespeople.
To win the
of their direct reports and corporate leaders, these new managers and others like them need to swiftly adopt a repertoire of leadership behaviors. They must, for example, learn how to command attention and respect with nonverbal communication, including appropriate body language and facial expression. And their verbal communication must be firm and direct, yet supportive and collegial. It’s a daunting set of changes. Many first time managers feel overwhelmed as to what skills they should prioritize and implement from the outset.
When coaching such clients, I try to help them stay calm and grounded by focusing on making one immediate and powerful change: ask open-ended questions and avoid making directive statements. This strategy is simple, straightforward, and easy to remember. It’s also measurable quantitatively. The manager (or someone observing the manager) can count how many times he or she asked open-ended questions and made directive statements during a meeting with direct reports. The ratio of the former to the latter should be high, often in the neighborhood of 10 to 1 as judged by my experience with clients who went on to succeed in management roles.
To that end, here’s an example of an open-ended question a manager might ask his or her direct report: “When will you be ready to master that new technical skill that the CEO wants us to develop?” The reply will yield information about the employee’s level of motivation and adaptability, as well as what’s realistic in the current work environment. A directive statement like, “I need you to master that skill by the end of the month” is more likely to cause the direct report to experience fear, frustration, resentment, passive aggression, and failure to achieve the unilaterally imposed benchmark.
Open-ended questions also help to create developmental opportunities for direct reports. Many new managers are told to “delegate” operational tasks so that they can become more “strategic,” but this advice is frequently confusing and unrealistic because direct reports aren’t yet capable of performing all the operations that the manager had mastered. Instead of “delegating,” I encourage new managers to ask open-ended questions that will empower direct reports to develop the technical skills they need. Examples of this kind of question might be, “Who can help and support you in learning how to become proficient at this essential task?” or “How can I support you in figuring out how to do this on your own?”
As with any such strategy, a small subset of direct reports may not respond well to open-ended questions — and that’s usually a red flag. The manager should start with open-ended questions, but reserve the option to give clear instructions when the direct report isn’t responding productively. With truly recalcitrant employees, the manager may need to institute a performance improvement plan or, at worst, fire an underperformer. When coaching clients who are becoming managers, I sometimes use the political analogy that nations in conflict should start with diplomacy — but not take the military option off the table in case diplomacy fails.
But failure is rare when managers use open-ended questions thoughtfully. Rather than bringing their own agendas, new managers ought to ask good questions, listen carefully to the replies, and facilitate dialogue. “Bringing your own agenda” actually has a literal meaning here, with regard to who decides on specific agenda items for a meeting. Along these lines, here’s an open-ended question that new managers ought to consider asking direct reports: “What agenda items would you like to contribute for our next meeting?” The question breeds good will. The replies reveal key data about the business. And the direct reports take real ownership of the challenges that they’ve placed on the agenda by their own free choice. It’s a win-win that builds trust and boosts engagement.