If you’re the boss, then addressing these five questions will help you get more from your team, be seen as a better leader, and position yourself as a stronger candidate for promotion and advancement.
I had lunch with someone who was just an intern when I first met him, but is now up for promotion to Managing Director.
Our conversation brought me back to how we as junior people thought “back in the day” when looking up at those more senior people. You know, the people dictating our daily lives and career prospects.
Here are five things we were thinking and talking about in the trenches. And based on my lunch conversation, these are still very much what people are thinking today.
Take a look at this list and see which might apply to you, and how you can take steps to demystify and address these five questions that your juniors are probably wondering about you.
What your juniors are thinking about you
1. “Is he ever moving on?”
If you’ve been in your role for years and there’s no obvious “next role”, your juniors will be asking this question in the privacy of the water cooler area. And you may be wondering the same thing about your boss. The career “traffic jam” often isn’t limited to just one or two people.
At the root of this question is the junior person’s concern about his or her own opportunity for advancement, and the worry that you will be a roadblock.
If you do have further career ambitions then it’s useful to make that known in an appropriate way. For example, our global department head said during a team dinner that he had told his boss that “I don’t want to die in this job”. What a great way to pass on the message without being threatening to his own boss’ position.
If you don’t plan to move on for years to come then it’s about finding ways to give your juniors more headroom and visibility to help them grow and develop.
In either case, you can help yourself “keep it fresh” by finding opportunities to expand your own learning and sphere of influence. It will make life more interesting for you, and you’ll be modeling the behavior for your juniors.
2. “Why doesn’t she ask me how I am and what I want?”
This one is closely linked to the first question.
For many managers, it’s difficult to engage in the conversation about career development – there’s so little time in the day to do the “day job” alone, much less engage in what can feel like opening up a can of worms that you’d rather not deal with. What if the person asks for something you can’t provide? What if they hate it here?
The reality is that it’s even harder for a junior person to go to you as their boss and start a conversation about their own career development. So why not be a great boss and engage them first?
Start by listening and asking clarifying questions. And rather than make promises you can’t keep, you can say “let’s explore” or lead them toward something more workable.
And while you’re on the asking dimension, you could start to ask for the team’s opinion on the work they’re presenting to you. Start with the most junior people first – after all, they are the ones closest to the project and working on it most intensely.
People want to be seen, heard and valued. And you may just get a new perspective on the subject. You’ll also get a better sense for the depth of talent you have in the team while helping them prepare for the next step up in their own careers.
When you don’t ask, they’ll see you as more concerned about your own career than theirs. It’s the beginning of the “every person for themselves” mentality. It breeds a negative culture and that can create even bigger headaches in the future for you as a leader.
3. “Why does he let Jack/Jill get away with bad behavior?”
In every organization, there’s someone who breaks the unwritten rules and causes friction in the group. Whether that’s undermining others, hoarding information, regularly missing deadlines, being a jerk or worse.
It may be intentional or they may be completely unaware. Either way, you can’t let it continue unchecked.
In ours, it was a big producer who treated his juniors like indentured servants, and was rude to everyone except the boss. We just couldn’t believe such a toxic person was allowed to remain. He must have brought in a lot of business. Finally, he had a couple of down years and exited the firm.
When you as the boss tolerate this behavior, it creates a drag on the system. It’s a morale killer and the longer you let it continue without taking action, the worse it gets and the less respect you will have from the team.
So have a think about whether you’ve got one of these people on your team and, if so, address it with that person now. Get advice and support from others if needed, for example, your boss, mentors, HR, or others who have been through this situation.
Whatever you do, don’t turn a blind eye and leave your team wondering about your leadership ability and being less productive than they can be.
4. “Why can’t she just decide and move on?”
I remember a big debate about the incentive system for a new product that required cooperation across two departments in order to hit the ambitious sales targets. The existing incentive system favored one of the groups at the expense of the other.
The issue was escalated to the big boss, who finally caved to the pressure of both groups lobbying for their preferred solutions and agreed to look into it and decide.
Half a year later, no decision. A year later, still nothing.
In the meantime, the business limped along without the kind of collaboration needed as both sides still held out hope that their version would win the day.
Are you sitting on any difficult decisions that you keep putting off?
Take a look at decisions that affect the team and that are still on hold. What additional information do you need? When can you decide? If you can’t decide, then you’ve effectively made a decision for the status quo. As they say, doing nothing is also a decision.
Either way, communicate where you are and why. Demystify the situation. Otherwise it chips away at your leadership and weakens your authority. It also wastes a lot of energy and prevents the business from operating at its best.
5. “What does he do all day?”
The subtext of this question is, “… and why does he deserve to be paid so much more than those of us who are producing tangible results?”
This usually comes up if you’re the kind of leader who closets yourself in your office all day, or if you’re traveling so much that no one sees you. It can also be the case if your juniors are in a different location.
I’m sure you are busy and doing things that help the organization and your team. But if you’re a mystery man or woman to your juniors, then they may mistakenly suspect that you are not carrying your own weight. In the absence of information, imaginations can run wild and this hurts your ability to lead.
Think about how you can make yourself more visible, transparent and involved. How can you communicate what’s going on at your level? How can you share the challenges you are handling, including when you are shielding the team?
You don’t have to make big pronouncements, and it may be better to use your direct reports to cascade the message and spread the word. But do find ways to create a more accurate impression. Think of this as part of your personal brand with the juniors.
And make sure you carve out opportunities to “get your hands dirty” in the core activities of your group, whether that’s with clients or behind the scenes helping your teams succeed. Doing this not only helps your team see firsthand the value you’re adding, it also helps you keep yourself fresh and engaged too.
How can you raise your game?
Maybe you were less cynical than we were back in the day. But based on my recent conversations with people who work for bosses, good and bad, these questions are still very much on people’s minds.
If you want to be the best leader you can be, think about which of these questions most applies to you, and how you want to take action. Then use this to help raise your game even further.
Most importantly, get out there and engage with your juniors beyond just the task at hand. Ask what they think, listen to what they say, provide opportunities for them to express themselves in meetings and one-on-one, and take the difficult actions you may have been putting off.
Remember, you’re role modeling the behavior whether you’re conscious of it or not. So go out there and be the best leader you can be.
Leave me a comment to let me know which of these five questions resonated most with you.