Sunday, October 17, 2010

How well do you know your team ?- Asking the questions that matter

With most of the work in today's world getting more collaborative in nature, with the world around us getting flatter by the day, with the teams around us getting more and more diverse, the true success of the team's endeavors more often than not lies in the answer to this question- "How well do you know your team ?"

We live in a "Faceless" work era. Looking back, there are several instances where i have been involved in doing business with the people successfully over years without even having to see or meet them. This may have sounded very astonishing probably during the generation when my parents were working but now every other employee might have a same experience to share. But whatever it is- i am still amazed at the ability of human beings to work together and achieve success together without having to see each other and without understanding the underlying emotions, with just the strands of work sharing that common goal connecting them together. In this situation, the success could not be taken for granted and is not assured unless you know the team members better.

In the question- "How well do you know your team ?" the word "you" does not necessarily denote a leader, though people without effort tend to believe that it’s only the leader who has to know the team to ably get the work done. Well, it’s true for sure but the "You" (in that question) actually represents everyone in the team irrespective of their designations and roles people play in the team. It’s not only in the case of Self-managed teams that team members need to know each other but also the teams that function under autocratic setup where a Single leader takes majority of decisions. In such a setup, even though a Leader takes majority of decisions and setups up the strategy, the plans tend to remain as "Paper Plans" unless they are executed well. It is the team dynamics that is one of the important factor that decides how well the plan gets executed.

I have myself been in position of a "designated" Leader for quite a few projects and my experience suggests to me that understanding the team members is an important dimension to the leadership and without spending adequate efforts in this direction all the success as a leader is superficial to me. People are not machines, afterall. One thing i hate inherently is calling or referring to people as "Resources". People are the most important assets in a Knowledge economy. To me, "Resources" is the term best used to represent things such as Hardware, Software etc. that helps People in achieving overall mission. Referring to people as mere "Resources" is no less than being a derogatory phrase to me. I think for a leader one of the foremost task is to know the people who he works for (i.e. his team), and the people who help him achieve the overall objectives.

In this post and subsequent posts on this i would try and mention the attempts or techniques that i have employed in my experience to know the team members better. Hoping to start a meaningful dialog with readers to understand their views on this important but often neglected topic.

The Technique- "Asking the Questions that matter" :
The technique that i wanted to talk about in this blog is as simple as Asking the Questions that matter to the people you as a leader work for. I keep using the phrase "to the people you as a leader work for" while describing the work sphere of a leader because i firmly believe that gone are the days when the perception of leadership was that people work for you. We live in a age when people who you lead are often more smart than you are in many aspects and without their presence the existence of a leader is zilch.

As a part of "Asking the Questions that matter" technique, below is the excerpt of an email that i usually send to people who i have started to work with as a leader or even to those who i have been working for some time. I learned this technique in one of my trainings at Stephen Covey long back, though i have actually customized some parts to my needs-
-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Hi (Name of the Person),
As we work together, I’d like to know more about you so I can help you to grow and develop and make your highest and best contribution. Please take a few minutes to respond to the following questions.

• What kind of work have you always loved doing?
• Is there anything about your job that you dislike ?
• What job-related opportunities are you passionate about and are looking forward to?
• What do you feel (skills etc.) you are really good at?
• What are the areas you think you need to grow and develop further ? What opportunities do you foresee for growth and development here?
• Is there a way you think your work environment can be further improved?
• What significant contribution do you strive to make in your current role?

I would like you to treat this conversation as confidential and respond as much as you honestly know and after I get your responses, I’d like to sit down together and discuss this further.

Please let me know if you can send me your responses by (Whatever is the deadline) or sooner. If you need more time, let me know.

Regards,
Anuj

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

How do people generally respond to this ?
In my experience, the people who receive this email, can respond in one of the four ways-
1. Sensing an opportunity to let the leader know his or her aspirations, the person does best to respond with the correct information to the best of his or her knowledge.
2. People generally will be defensive and would not write anything controversial that is completely out of the norm and give superficial replies.
3. People vent out their frustrations and write stern remarks.
4. People do not respond at all.

How do you interpret the response ?
An experienced leader will easily recognize under which of the above four categories do the people's response falls under and for others, it might take a bit of application of common sense to figure out the category of the response.

In my assessment, whatever the team member respond, it’s a winning situation for a leader. Below are my interpretations of the above responses-

1. Of course, this is the best response. It gives a crucial insights for a leader into his team's liking and dislikes, aspirations etc. The responses form an ideal platform for further meaningful discussions and help in effectively marrying the work priorities with team member's greatest strengths and aspirations.

2. The second response will be easier to figure out and the effective leader will align the follow-up discussion and dig deeper into the real issues. It will require asking more focused questions face-to-face. But generally the good responses from such discussions come only after the required trust has been established between the leader and the team. It might be good for the leader to judge and figure out the exact reasons why the team member was not open to him in first place and work to rectify any problems.

3. The third response is an obvious indicator for the leader that something is seriously wrong that needs to be addressed with higher priority. Also, the leader should appreciate the honesty of the person and not take the remarks personally. The leader needs to be displaying genuine empathy is follow-up discussions.

4. Regarding the fourth response, no news is not always the good news. This may also indicate the lack of basic trust that is not allowing the person to freely share his views with the leader. Again a meaningful follow-up discussion (may be many) help to pin down the real issues.

This technique is helpful in the sense that it gives a platform for a good follow-up talk. This helps provide a right kind of start and if done at the start of relationship, helps build the necessary trust with the people. But bear in mind that such trust is usually not so strong. Unless meaningful, genuine follow-up discussions happen and people get to see the results, such trust will diminish sooner than later.

I hope to share few more techniques to getting to know your team based on your responses to this post. Please do share your thoughts.

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

First of all, Hi to you.
Following are some of my thoughts on your topic. Well they certainly come from my own experience of handling a team from years. So, I am just sharing my viewpoints here.
I guess asking these questions might be appropriate for a leader who doesn’t already know what attributes his team members possess.
According to me: If you are an efficient leader, you by yourself can get the answers for all these questions (provided you have been working with your team members for quite a few time)
You need not ask these exclusively to every individual out there. To be specific, mingle with the people in your team, know them well and you automatically understand what their ‘need’ is.
Asking these questions and getting the response on these may not work well with all the members in a team. Some may take it as an “interrogation” or “ why did he/she asking me this?”.
The other part of the story is, some members who doesn’t know where their goals lie, might even respond to all these questions as well.
Some of these questions as per me really don’t qualify to be in the list.
For example:
• What kind of work have you always loved doing?
>> Just think about what one should write here? Should he/she say something other than what they are currently doing? Or should they just say about their “dream job”. (Of course one may even be afraid to mention so)
If you are a good leader, you should very well in advance know what a member off your team wants to do?
Is he/she a problem solver? Do they really dig in to what they are doing as a part of their work?
Do he/she talks about management and people aspects?
Is he /she efficient enough to handle the stress/work load at any time?
These categories will certainly divide the people in to their strengths and weaknesses.

One more similar question is:
• What do you feel (skills etc.) you are really good at?
This by default should/must be known to the team leader. And if at all you interviewed this guy to be part of your team, then you must know what skill set he/she possesses. If at all your reply to this is “No one can exactly know, what skills one is good at, through interview”. It means, your whole notion of interview is a failure. So this question according to me should be very carefully chosen to ask, since it may show your negligence as well it may give a negative vibe to efficient team members.
I think these methodologies are best, if kept on paper rather than trying hard to implement them with no or less results. Instead, build such a strong relationship with the people in your team so that
a. you yourself can understand the requirements/needs/skills of the team or
b. the self motivated members just walk in to you and say, “ I need to choose a path between these, which one do you think is the best?”
This usually is possible when you consider team members as people, rather than resources!

Anonymous said...

First of all, Hi to you.
Following are some of my thoughts on your topic. Well they certainly come from my own experience of handling a team from years. So, I am just sharing my viewpoints here.
I guess asking these questions might be appropriate for a leader who doesn’t already know what attributes his team members possess.
According to me: If you are an efficient leader, you by yourself can get the answers for all these questions (provided you have been working with your team members for quite a few time)
You need not ask these exclusively to every individual out there. To be specific, mingle with the people in your team, know them well and you automatically understand what their ‘need’ is.
Asking these questions and getting the response on these may not work well with all the members in a team. Some may take it as an “interrogation” or “ why did he/she asking me this?”.
The other part of the story is, some members who doesn’t know where their goals lie, might even respond to all these questions as well.
Some of these questions as per me really don’t qualify to be in the list.
For example:
• What kind of work have you always loved doing?
>> Just think about what one should write here? Should he/she say something other than what they are currently doing? Or should they just say about their “dream job”. (Of course one may even be afraid to mention so)
If you are a good leader, you should very well in advance know what a member off your team wants to do?
Is he/she a problem solver? Do they really dig in to what they are doing as a part of their work?
Do he/she talks about management and people aspects?
Is he /she efficient enough to handle the stress/work load at any time?
These categories will certainly divide the people in to their strengths and weaknesses.

One more similar question is:
• What do you feel (skills etc.) you are really good at?
This by default should/must be known to the team leader. And if at all you interviewed this guy to be part of your team, then you must know what skill set he/she possesses. If at all your reply to this is “No one can exactly know, what skills one is good at, through interview”. It means, your whole notion of interview is a failure. So this question according to me should be very carefully chosen to ask, since it may show your negligence as well it may give a negative vibe to efficient team members.
I think these methodologies are best, if kept on paper rather than trying hard to implement them with no or less results. Instead, build such a strong relationship with the people in your team so that
a. you yourself can understand the requirements/needs/skills of the team or
b. the self motivated members just walk in to you and say, “ I need to choose a path between these, which one do you think is the best?”
This usually is possible when you consider team members as people, rather than resources!

amagazine said...

@Anonymous,
Thanks for your comments and sharing your kind thoughts.
I guess asking these questions might be appropriate for a leader who doesn’t already know what attributes his team members possess. According to me: If you are an efficient leader, you by yourself can get the answers for all these questions (provided you have been working with your team members for quite a few time)
You need not ask these exclusively to every individual out there. To be specific, mingle with the people in your team, know them well and you automatically understand what their ‘need’ is.

I am talking of a world where the teams are spread out and no longer in one location. If the team is in one location one can always manage by wandering around but that becomes not feasible when your team do not sit together. So Asking always helps. Why assume when you can ask ?

The other part of the story is, some members who doesn’t know where their goals lie, might even respond to all these questions as well.
Some of these questions as per me really don’t qualify to be in the list.

Well, i treat these questions as just conversation starter and wont take the answers on its face value unless i have talked through with the team member once and may be quite a few follow-up discussions.

If you are a good leader, you should very well in advance know what a member off your team wants to do?
A good leader to me is not the one who has psychic powers (to know everything in advance) but the one who makes a genuine, heartfelt, honest efforts to know the team members and works with them towards the common goal. Rather than assuming, i would rather talk and ask.

• What do you feel (skills etc.) you are really good at?
This by default should/must be known to the team leader.

May be yes in most situation and it also depends upon the time of relationship you are asking this (i.e. at start or after couple of years of working) but the point is what is the harm in giving an individual an opportunity to express self. If not anything, he/she usually feel being cared for.

And if at all you interviewed this guy to be part of your team, then you must know what skill set he/she possesses. If at all your reply to this is “No one can exactly know, what skills one is good at, through interview”. It means, your whole notion of interview is a failure. So this question according to me should be very carefully chosen to ask, since it may show your negligence as well it may give a negative vibe to efficient team members.
I agree with you on the last part i.e. that this question may give an impression on my negligence if i ask this depending upon the timing of this question.
But dont agree fully with you on the Interview part. I guess considering the notion of Interview a failure just because you cant know everything about the candidate is an extreme view. Interviews serves a purpose, gives decision points on hiring or not hiring a candidate based on the Job description.

Instead, build such a strong relationship with the people in your team so that
a. you yourself can understand the requirements/needs/skills of the team or
b. the self motivated members just walk in to you and say, “ I need to choose a path between these, which one do you think is the best?”
This usually is possible when you consider team members as people, rather than resources!

Quoting what i said in my write-up again- " One thing i hate inherently is calling or referring to people as "Resources"."

Deepak said...

@ Anonymous

I wanna know only one thing, how on earth asking such questions gives a "negative vibe" to any one?

-Deepak

Anonymous said...

@ amagazine

I never said one should assume the characteristics of the team members. What I meant was, to connect and mingle with them and hence understand them better. Well I am not saying, these things will always hold good when you have distant teams to take care off.
Again, about the point you said:
"Interviews serves a purpose, gives decision points on hiring or not hiring a candidate based on the Job description."
You may need to think twice on this. Please go over this:
http://www.businessweek.com/smallbiz/news/coladvice/book/bk981106.htm

Also just glance over the below thinking.
Steve Jobs once said on finding talent:
[http://www.thepracticeofleadership.net/2008/03/30/steve-jobs-and-his-leadership/]

"When I hire somebody really senior, competence is the ante. They have to be really smart. But the real issue for me is, Are they going to fall in love with Apple? Because if they fall in love with Apple, everything else will take care of itself. They’ll want to do what’s best for Apple, not what’s best for them, what’s best for Steve, or anybody else.

"Recruiting is hard. It’s just finding the needles in the haystack. We do it ourselves and we spend a lot of time at it. I’ve participated in the hiring of maybe 5,000-plus people in my life. So I take it very seriously. You can’t know enough in a one-hour interview. So, in the end, it’s ultimately based on your gut. How do I feel about this person? What are they like when they’re challenged? Why are they here? I ask everybody that: ‘Why are you here?’ The answers themselves are not what you’re looking for. It’s the meta-data."

Passion rules! Passion is about our emotional energy and a love for what we do. Without passion it becomes difficult to fight back in the face of obstacles and difficulties. People with passion find a way to get things done and to make things happen, in spite of the obstacles and challenges that get in the way.

@ Deepak

Dear friend, let me tell you a small instance from my experience, to answer your question !
I too once was the follower of these leadership traits and tantra's. So one fine day I thought of sending some list of questions (similar but not exactly the same as amagazine has mentioned here)
to one of my senior web developer. Let me tell you, this guy was really talented and smart.
30 minutes later I sent him these questionnaire, I just got back a line of response from him. It read something like this:

Hi,

Are you expecting anything specific to be done/changed from me? If so, let me know it straight.

Wishes,
-XXX-

It took me almost an hour to really explain him, what was the real point behind these questions.
Again, I am not telling that everyone will behave, like this guy. But some one might. And you may not want to disturb that some one, just because you care about them. That's the reason I said "Some efficient members" may get a negative vibe.
Hope I am understandable to you!

Anonymous said...

@ amagazine

I never said one should assume the characteristics of the team members. What I meant was, to connect and mingle with them and hence understand them better. Well I am not saying, these things will always hold good when you have distant teams to take care off.
Again, about the point you said:
"Interviews serves a purpose, gives decision points on hiring or not hiring a candidate based on the Job description."
You may need to think twice on this. Please go over this:
http://www.businessweek.com/smallbiz/news/coladvice/book/bk981106.htm

Also just glance over the below thinking.
Steve Jobs once said on finding talent:
[http://www.thepracticeofleadership.net/2008/03/30/steve-jobs-and-his-leadership/]

"When I hire somebody really senior, competence is the ante. They have to be really smart. But the real issue for me is, Are they going to fall in love with Apple? Because if they fall in love with Apple, everything else will take care of itself. They’ll want to do what’s best for Apple, not what’s best for them, what’s best for Steve, or anybody else.

"Recruiting is hard. It’s just finding the needles in the haystack. We do it ourselves and we spend a lot of time at it. I’ve participated in the hiring of maybe 5,000-plus people in my life. So I take it very seriously. You can’t know enough in a one-hour interview. So, in the end, it’s ultimately based on your gut. How do I feel about this person? What are they like when they’re challenged? Why are they here? I ask everybody that: ‘Why are you here?’ The answers themselves are not what you’re looking for. It’s the meta-data."

Passion rules! Passion is about our emotional energy and a love for what we do. Without passion it becomes difficult to fight back in the face of obstacles and difficulties. People with passion find a way to get things done and to make things happen, in spite of the obstacles and challenges that get in the way.

@ Deepak

Dear friend, let me tell you a small instance from my experience, to answer your question !
I too once was the follower of these leadership traits and tantra's. So one fine day I thought of sending some list of questions (similar but not exactly the same as amagazine has mentioned here)
to one of my senior web developer. Let me tell you, this guy was really talented and smart.
30 minutes later I sent him these questionnaire, I just got back a line of response from him. It read something like this:

Hi,

Are you expecting anything specific to be done/changed from me? If so, let me know it straight.

Wishes,
-XXX-

It took me almost an hour to really explain him, what was the real point behind these questions.
Again, I am not telling that everyone will behave, like this guy. But some one might. And you may not want to disturb that some one, just because you care about them. That's the reason I said "Some efficient members" may get a negative vibe.
Hope I am understandable to you!

Anonymous said...

@ amagazine

I never said one should assume the characteristics of the team members. What I meant was, to connect and mingle with them and hence understand them better. Well I am not saying, these things will always hold good when you have distant teams to take care off.
Again, about the point you said:
"Interviews serves a purpose, gives decision points on hiring or not hiring a candidate based on the Job description."
You may need to think twice on this. Please go over this:
http://www.businessweek.com/smallbiz/news/coladvice/book/bk981106.htm

Also just glance over the below thinking.
Steve Jobs once said on finding talent:
[http://www.thepracticeofleadership.net/2008/03/30/steve-jobs-and-his-leadership/]

"When I hire somebody really senior, competence is the ante. They have to be really smart. But the real issue for me is, Are they going to fall in love with Apple? Because if they fall in love with Apple, everything else will take care of itself. They’ll want to do what’s best for Apple, not what’s best for them, what’s best for Steve, or anybody else.

"Recruiting is hard. It’s just finding the needles in the haystack. We do it ourselves and we spend a lot of time at it. I’ve participated in the hiring of maybe 5,000-plus people in my life. So I take it very seriously. You can’t know enough in a one-hour interview. So, in the end, it’s ultimately based on your gut. How do I feel about this person? What are they like when they’re challenged? Why are they here? I ask everybody that: ‘Why are you here?’ The answers themselves are not what you’re looking for. It’s the meta-data."

Passion rules! Passion is about our emotional energy and a love for what we do. Without passion it becomes difficult to fight back in the face of obstacles and difficulties. People with passion find a way to get things done and to make things happen, in spite of the obstacles and challenges that get in the way.

@ Deepak

Dear friend, let me tell you a small instance from my experience, to answer your question !
I too once was the follower of these leadership traits and tantra's. So one fine day I thought of sending some list of questions (similar but not exactly the same as amagazine has mentioned here)
to one of my senior web developer. Let me tell you, this guy was really talented and smart.
30 minutes later I sent him these questionnaire, I just got back a line of response from him. It read something like this:

Hi,

Are you expecting anything specific to be done/changed from me? If so, let me know it straight.

Wishes,
-XXX-

It took me almost an hour to really explain him, what was the real point behind these questions.
Again, I am not telling that everyone will behave, like this guy. But some one might. And you may not want to disturb that some one, just because you care about them. That's the reason I said "Some efficient members" may get a negative vibe.
Hope I am understandable to you!

amagazine said...

I never said one should assume the characteristics of the team members. What I meant was, to connect and mingle with them and hence understand them better. Well I am not saying, these things will always hold good when you have distant teams to take care off.

My point is asking these questions either formally or informally. I think what i mention in blog is more formal means that has worked for some situations i have been into. Depending upon culture, Informal things do pay dividends. But even in that case, it is not bad idea for a leader to initiate these questions.


Dear friend, let me tell you a small instance from my experience, to answer your question !
I too once was the follower of these leadership traits and tantra's. So one fine day I thought of sending some list of questions (similar but not exactly the same as amagazine has mentioned here)
to one of my senior web developer. Let me tell you, this guy was really talented and smart.
30 minutes later I sent him these questionnaire, I just got back a line of response from him. It read something like this:

Hi,

Are you expecting anything specific to be done/changed from me? If so, let me know it straight.

Wishes,
-XXX-

It took me almost an hour to really explain him, what was the real point behind these questions.
Again, I am not telling that everyone will behave, like this guy. But some one might. And you may not want to disturb that some one, just because you care about them. That's the reason I said "Some efficient members" may get a negative vibe.
Hope I am understandable to you!


Thanks for sharing this. Would be hard for me to comment on this thoroughly as there can be many factors behind this. This so called Senior person may be coming from an organization where people trust was not a priority or he/she might be suspicious on any management initiative. Nevertheless, the way i prefer to ask this question is to give a brief context to this in 1:1 meetings even before sending such email. This helps eliminate any doubts or initial questions.


Again, about the point you said:
"Interviews serves a purpose, gives decision points on hiring or not hiring a candidate based on the Job description."
You may need to think twice on this. Please go over this:
http://www.businessweek.com/smallbiz/news/coladvice/book/bk981106.htm


Thanks for sharing this. I am versed with Jobs' philosphy around things having gone through his biography. Apple's philosphy is surely inthing these days as were Microsft a while back and may be at par with what Google's' is. And i do agree with it.

I stand by what i wrote about Interviews. Interviews gives decision points to make hiring decisions. Passion may not be explicit requirement in Job descriptions but it is the core of every success story and one can accurately judge that during the Interviews, then we have a winner (provided other requisite skills match). Interviews are about gut because one cannot spend forever judging a candidate unless stakes are very high (hiring a CEO!).