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An IT expert called Dave Platt famously said ‘managing senior programmers is like herding cats’ and if you google the phrase, you’ll even find that December 15th is Cat Herders Day. I can’t remember where I first heard the saying but I’ve been using ‘managing people is like herding cats’ for much of my 20-odd year career as a leader. Firstly, because it’s a great image; cats wandering all over the place, doing their own unique thing, and secondly because it describes managing people so perfectly.

Here’s what you already know if you’re in a role that involves managing or leading people. It can be tricky. Really tricky.

No matter how many people are in your team, you’re dealing with a bunch of different personalities, different styles of working, different needs of motivation and engagement, different ways of learning and the list goes on. Each team you work with is a different herd of cats. When I started out in my first management gig (and for many years after) I found it exhilarating when it went well and exhausting when I got it wrong. And I got it wrong a lot, but I learnt a heap along the way.

As a consultant I now do a lot of coaching with managers and leaders and it’s much easier for me to get a clearer perspective. I’m not as close to the daily grind and I am not in the middle of all of the relationships that each manager has to juggle. Instead I help managers untangle wicked issues, grow their confidence and build their toolbox of skills.

Now my exhilaration comes from watching managers have those ‘aha’ moments of insight into their own thoughts and behaviour and a new perspective on what’s happening in their team. I especially love working with new and aspiring managers because I still remember riding that rollercoaster of learning, falling, rising, learning (rinse and repeat) all while feeling like I was hanging on with a deathly grip and flying by the seat of my pants.

And so, I want to share some key tools that I think every manager needs in their basic toolbox. These are the tools you can grab any time in any situation. If you were a cat herder these would be your cans of tuna. They’ll help you build relationships, navigate tricky conversations and connect with your team at an individual level. Here are four tools that I think are essential for any manager’s toolbox:

  1. Know your strengths and leverage them every day. Research shows that when people know and use their strengths at work every day, they are happier, more productive and more engaged. When you know your strengths, you can be more authentic and use your strengths to manage your weaknesses. You can also the right strength, at the right level of intensity, in the right situation to get the best possible result. Let me give you an example. Let’s say you’re about to introduce a new system of keeping client records and one of your strengths is communication. When you use this strength well you can explain that new process or program and what you need from each member of the team. You’ll be clear and concise, and you’ll check in with each team member that they have understood. Right strength, right intensity for the right situation.

If you don’t know your strengths, you might default to a different one that’s not getting to get you the results you need. And chances are you might turn up the volume on those strengths a bit too high, especially if you’re under stress. An example for you: let’s say another one of your strengths is positivity. You tell the team about the new client records system and you oversell it. They start to ask questions and there’s a low rumbling of discontent. Because of your natural over-the-top optimism, you tell them how great it’s going to be and that they should just give it a go. You’ve dismissed their fears (most likely without even knowing it) and at best they’ll grudgingly give it a go, at worst they’ll dig in and refuse to get involved.

You can find out more about strengths by checking out the Clifton Strengths tool, the VIA Character Survey or the StandOut assessment. To supercharge your ability to know and use your strengths, I’d strongly recommend coaching (because I’m a certified strengths coach and I’ve seen the results with my clients). Check out more about what you can get out of coaching here.

  1. Learn to listen. I mean REALLY listen. There’s that great Stephen Covey quote; “most people don’t listen with the intent to understand, they listen with the intent to reply”. We’ve all been there, we’re just waiting for the other person to take a breath so we can jump in with our supremely valuable contribution to the conversation. I mean, whatever we are about to say will be clever or thoughtful, or funny and we just need to say it!

I can fall into this trap as easily as the next person. Because of my strengths I get really excited by ideas, sharing information and future possibilities. All of this adds up to distraction. I’ve had to train myself to listen with genuine curiosity. I’m someone who loves to learn so when I want to really connect with someone, I ask them a question that I don’t know the answer to and then I turn my whole attention to them. I put down my phone, turn away from my computer and give them my undivided attention.

People just want to be heard. In my experience you can navigate almost any situation and build trust by just listening to what the other person has to say. Let them know you’ve heard them by reflecting back what they’ve said. You can reflect back an emotion (“it sounds like you’re really excited about …”) or something they’ve said (“so you think your next step with the client will be…”). Use some of the words the person has used and they’ll know you’ve been listening.

Also allow your body language to show that you’re listening. Good eye contact, an interested expression and leaning slightly towards the person are all signals that you’re listening. Tapping your foot, folding your arms and checking your phone are just some examples of connection killers so you want to stick clear of them. For more listening tips, check out my earlier post on the power of listening.

  1. Ask great questions. Whenever I am coaching managers, I suggest they have three questions in their toolbox. The first one is ‘help me understand’. It’s a really open question that encourages people to share their thoughts and feelings about a situation. Its especially useful when emotions are running high. Let’s say someone comes to you and they’re clearly angry or distressed about something that is happening at work. When you say ‘help me understand’ you’re saying ‘I want to help you move away from the pain you’re going through’. Once you’ve asked then listen with your full attention.

The second question I find really useful is ‘how is that for you?’. The great thing about that question is that it works for people who have a thinking preference and also people who have a feeling preference. Let’s go back to that person who has come to you angry or distressed. When you say ‘help me understand’ they tell you that a whole lot of work has been handed to them at short notice because a colleague has gone off on leave at short notice. They’re clearly unhappy but you want to know more so you can support them. So instead of asking ‘what do you think about that’ or ‘how do you feel about that’ you ask ‘how is that for you?’.

Ask someone who makes decisions based on logic and facts (thinker) how they’re feeling and they’ll have to stop and change gears to work out how they are feeling. Same goes for someone with a preference for making decisions based on personal concerns and the people involved (feeling). Ask them what they think about a situation and they’ll have to make a mental shift. When we ask a neutral question like ‘how is that for you?’ we give them space to choose their natural preference and they can tell their story in a way that works best for them. You’ll be more likely to find out what’s at the heart of their anger or distress and then you can move to the third question in my basics toolbox.

The third question is ‘what could the next step be?’. Again, it’s a neutral question and you’re inviting the person to generate their own solution. Most of the time we are the best person to find the solution to our own challenges. The exception to this is if we are feeling completely overwhelmed, and then we might need some help from an expert like a coach or counsellor). We know what works for us. Sometimes it might take us some time and thought to work it out but with the right questions and support (like knowing it’s ok to take risks and fail) we are the experts in our own lives. So, step away from saying ‘what you need to do is…’ and ask ‘what could the next step be?’

Here’s a sneaky bonus question if you ask ‘what could our next step be?’ and you hit a wall. If the person just can’t come up with any options, try to resist jumping in with your own solution. I’ve always taken the approach of building capacity in people. Basically, that means helping people build their skills at every opportunity. Which means not jumping in and rescuing people but instead sitting or walking alongside them and being a sounding board so they can build their ability and confidence to solve problems, increase their resilience or any number of work and life skills.

  1. My final tip is become a strengths seeker (I mean, what sort of strengths coach would I be if I didn’t include this in the basic toolbox?). If you want to build trust and connection, actively tune in to people’s strengths. After all, we all want to be seen and appreciated for who we are. You could ask your team to do an online strengths quiz, talk about the results or get some team coaching.

If you want to start right now, without any investment of budget, just turn your attention to noticing people’s strengths. There are clues in people’s behaviour and what they say when things are going really well and when things are challenging too. After all, weaknesses are usually over used strengths. That team member who always points out when things are unfair or is a stickler for the rules; one of their strengths is likely to be a sense of justice. The person who is always coming up with wildly creative ideas but has trouble following through is probably a real innovator.

When you see past the weakness and focus on the strength you can talk to the person about how they can use that strength for good (instead of evil). Go back to point 1 – right strength, right situation, right intensity. Help them work out how to use that strength and which of their other strengths they might need to dial up so they can be effective in their role. Remember, when they can use their strengths they’ll be happier, more engaged and more productive.

Now, most of the examples I’ve given have been about dealing with challenging situations. I use scenarios those because research shows that managers often avoid uncomfortable conversations because they aren’t confident that it will go well. From experience I know that you can use these basic toolbox skills to get you through those tricky discussions.

The great news is that you can also use these skills in any conversation (at work and at home!). If a team member comes to you with the news that somethings has gone really well, you want to give them your undivided attention and celebrate it! When you listen to them and ask great questions, you give them the space to revel in their achievement and really soak in those positive feelings. You want to notice and point out the strengths that they used to achieve their success. You can do all of those things with the toolbox basics.

Whilst managing people may be a lot like herding cats, when you’ve got some tools within easy reach, instead of spending your energy weaving and chasing your team, you can get to know them better and build a strong basis of trust. And we all know that when you sit calmly and quietly a cat is much more likely to come over and join you than disappearing and only showing itself when a meal is being offered.