woensdag 5 december 2012

The Four Questions

Khartoum, 2005. While sitting in the small office of a local team member in charge of flight bookings, the following conversation took place:
"Muna, did you know that this chair (opposite to her desk) is broken?"

"Yes, I know."

"So why don't you get a new one or get this one fixed?"

"No, it's ok. (pause) This way people don't hang around in my office too long."
During my expat assignment as HR manager in North Sudan, I enjoyed many of these short talks with my HR administration team of local hires. At the beginning I felt a bit awkward stepping in as their boss. Apart from them being more senior in the team than I was, they clearly out-knowledged me on how the local system works. Since I was only going to be there for a couple of months, I decided to limit my boss activities to these 4 questions:

1. What is it exactly that you do?

2. Do you like doing it?

3. Do you ever run into problems?

4. Is there anything I can do to solve them?

Question 3 & 4 were repeated, almost on a daily basis. As the years passed by, I may have tweaked these four questions when leading other teams in different settings, but in essence I find them still relevant today. Without stating the obvious by promoting the value of servant-leadership, there is another lesson learnt I want to share.

Seven years ago, in this particular context, asking these four questions seemed the only legitimate thing to do. The team members knew what was needed and why, and were competent enough to deliver. Were they all star players? No. Actually it was quite an ordinary, average-performing team. In fact, herein lies the lesson that I have learnt. What needs to be managed if your business has a clear purpose and your staff full command over their work? Apart from flagrant underperformers, people management theories seem to be missing a target population. Yet, there are probably a thousand theories out there with an equal number of consultancy firms who are willing to train your managers in applying them.

I have learnt a very simple rule on how to deal with underperformers:
If they are unwilling, let go of them. If they are unable, bring them in a situation that enables them.

The latter could be that you need to clarify your goals much better, develop someone’s competencies or find that person another job inside or outside your organisation that better fits their abilities. A matter of personal attention. And for your regular performers? Try to solve whatever keeps them from doing their job. That simple!

Do you think my four questions are sufficient to manage your team? Or am I oversimplifying matters?

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