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Rules of engagement

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Rules of engagement

This article by commercial tire sales expert Jason Miller discusses employee management and how to bring out the best in your people. Miller’s book, “Selling by the Numbers,” is available from Amazon.com and other online booksellers.

Can you guess what my most requested leadership seminar was two years ago? How to find, recruit, hire and retain people. The economy was still robust, business was booming and companies were having a hard time finding talented people to keep up with demand.

It probably won’t surprise you to learn that I have not received a request for that seminar in quite some time.

In fact, just last week I was talking with a store manager who ran an ad looking for a technician.
He normally received about a dozen applications when he ran ads in the past. His new ad generated more than 200 applicants the first day, many of whom were over-qualified. Things sure have changed in a hurry!

You might think that the skills needed for finding and keeping good people during boom times are very different from the skills needed to motivate people during tough times. You would be wrong.

They are two sides to the same coin. In boom times, you need to win their “hearts and minds” so they stay with you. In tough times, you need to do the same so they can give you maximum effort and productivity. In both cases, you need your people to be loyal to the cause.

Preventing disengagement

People will be loyal to people, period. If you want to bring out the best in your people, you will need to connect with them on a deeply personal level. This article will provide a few tips on how to do that. You will find the problem isn’t about how to get them engaged; it’s about how to keep them from disengaging.

It starts with the hiring process. Think about the last time you posted a help wanted ad. Many people applied, but were quickly weeded out. A few who looked interesting were brought in for an interview. One of them instantly stood out from the crowd. You were so excited to have such a talented person interested in the job that you began selling them on the position. They were so excited that they started selling you on their capabilities. To both of you, it looked like a match made in heaven.

You hired the person, and the first few weeks were euphoric. Then something happened. An event took place that was inconsistent with your new employee’s expectations. Chances are good that little was said about this inconsistency. But your new employee began to watch more critically to see if this was an isolated incident or a sign of things to come.

In a situation like this, if additional inconsistencies occur, the employee will start to disengage. A competent manager will notice subtle signs of early disengagement. But if nothing is said, tensions will build.

As disengagement grows, the new employee starts wondering if he or she made a mistake and starts thinking about changing jobs. As a manager, it’s your job to identify disengagement and address it head-on. But so many managers do not for fear of confrontation. If the manager continues to avoid the issue, the employee may look for another job. If they find one, they will quit and leave. If they can’t find one,  they will stay, which is your worst-case scenario.

Unfortunately, this phenomenon has become epidemic in today’s business climate. Managers often become calloused to the needs of their team, knowing their employees won’t be able to find better jobs. Feeling unappreciated, employees do the bare minimum, which kills productivity. Even more perilous, these disengaged workers become “spring-loaded.” In other words, as soon as the economy improves and jobs start opening up, the manager can expect a mass exodus.

Bringing out the best

Bringing out the best in people is simpler than you think. But “simple” does not mean “easy.” As you read the following tips, consider the fact that they apply to almost any relationship.

1. People will commit to a worthy purpose. I’ve been selling tires since I was 14 years old. It wasn’t until age 17 that I realized I was selling things that nobody wanted to buy! There was no real glamour in telling my friends that I was a tire salesman. Then I had the good fortune to meet a great boss who changed the way I looked at the situation. He explained to me that every item on every store shelf would not be there if it wasn’t for the tires I sold. Children could not attend school without tires. Ambulances could not bring people to hospitals without tires. Without tires, the world as we know it would not exist! Giving people a higher purpose is critical if you want them to look past the frustrations associated with the day-to-day operation of a tire dealership.

2. Let everyone know how their individual responsibilities contribute to that worthy purpose. Be sure that everyone on your team is aware of the big picture and how goals can be achieved through their specific contributions.

3. Recognize loyalty is a two-way street.  Employees want to know that you’re loyal to them. I can’t even count the number of people I know who did everything they were asked by their employers — and in many cases, much more —  but still lost their jobs due to a restructuring, downsizing or outsourcing.

4. Stop throwing money at the problem. There was a landmark study done that included thousands of people who voluntarily left their jobs. Respondents who were managers or supervisors were asked why their employees left. Not surprisingly, 89% believed their employees left for more money. Then, on a confidential basis, employees were then asked why they left. Only 12% said for more money; the rest left for other reasons. Among the top reasons were lack of respect and poor working conditions.

5. Treat hiring a new employee as you would landing a new customer or even getting married. Set an expectation and then make sure they meet or exceed it. Resist the temptation to “over-sell” the future. If the reality is seriously different from the initial proposal, it will be exposed. Once that happens, the employee will feel betrayed and there may be no way to save the relationship.

6. Feedback must be frequent, consistent and predictable. Everyone wants to know where they stand, good or bad. Reinforcing positive behavior will always bring more. Identifying errant behavior is the only way to correct it.

7. Hire people with unique talents to achieve goals. Strangely, many managers tend to hire people who are like themselves. Since the same traits that make one person effective in one role may be a poor fit for another role, the best candidate may be the manager’s polar opposite. Understand there is no such thing as a strength or weakness. There are only dominant personality traits that serve someone well in one scenario but poorly in another.

8. Instead of pushing solutions onto people, pull solutions out of them. There is no faster method for creating disengagement than telling an employee you know all the answers. When a solution is theirs, they will make sure it succeeds. Worst-case scenario, force feeding a solution can cause malicious compliance. The employee will do it even though they know it won’t work, only to have an opportunity to say, “Hey, it was your idea.”

9. Abandonment is not empowerment. As companies get leaner, I’ve seen a stunning absence of leadership skills. Too many managers believe that throwing a new employee to the wolves is empowering them to make decisions and take charge of their future. Leaving someone to flounder on their own and then blaming them for mistakes is a recipe for disengagement.

10. Take the bullets and share the glory. The next time an employee makes a mistake, you should own up to it. Say, “We messed up,” not, “You messed up.” The use of the word “we” lets everyone know that you are a team. If you always blame your employees, don’t be surprised if they’re afraid to own up to their actions. Conversely, when something great happens, don’t steal the glory. Point out how each of your teammates contributed to the achievement. Leave yourself out of it.

I’ll leave you with a maxim I learned while hiking the Grand Canyon. Many years ago, my friend, Luke, invited me to join him and his group for a hike through the Grand Canyon. Since I had never hiked anything before, I declined. He persisted until I finally said, “Luke, I just don’t think I’m up to the challenge.”

What he told me has stayed with me ever since. He told me that each member of the group had a specific ability that would contribute to the success of the team. Bruce was “Mr. Compass;” with him, the group would never get lost. John was a “mule;” if someone was injured, he could carry their packs. Luke, in turn, would set the pace of the hike. The person who was supposed to coordinate travel and transportation was no longer able to join the group. Luke knew I traveled heavily for business. He thought I was well-qualified to coordinate transportation.

In the months preceding his invitation, Luke determined I had the skills needed by the group. He also told me the group’s motto was, “We all go in together. We all come out together.” Nobody was invited unless the group was certain that each member would succeed in their given role.

Otherwise, the entire group would be at risk.

It was an awesome responsibility. Not only did I have to make it, but I was responsible for everyone else. I’ve taken that philosophy with me in all of my leadership roles. Every manager is responsible for many livelihoods. Employees, customers, suppliers and many others depend on you to get it right. When you hire people knowing that you will not “leave them in the canyon” if something goes wrong, you make better decisions. When your feedback is intended to bring out their best to ensure the group’ success, you communicate more effectively.

Most importantly, when you finish the journey, new members will be amazed at what has been accomplished. Good leaders often believe in their people more than they believe in themselves. That’s how you bring out the very best in people.    ■

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