How to use open questions effectively with your staff

I also think it’s important to recap on what we’ve been through, to work through the logical sequence of what is needed.  I have seen it work and not work.  In fact, I have seen it work even if businesses just improve in each of the listed areas and don’t achieve a level of excellence.  This is because there are very few businesses who are achieving a top score on all of these topics.  I know this to be true, don’t believe what other business leaders tell you. 

Before we get into some closing thoughts and what to do next, let’s go through each of the chapters.

Chapter 1: Transitioning your workforce back after COVID-19

The return is not linear.  In this chapter, we covered the Three Bears you needed to tackle as a leader.  There were the Little Bears, which were the smaller questions on how you will return, make things safe and support the physical and mental health of your team.  The Mid-Sized Bear was how you maintain and build on productivity during and after the return.  The Big Grizzly Bear was how you turn this situation into a competitive advantage for your business.  

When you squeeze a lemon, you get lemon juice. Under stress, you’ll see people’s true colours. For leaders out there now is the time when people will see who you really are and what is inside of you when pressure is applied.  For many of us, we are back into lockdown.  Being a leader is not easy and the challenges you will face are often not predictable.  You need to help your team to feel safe if you want them to trust anything else.

Chapter 2: Your Business Strategy

Strategy is about making choices.  If you want to eat the chicken AND the beef, then forget about dessert and don’t even mention dancing.  Too many businesses are unclear about who they are and what they are not.  If you are not clear and disciplined on this, your employees will suffer.  

What is hardly ever considered is that employee engagement can be significantly impacted positively or negatively depending on how clear and disciplined you are with your strategy.  Once you have your strategy clear, your organisational design needs to flow through.

Chapter 3: Your Organisational and Job Design

Organisational Design is not about boxes, titles and connecting lines.  It’s about the organisational energy and how you leverage that energy to deliver value.  You need alignment of people, systems, processes, performance measurement, decision making and rewards to do so.  

The external environment is rapidly changing; through the 4th industrial revolution, the gig economy, along with a reduced need for crystallised intelligence and a greater need for fluid intelligence.  You need to go deeper into how your business operates, including the informal and formal channels that are either enhancing or blocking your progress.

Chapter 4: Your Leadership

Leadership is the one thing you cannot outsource. It’s also the one thing that will kill your business if it is not adequate.  Managers within small-medium businesses often don’t see how much they are destroying the business through their actions or lack of actions.  

The individual contributor who is reliable and knowledgeable and has helped the company grow to where it is might be the worst one of all.  Even if they are the Michael Jordan of your company or industry, if you put them on the bench in a coaching role the team is going to lose.  

Defining what leadership truly means, only promoting people with leadership potential into such roles and investing in the ongoing development of all leaders (especially yourself) is critical to building a high performing team on purpose.

Chapter 5: Your Talent Management

Managers continue to focus on the resume, references and industry experience or technical knowledge as driving factors in hiring talent.  The trouble is that none of these correlate strongly with high performance.  You could have two people who have worked at the same company for the same amount of time, with similar knowledge of the industry – one of them is a high performer and another has just been allowed to bumble along.  

Your talent is one of the most important parts of building a high performing team on purpose.  You need to hire based on talent and mindset, using valid and reliable assessment tools, rather than deciding based on gut feel. 

Chapter 6: Your Learning and Development

Managers love sending people on external training courses with the goal of fixing a skill, knowledge or capability gap.  Employees like going on external training courses and reporting they have learned a whole bunch of stuff.  Sometimes this is true, very often it is not. 

You need a culture of learning that starts with your senior leaders.  If they have a closed mindset and don’t invest in their learning, how can you possibly expect the majority of your team to be open to applying new knowledge?

We are fighting against self-identity, low attention spans and the need for learning to be practical.  Learning needs to be a part of the fabric of the organisation and an everyday activity highly linked to the core strategy of the business.  Otherwise, it is just a tick the box exercise that makes people feel like they achieved something.

Chapter 7: Your Employee Value Proposition

Your Employee Value Proposition (EVP) is the communication and delivery of the total rewards for your people in return for their joining, staying and performance at the organisation.   Be clear on who your target audience of employees are and what they truly value. Because if you try to be everything to everyone or compete on the same criteria as others, you are likely to lose.  

Ensure you cover off a range of topics including career development, leadership and culture, financial rewards and benefits, the work itself and your company purpose. Put yourself in the shoes of your employees and know what you need to dial up or turn down. Make a compelling case that can be articulated clearly. Your EVP may need refining and you may not get it right the first time, so practice this with as many of the target market as possible. 


In other words, here is a one-sentence simplified explanation of each chapter:

  1. Look out for the safety and welfare of your team as you navigate the COVID-19 world and show you can be trusted as a leader                                                                                                                                                     
  2. Be clear on who you are, where you are playing and what you are trying to be the best at.                                                                                                                                             
  3. Design your organisation around the things you need to be great at, finding ways for each part to be better than the sum of each part                                                                                                                                             
  4. Accept that leadership is essential and needs your time and resources, whilst accepting that not everyone makes a good leader, even if they are great at other things                                                                                                                                             
  5. Hire people based on their talent, attitude and ability to learn                                                                                                                                             
  6. Make learning a core part of your business, not something that sits to the side as a task                                                                                                                                             
  7. Find a compelling reason for people to join and stay with your business, remember to communicate it clearly

Are any of these more important than the others?   Yes, but you need to be doing all of them for it to work.  That is, you can’t just hire great people and lead them poorly.  If you have a clear strategy but people are too worried about their safety then they won’t be paying attention.  You have to be at least “good” on each and preferably “excellent” on a few. 

If you can be excellent in two areas and good on the rest, I would pick Leadership and Talent.  The reason for this is that if you have exceptional talent and lead them well, you can work on the other areas.  That is, great leaders and great talent want to learn and so you will not ignore this.  Great leaders will find a compelling reason for their people to join and stay. 

None of these areas are something that can be done with a quick fix.  Nor are they complete after you’ve worked through the activities in this eBook and feel like you’ve ticked them off.  It is a continual piece of work that never stops – because others are getting better and the landscape continues to change. 

Where to next?

If you’ve managed to get this far, then it is likely that you are interested in the topic of building a high performing team on purpose.  I’ve worked with many businesses across the above topics, as well as others that are designed to help drive performance.  

There are other ideas that help to drive performance outside of these topics, such as process improvement and technology. However, this book has focused mostly on people performance and how you can help them perform at their best in that context.

I’m going to leave you with three final pieces of advice, based on what I have seen business leaders do in pursuit of performance.

  1. Don’t copy your neighbour. So, you hear about someone else’s business and they tell you about what they are doing about a particular business challenge and how well it is working for them.  You should be very cautious about taking the word of any business leader who is telling you this.  It could be true, but in more cases than not, it’s not working as well as they say.  Of those cases where it is working well, remember there is a lot of detail around how they are executing it that you may not be aware of.  Finally, what works for their situation may not work for yours.
  2. Don’t give up if it doesn’t work right away. Knowing the content and executing it effectively are two separate things. The tendency to start something, not see immediate value and then give up is dangerous.  This is very different to objectively stopping a process or project because it is the wrong thing.  Be careful of the comfort zone of yourself and other senior leaders in your company and how quickly people go back to what they are used to.  When people revert to their comfort zone they aren’t playing to win, they are playing not to lose.  This results in mediocrity at best.
  3. Be a student for life. If you read widely and learn more and more about the topic of high performance of people at work, the ideas will start to converge on each other.  Validate what I have outlined here with what other people with knowledge on such topics have also written.  Combine this with genuine empirical personal evidence and continue to refine your mental model.  Know that you might need to have heard about a topic 10 times before you take action and so what I have written could be the first, or third or maybe the tenth. 

Final word

Finally, I want to leave you with this thought.  I hate cleaning – but I love a clean house.  I enjoy the outcome of cleaning, but I have no real passion or interest in the process.  Many people want the outcome of what a high performing team brings their business – money, success, pride and many other extrinsic rewards – but they don’t actually have any passion for building a high performing team.  If this is to work, you need to have an authentic interest in this subject.  

You need to want to do it not for the outcome, but to enjoy the process itself.  When I say “enjoy” it doesn’t mean you are loving every moment at the time.  Enjoyment often comes afterward when you are successful – but I mean enjoyment from the perspective that a marathon runner somehow enjoys it 30kms in when their feet are killing them, they are dehydrated and just want to stop.  It’s sick, but that’s how much you’ve got to love the performance.

Coaching others through the process to build a high performing team on purpose is what I genuinely love to do.  The look on the faces of business leaders when they have much greater confidence in their people is what I aim for.  If you have read through this series and believe this is for you, I would love to discuss your plans with you. Feel free to send me a message and let’s start your journey.

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