Open the Door To Greater Experience

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to disrupt our communities, leaders and managers are trying to come to grips with the knock-on effects to their workplaces and their workforce. The old style of management – top down, with a command-and-control structure – just doesn’t work in this wildly uncertain world with so much rapid change.

The best leaders know they need to immerse their team members in new experiences. People need to deal with a range of new situations – such as gently encouraging colleagues to do appropriate physical distancing, getting to and from work safely, and managing “Bunnings Karens”!

Many of these situations require skills and judgement that go beyond just the standard systems, processes, and procedures of their jobs. People don’t learn these skills by just sitting on the sidelines and watching you do it. That might get them started, but great leaders know real judgement comes from experience – so they look for opportunities to give their team members more experience that matters.

As Theodore Roosevelt said:

“The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds.”

I’m not suggesting you throw your team members into an arena with lions and a baying crowd! But if you really want them to learn, give them the chance to do things, even with the risk they will make mistakes. You can minimise the risk by first giving them the chance to observe and learn, and of course you will assist them with appropriate training and procedures.

But at some point you need to give them the chance to experiment, experience, and shine.

Ask them for advice

Ask for their comments, suggestions, and advice. They are looking at things with new eyes and a fresh outlook, so they might be able to suggest improvements and enhancements.

It’s not always easy for them to offer advice. They might be reluctant to criticise, inexperienced in making succinct suggestions, or worried about overstepping their authority. Rather than just asking for suggestions, ask these three specific questions:

  1. What could we stop doing?
  2. What could we start doing?
  3. What should we keep doing?

Don’t just ask for their advice; be willing to act on it. In fact, adopt the attitude that you will act on their advice unless there are really strong reasons against it. Even if it means extra time, effort, or money, do it anyway. After all, you’re not always the best judge of the outcome, and you might be surprised at the results.

More importantly, acting on the advice shows them you value and appreciate it, which will encourage them to speak up more often in the future.

Send them to networking events

Send your team members to relevant networking events (in person or online). Start by finding (or asking them to find) events of their peers, and then gradually move them up to events with more senior people.

This is one area where you should beware of pushing them too far too soon. People at a networking event expect to be among peers, and many of them won’t make a more junior person feel welcome (and some will actively make them feel unwelcome). Attend the first such event with them, so you can make the introductions and position them with the other people there.

Put them on the front line

Give them a chance to not just observe customers, but interact with them – in the retail shop, at the incoming call centre, on social media, at the reception desk, or wherever else your organisation interacts with customers. You can’t do this with every customer-facing role, but just giving people exposure to customers in some way is better than none at all.

Organisations like Zappos and JetBlue are famous for giving their staff flexibility in dealing with customers. Even if your organisation doesn’t have this culture, don’t hold onto the reins too tightly. Give them a bit of freedom and you might be surprised at the results.

Give them a voice

Invite them to contribute to your internal newsletter, the external quarterly magazine, the internal blog, or your social media pages.

Some of these platforms might be tightly controlled, so you might have to work hard to persuade their managers to accept other contributions, let alone contributions from “junior” people. But it’s worth the effort, not only for your team members, but also for the organisation as a whole.

Don’t limit your thinking to the written word. They could present (or co-present) at meetings, deliver training courses, publish videos, and present at online meetings and webinars.

Build their authority

Some team members will be so keen about speaking up that they want to become an authority in their own right. Give them a platform of their own, beyond just being a contributor to a shared platform. The focus shifts from “This month’s newsletter has an article by Shamini about our supply chain process” to “Shamini is an authority on supply chain management, and we’re proud to host her blog on our Web site”.

This might take even more effort to get approved, but again it’s worth it. Having a reputation as an organisation that fosters thought leadership is good for everybody.

Support their existing platforms

Some team members will already have a strong online presence. If that is aligned with your team or organisation, help them develop it further.

For example, Gillian might be passionate about women in leadership, and already has a blog, Facebook page, and Instagram channel about that topic. Look for ways to support her – for example, giving her time to work on this passion, finding events for her to attend (or present at), showcasing some of her work in your internal publications, and so on.

Be careful not to “take over” her platform. You can invite her to contribute to internal publications, but don’t force her to bring everything under the organisation’s umbrella. If she’s passionate enough to have built a following, she’s passionate about it being hers. Support her in continuing to build her expertise and authority, and you will benefit anyway.

Make them a mentor

They might have a mentor, but invite them to be a mentor as well. This doesn’t have to be mentoring somebody junior, as traditional mentoring would suggest. It could also be mentoring somebody more senior in the organisation, in an area where your team member has expertise – for example, social media, consumer behaviour, technology trends, or consumer electronics.

Tap into their networks

Your team members operate in completely different social circles than you, so you might think their networks are not valuable to you. However, the exact opposite might be true. This difference might be useful because they connect you to completely new people. Mark Granovetter called this “The Strength of Weak Ties”, in his paper of the same name, which has become one of the most widely-cited papers in the social sciences.

Ask your team members to reach out to their networks when you need help with recruitment, product recommendations, product testing, and so on.

Let them do more meaningful work

If they express an interest – or even passion – in something non-work-related but which you can support, do your best to offer resources to support them.

Some organisations actively support employees who want to make a community contribution. For example, mining giant Rio Tinto runs a “Dollars for Doers” program, which rewards employees who volunteer significant amounts of personal time to a not-for-profit organisation by providing $5,000 to that organisation, on behalf of the employee. Other organisations even make community work an integral part of each employee’s role, and tie it to their salary package.

Even if you don’t have this authority, you can still support them by giving them time and other resources within your control.

Consider this an investment rather than a cost. Your team members will be more motivated to do their regular work, and might also find creative ways to link their regular work with their community work.

Empower the connectors

Finally, don’t assume that only you can help your team members. Find the natural connectors in your team (perhaps the people always on social media!) and ask for their suggestions. They might host social events with other teams, start a monthly mastermind group, or tap into their social media networks to find a guest speaker for a team meeting.


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