Amazing Leaders Ask These 3 Questions Every Day

For this article by Jo Ilfeld, Executive Leadership Coach on questions amazing leaders ask every day, the image shows a yellow background with a pile of Post-Its with a question mark on the top one.

This article first appeared in Forbes

An amazing leader I’ve worked with over several years just gave notice. It was time for a short sabbatical before finding her next purpose-driven pursuit. When she gave notice, members of her team cried when they heard, her org tried to delay her departure as long as possible, and her organization’s board held her a goodbye party.

Are you the kind of leader no one wants to leave?

There’s a common refrain that I’m sure you’ve heard before: “people join a company and quit a boss.” Whether or not this is truly accurate, in this day and age of the Great Resignation, it’s obvious to ponder how many bad bosses there must be for people to be quitting so easily. Many academics and HR leaders are writing articles about why employees are leaving and what companies can do about it.

While theories are useful, I want to dive into what you personally can do as a leader, to keep your team engaged and morale high. This is not to say that people don’t quit on great bosses, believe me – for the right opportunity, or just because of their current life events, people leave bosses they adore all the time. Perfection is unattainable. Yet, asking the right questions can help you become a better leader and maximize your chances of keeping your team together. . . and high-performing.

Dr. Jo’s Guide To The Three Questions Amazing Leaders Ask Every Single Day:

1. How can I be of service to my team right now?

Amazing leaders touch base. Note this is “touch base” and not “check up on your people.” Touching base might be responding to an email from one of your direct reports or penning a quick line to follow up on a personal item someone mentioned to you, such as “how was your child’s soccer game?” Or it might be pointing someone on your team to a resource that could make their life or job easier in the near-term. Being a great leader doesn’t mean reaching out to every single team member, every single day, but it does mean reaching out freely to help and keep the lines of communication with your team wide open.

When I give talks on high-performing teams, I can’t tell you how many times someone from the company pulls me aside at the end and tells me they don’t receive feedback from their manager, or in some cases, can’t even get an email response from their manager much of the time. This was even echoed to me recently by a colleague mentioning even their C-level client couldn’t get airtime with their boss. I know you’re busy, and I know your schedule is back-to-back, but if you’re not investing daily in your biggest asset – your team – you might soon find their portfolio of work piled on top of yours.

Giving your direct reports the support they need is the ounce of prevention you shouldn’t be postponing.

2. When can I set aside time to step back and be strategic?

Influential leaders step back. Recently I was leading a volunteer organization team and after being polite, they finally gave it to me straight –  I was butting in too much and had too many opinions. Yikes! This is never easy to hear, I get it. Luckily in my case, people had the freedom to speak up. In many workplaces, you don’t hear that you’re micromanaging until the exit interview when it’s way too late. If you suspect that you know how to do your team’s job just as well (or better) than them, you might be a problem. If you know what you want the final product to look like, and even can map out the steps to achieve it, you might be a problem.

The truth is, it’s much easier to give an outcome and let a technical expert dictate the path if you’re never done anything like that before. However, if you’ve held many of the roles on your team earlier in your career, it might be hard to refrain from frequent advice-giving and detailed project management. Often this is in service of trying to make their lives easier. Unfortunately, that’s not how it translates: it comes across as “you’re not doing a good job so let me show you exactly how it should be done.”

Every CFO can do their controller’s job. But should they? Is that the best use of their valuable time and energy? The truth is that you were promoted so that you could think more broadly and strategically about your team’s mission. Every time you wade into your team’s waters, you’re forgetting your highest purpose in your role. Make sure you’re setting aside time every single day to focus on where YOU can add value in your organization; I’m almost certain it’s not by doing your direct report’s job better than them.

3. Who is someone on my team I could recognize today?

Valued leaders are grateful. Empty gratitude can feel shallow so when you’re acknowledging your team’s efforts, be clear about what they did well and what its impact was on you and the organization. Research into teams tells us that high-performing teams have a ratio of 5:1 positives to negatives. Roughly that means your team needs five “Well-done!” type comments to every “This isn’t what I’m looking for. . . “ While you should be able to find positive points to note daily, not every positive comment needs to be a glowing review. However, there should be at least one person on your team you can thank every week with specific praise about exactly what was successful about their effort and why it made a difference for you and the team.

Research also points to the fact that people who feel like they are using their strengths at work, feel more engaged at work. This means you get bonus points as a boss, just in case you want the boost, for linking a positive result to someone using one of their core strengths at work. For instance, “Casey, I appreciated how you got everyone’s feedback on the new report with plenty of time to make revisions before the board meeting. I can see that your hard work at building strong relationships with the senior team is paying off.” In this case, you recognized Casey’s achievement, their impact on the team, as well as their gift for relationship building. 

Let’s be realistic here. Few leaders do all of these three things every single day. Yet I’ve seen that the most successful leaders I coach are doing one or two of these things each day. Sure, some days are more on target than others, but the best leaders see themselves as working together with, and in service of, their team. And trust me, those teams feel it too.

So which questions are you willing to ask yourself every single day?

Jo Ilfeld, PhD

An executive leadership coach, Jo helps C-suite leaders, executives, and high-potential managers develop the flexibility, skill, and frame of mind to meet the challenges of the next five, ten, twenty years…. and beyond. She works with individuals, teams and organizations on four core areas of leadership development. Check out Jo's bio page for more information.

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