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The Fundamentals Are All You Need

Every day in my work with leaders and managers, I ask some form of the question: “What’s your biggest challenge as a manager?” Like clockwork, the same basic challenges and concerns come up over and over again – the same 27. Maybe it’s the superstar whom the manager is afraid of losing. The slacker whom the manager cannot figure out how to motivate. The employee with an attitude problem. Or the two who cannot get along.

Of course, I’ve learned through our years of research and training that different challenges yield most readily to specially focused techniques. What’s astounding, however, is how nearly every challenge – even the most difficult – yields to highly-engaged management communication.

Almost always, the ad hoc manner in which most managers talk to their direct reports every day actually makes the most difficult situations inevitable. What is the key to avoiding most of these problems and the key to solving them quickly and with relative ease as soon as they appear? High-structure, high-substance, one-on-one dialogues with every direct report.

The fundamentals are all you need. Here are three real-life examples of how the fundamentals have helped managers overcome some common challenges.
 
1) The Employee with a Time Management Problem

Some people, even working adults, have never really mastered the fundamentals of living by a schedule. As their manager, you may be the first person to hold them accountable for being on time. If time management is an issue for an employee, then it must become a part of your ongoing, one-on-one conversations.

Take this example from an experienced call center manager:
“I had one employee who was always on time for the evening shift, but always late for the early morning shift. Sometimes it makes sense to just put someone like that on the late shift where they are on time. Funny enough, when I talked with him about it, it turned out that he preferred the early morning shift! I just had to figure out a way to manage him to success. This guy was young and inexperienced, and confessed that he really needed some help. So, I taught him how to make and use a schedule. At first, I wrote out a schedule for him, working backward from the 5:00 am start time. That means driving away from home by 4:30 am. What time does he need to get to sleep the night before to make that happen?”

The manager went on: “We made that little schedule, and then I used that schedule to really talk him through it. I think it helped him to just have it spelled out.
 
2) Managing Employees Who Do Creative Work

No matter how creative the work is, there are always parameters. A longtime television industry veteran (referred to as “Tele”) once told me, “Take the writers on a situation comedy. They are engaged in a highly creative process. But they have to keep each teleplay inside twenty-four minutes. They have to work within the characters and backstory of the show. At the end of the day, they need to get a show written, and then write another one.”

The biggest favor you can do for employees doing creative work is to keep reminding them of all the stuff that is not within their creative discretion. Tele told me: “You can’t sit on the writer’s shoulder and nag. That doesn’t inspire. But it helps them a lot when you remind them we need a story with a beginning, middle, and end. We need a main character to want something and then be denied it, and then to try even harder to get it and nearly miss, and then finally get it or not. We need other characters to get in the way or help, on purpose or inadvertently.” That’s the desired outcome. “It helps them a lot when you remind them it’s four six-minute acts. The first is Act 1, scene 1, two minutes.” That’s the structure and timeframes. “It also helps them a lot when you have established characters. There are four main characters you are writing for, and they are established characters.” There are the parameters.

The outcome, the structure, and the parameters. Those are the factors to focus on in your ongoing one-on-ones with creative employees.
 
3) The Great Employee with Bad Behavior

Communication practices are habits. Habits can be changed, but it usually isn’t easy.

Early on in my work, I worked with a very dedicated health care administrator I’ll call Beth. She had a rock-star skill set, and her boss wanted her on his executive team, but her communication style was really getting in the way. So, I was asked to spend some time coaching her.

Beth went into nearly every conversation entirely straight-faced and tight-lipped, all business. She would talk through a printed one sheet she had prepared for each meeting and then offer short, focused responses to the other person’s agenda items. Not exactly warm and fuzzy, but perfectly fine.

The problem? Beth did not suffer fools, and had a signature response that occurred way too often: she would fold her arms, roll her eyes, and say, “No.” I asked Beth if she was aware that some people thought she had room to improve her communication style. She was aware. I asked her what she thought she could do to improve. That didn’t go too far, needless to say. So I decided to zero in: “Beth, let me give you an example. When you don’t like what you’re hearing you often fold your arms, roll your eyes, and say, ‘No.’”

As if on cue, Beth folded her arms, rolled her eyes, and said, “No.” That was all it took. We sat for a minute before she said, “What do you want me to do?”

So, I gave her my best advice. She needed to adopt a replacement behavior. She needed to train herself to behave differently when she felt that signature response coming on. I suggested she open her arms wide, smile, and say, “Yes, please tell me more about that.”

Like I said, Beth was all business. She practiced the new technique with discipline and made it into a habit. In the process, she became much more aware of her communication practices overall. Beth identified additional habits she wanted to change and used the same approach – replacement behaviors – to change those habits.

Very few employees are like Beth – most need a lot more guidance and coaching to make a meaningful change in their habits. But that merely becomes another part of your ongoing, one-on-one dialogue about behavior with that employee.

That’s it – each of the three cases above merely required a focus on the fundamentals, and the rigorous practice required to make the fundamentals really work.


As a manager, do you want to stop agonizing? Do you want to stop struggling? Do you want to sidestep one crisis after another? Do you want to get the most out of your people? Do you want to quickly master the seemingly most difficult management relationships?

Embrace the power of high-structure, high-substance leadership! Contact us to learn more about what Bruce Tulgan and RainmakerThinking can do for your organization, or check out Bruce’s books for best practices you can take with you anywhere.