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Mar 15, 2012

In the movie Jerry Maguire, there’s an amusing, but touching, scene where slick sports agent Jerry Maguire, played by Tom Cruise, implores his one and only client, the narcissistic Rod Tidwell (played by Cuba Gooding Jr. in his Academy Award-winning role), to help him understand how he can help Tidwell.

“Help me … help you,” Jerry Maguire implores repeatedly, complete with melodramatic gestures and voice tone.

To fully appreciate this scene, watch the video clip from the movie below.

I heard a sad story from a friend recently that reminded me of this poignant movie monologue because her manager’s behavior has been communicating the opposite to her.

What’s especially telling about her story is that she describes her manager — the president of the company — as a very good man and a very bright man. I share that because it speaks to how being a caring person and being bright doesn’t provide immunity from managing ineffectively. It doesn’t prevent you from doing things that hamstring your employees from delivering the results you want.

Her story also reminded me of common this problem this is, based on the research. For instance, a Harris Interactive survey of 23,000 employees revealed that only 15 percent of employees believed their employer full enabled them to execute key goals.

Only 37 percent reported even knowing what those key goals were.

Clearly, there isn’t a lot of “help me help you” going on in the workplace.

Maybe it’s time for a Jerry Maguire moment

Individual managers and leadership teams would experience much higher levels of productivity, initiative, and overall employee engagement if they delivered their own version of the Jerry Maguire request.

The short version would be “How can I best help you?” The subtext, or subliminal message of this request is:

Help me help you help us, so you can make the maximum contribution, and feel good about knowing you’re performing like a superstar, and … so we can all experience the thrill of achieving spectacular results, and… so we can all reap the fruits of our labor. So, how can I best help you do that?”

Because those intentions and conversations rarely happen, most employers suffer from:

  1. Low employee engagement;
  2. Employees who don’t think in terms of the Big Picture and how their work contributes to it; and,
  3. Employees who don’t look for ways to maximize their contribution or show initiative.

A non-Jerry Maguire moment

In contrast to the above, let me share with you the story my friend, whom I’ll call Sarah, told me. She was hired to design and implement a major project for her employer. Because of how impressed they were with the work she had done as an external consultant, they asked her to join their firm full time.

Since the moment she started, her “new employee experience” has been an emotional roller coaster ride.

Her boss had given her several major projects besides her primary project. None of the assignments came with deadlines or explanations about the Big Picture context, such as “The Why” — how the projects fit into their strategy and mission or other business case factors that could help her make wise time allocation or operational decisions.

To make matters worse, she got the message early on that her boss did not want to spend time with her providing context. In fact, he told her that their meetings were too long and she was taking too much of his time, although HE was the one who talked most of the time: going off on tangents, and holding forth on various topics.

Sarah shared what it’s been like dealing with his delegation style:

“There are tasks he’s given me that I haven’t completed because I’m trying desperately to understand the bigger picture. I think he’s thinking badly of me because of it. It’s the elephant in the room. I haven’t said ‘I haven’t delivered because I don’t know the big picture.’ ”

When I asked her why she hadn’t said that to him, she responded:

I’ve been embarrassed … I think I’ve felt ‘less than’ or not good enough because I can’t do them without knowing the big picture, and he’s made it clear that he isn’t going to spend more time with me on it. He’s like ‘just do it’. So, I’ve been trying to figure it out on my own. I’m trying desperately to get the information from other sources.”

A painful dilemma

After the meeting where he told her she was taking too much of his time and was not organized — a meeting where, as always, he did most of the talking —she went back to her office and cried.

“I was crying out of frustration. I’ve been literally getting up at 3 in the morning and reading through documents and reports, reading reports and other documents. I’ve been getting heart palpitations. I started praying. I’ve thought I’m going to give myself a stroke. I’ve been pouring my heart into this with no help. No one has sat down with me and said ‘Sarah, let me help you understand what we’re trying to do here’. I can’t imagine anyone caring more than I do that this goes well.”

If you’re like most people who have been in their careers for any length of time, you can relate to her painful dilemma. She’s eager to do a great job. She wants to make a great impression. But her efforts are blocked by her manager’s inability to see that he’s not doing the basics of HIS job. He’s not providing her with the essential information she needs to do her job well.

Unfortunately for many managers and their employers, after too many of these experiences, many employees stop caring. They just give up caring and trying. They become one of the 55 percent of employees the Gallup Organization label ROAD Warriors — retired on active duty.

Let’s explore what you can do to help your employees help you help your company.

Before we do, as a side note, in a future article we will explore what Sarah decided to do to take charge of the situation, and how she is now managing up, so she gets the information she needs.

How to set your new employees up for success

If I were coaching this president, here’s what I would recommend he do:

  1. Recognize that if you want to get the best out of your talent, you need to invest your time on them. You wouldn’t buy a race horse and then feed it cheap food or scrimp on a trainer. Smart leaders invest time in developing their leaders. Jack Welch, with all his responsibilities at the helm of GE, spent 30 percent of his time developing his leaders. Time spent educating them on the big picture context and mentoring them will pay off hugely in terms of their contribution.
  2. Share the big picture — over and over, deeper and deeper. Start on Day One sharing your mission, vision, strategic goals, Key result areas, values, etc. Fill in the details as time goes on, keep them updated on changes, and never stop talking about the Big Picture and their role in making it happen. Yes, this is common sense but most leaders I’ve encountered forget to this, which is understandable given how busy they are. You need to make communicating the big picture an integral part of your ongoing communication with your employees.
  3. Remember that new employees don’t want to be seen as high maintenance, so they’re unlikely to tell you that you’re making it hard for them to succeed. No matter how competent or confident they are, they know they are being scrutinized. They also know their boss, especially if it’s the President or CEO, is extremely busy. So even if they are very assertive, they are far less likely at this stage to ask for what they need or challenge management practices that aren’t working. Thus, smart leaders communicate unequivocally that they want — and need — their people to speak up. They make sure their employees know that speaking up and asking for what they need to excel is highly valued. Doing this will accelerate the ramp up time of all new hires.
  4. If you’re not getting what you want, state clearly the gap between what you want and what you’re getting. In this case, Sarah’s boss could say “Sarah, I’m not hearing about any progress on the X project and wanted to find out what’s going on with it and if there’s anything you need from me that you’re not getting.”
  5. Listen, and focus on understanding, not telling. Make sure you listen to understand, not to win an imaginary argument. Execute all the classic deep listening skills like asking open-ended and probing questions. Paraphrase for clarity and understanding. Don’t interrupt or dismiss different points of view.

If you do these things, you will help your new managers help you help your company.