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Sep 6, 2013

When I work with general managers to help them get their organizations executing better, the first thing I do is talk to their team.

First, I talk to all their direct reports. Then, I also have some one-on-ones or focus groups with their mid-level managers and their employees.

What happens much of the time: The general manager is surprised to find out what I am hearing.

Don’t let this happen to you!

Because I’m listening to their team’s ideas, experiences, feedback, and concerns, I’m figuring out what all the big, real issues are — issues with the organization, with the business, (and sometimes with the general manager).

Talk to everybody! Learn what is really happening.

What is your job now?

When I was in my first executive role, although I had a sort of big-picture plan for what I wanted to accomplish, I will admit I was thinking, “hmm, what exactly should I be doing right now?

My first thought was to look at the roles of all the people who reported to me and start trying to optimize them in one way or another, but I knew that was not the right answer. That was their job.

knew I should be doing more strategic things that spanned the whole organization, but what things, exactly?

I was lucky to have a mentor who told me the secret: Talk to everybody and you’ll know what to do.

Talk to everybody

This was one of the best lessons I ever got about knowing how to do a good job as an executive.

So I did this. In my first two weeks on the job I did 60 one-on-one meetings.

It was exhausting. But it was hugely enlightening. I can tell you, I knew exactly what my job was after that!

The scary and notable part was that if I had not done these meetings, I would have had no idea what the most vital issues to work on really were. I would have gotten bogged down in the way the organization was currently working, instead of seeing how to improve it.

When you talk to the people doing the work, you discover things you will never learn from your managers.

Never count on filtered information

It’s not that your managers are maliciously hiding information from you, but if you never experience the business from the employees, sales reps, and service people’s perspective, you won’t know what business you are in.

You won’t know what you need to be fixing, improving, inventing, or stopping.

For example, I came to relish customer visits, not for the customer contact but for the ride in the car with the sales rep! Talking to the people doing the work shows you the way forward.

Ask everyone in your organization, “What should we be doing better or different? What should we start or stop doing? How am I doing? What would you like to see differently from me?”

Why some leaders resist doing this

Some leaders resist doing this for these basic reasons:

  1. They are concerned that they are going around the managers who report to them, and this feels wrong
  2. Their ego tells them, “I am a big shot, so I don’t talk to the people doing the work, I only talk to other big shots.
  3. They are afraid of what they will hear, or that they will lose credibility if word of the broken things in their own organization is spoken
  4. They think they don’t have time to do this

Well, I hate to break the news, but the issues are already being spoken of, and you will definitely lose credibility if you’re the only one who doesn’t know!

Even if you want to act like a big shot and avoid these conversations, you simply can’t do your job without them.

Make it part of the culture that you are going to spend time talking to individuals. As long as you don’t start directly assigning work to individuals without involving their manager, the managers will not be offended or concerned by your having the conversations.

See what you are missing

Once I started talking to individuals I realized some important things I wasn’t seeing.

Some examples:

  • I learned that there was one manager in my organization who was a bully. This manager was great at managing up, so I couldn’t have seen it without talking to the team.
  • I learned that there were three different projects that were duplicate efforts. I didn’t see this because my managers weren’t talking to each other about it! So that was two problems to solve, the duplication and the teamwork.
  • I learned that the customer satisfaction survey scores were high because the questions were tuned to get the right answers, not to get the real opinions of the customers. Either stop the useless survey or create an effective one.
  • I learned that employees were frustrated that a decision had not been made and they were spinning their wheels waiting for direction. But the decision had been made, so I learned that I had a communication issue.

None of this information was coming up through my direct staff. Once I started seeing this stuff, the light went on.

Know how to improve the business

As a GM, you can use the critical insight you gain from talking to individuals about what’s really happening to improve the business. You will be surprised just how useful the information is, and how much more effective a GM you will be once you know it.

As my roles grew to lead organizations of thousands, I could no longer talk to everybody, but I still made sure to put time in my schedule to talk to the people doing the work, either one-on-one or in groups. I did this every week.

You don’t have time NOT to do this.

It is always very sad when I talk to a GM who tells me “everything is fine,” and then people above, around, and below them all tell me they are clueless.

Sure you will face some conflict and learn issues that make you uncomfortable as a leader, but better to know them and choose what to fix than to assume everything is fine and get even further out of touch with reality.

And you get more strategic

Finally, discovering the real, organization-wide issues also prevents you from jumping in and duplicating the kind work your managers should be doing. Remember, every time you step up, your job changes.

Managing 300 people is a completely different job than managing 30 people. And managing 3,000 people is a completely different again.

If you don’t change your point of view and figure out what the new job is, you will fail to execute and you will annoy your team.

The best way to know what your new bigger job is, is to talk to everyone at all levels. When you do, what you should be doing will become surprisingly clear.

This was originally published on Patty Azzarello’s Business Leadership Blog. Her latest book is Rise: Practical Steps for Advancing Your Career, Standing Out as a Leader, and Liking Your Life.


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