It still amazes me there are leaders who don’t believe in the importance of fostering effective relationships with their people. And when I say people, I just don’t mean their direct reports but as many as possible within the organization. While I understand that may be impossible in larger corporations or school divisions, it should always be a priority.
Michael Fullan talks about “loving your employees” and I think that in order to love them, you must know them and they must know you. Let’s begin with the second part of that equation, “and they must know you!” Wait, wait, here comes that word…VULNERABILITY! Oh, Brene Brown would be so proud! In order to get to a point where you can really know someone, their hopes and their dreams, they need to know your authentic self. They need to know who you really are and what you stand for. I’m not talking about sharing your inner most secrets or your personal demons but quite honestly, they need to know you! While I may hold the leadership position of Superintendent of Schools, I’m also a son, husband, father and very proud grandpa of two amazing grandchildren. My staff and I would suggest a good portion of my network knows more about me than just simply being a superintendent. And that is where it must start, the beginning of an effective relationship, with trust and vulnerability extended from the leader!
For the past six years I’ve held future plan meetings with every administrator (central office and school) in our division. In someone who believes in moving people around, it provides me with some great insights for possible transfers and so it is extremely helpful for the organization. Getting people not only on the right bus but the right seat on the bus is essential. But the power of the exercise is the knowledge of your people’s plans and then seeing how you as a leader might assist them in fulfilling those plans. Simple questions that ask about future plans, growth areas, opportunities and barriers and successes and challenges all allow the leader to know their employees better. While my meetings are fairly structured, the idea is to portray the conversations as simply “fireside chats.” The more honest they are with you, the more you are able to support their development and sometimes, just get them “unstuck.”
I’m reminded that these types of chats don’t arise without a significant investment in trust building by the leader. You can’t get to that rawness without it! It is the rawness that you need in order to truly know your people and assist them in their own growth. And please don’t confuse “rawness” with the need to become a counsellor. You are coaching at best and listening at the very least, which is often what is just required.
The vulnerability scale for your people is on a continuum. Sometimes, employees are so tight-lipped (and for many reasons) that your ability to coach and sometimes just listen are limited. Sad and very frustrating but the building of trusting relationships is unique for every person, with some it requires a little more flexibility and a lot more skill. No matter, keep trying to know your people…they deserve it!