A client reached out to me recently and shared a struggle he’s been having.
His organization is going through a difficult time — for reasons that have nothing to do with him, his team, or his part of the organization. Strong headwinds are at play for the entire industry that will likely take several years to play out.
He mentioned that in the recent past, a few higher level leaders have swooped in for site visits and promised resources and changes to help his team better weather the storm. However, these espoused resources never seem to materialize.
Of course, this has only made the problem worse. Members of this person’s team, already struggling to find motivation during a difficult time, get quickly aggravated by promises of help — only to later discover that the promises are empty.
I couldn’t help but empathize with this leader, since I’ve seen this happen before. A usually well-meaning, senior leader comes out for a site visit and make promises to help with something.
And then nothing happens.
I also find myself empathizing a bit with the senior person, too. I’m sure there’s a least a few times in my career when I, hopefully well-meaning, promised things I didn’t deliver on.
When you are visiting a team or site that you don’t see everyday and are surprised about a resource they don’t have, there’s the tendency for a lot of us to want to be the hero and deliver something that helps everybody out.
Sometimes we don’t follow through as senior leaders — and sometimes, we do follow though, only to discover that the situation is, of course, a bit more complicated that we first thought. Good intentions and effort aside, the complexity sometimes requires us to put things on the back burner.
Yet another reminder of these wise words from the book Difficult Conversations*:
Intent does not equal impact.
Our conversation ended up surfacing two actions this leader could take to minimize this issue, going forward.
First, we decided that when a senior leader comes for a site visit, making a simple request in advance could help. The invitation might sound something like this either over the phone or privately, at the start of the visit:
You’ll likely hear some frustrations from my team today, since it’s a difficult time for all of us. I know you want to help support us in the best way possible. If you see a way to help and you’re certain it’s something you can do immediately, we’re really grateful for that. If, however, you see a place to help and the resources/budget aren’t available today, it will help me immensely if we can chat offline first. I’d love to hear what you’re thinking and then find the right way to roll it out, once the resources are in place.
Some senior leaders will get that message loud and clear. Some won’t. That can’t be controlled — but you can still make the request.
Second, in the spirit of teaching people how to help you, some people simply don’t know what to do if they can’t swoop in to save the day. Rather than just telling people what they shouldn’t do, it’s often useful to also be directive on exactly how they can help.
An invitation like this can go a long way:
Thank you for being here to support us. Here’s the way you can help my team the most during this visit. Spend time asking questions about their work. You’re going to hear frustrations. Listen to them. Don’t try to solve them. Once you’ve listened, even if it’s unclear what you can provide right now to help, show them they’ve been heard. They need that right now — and it will also help me a lot in the coming weeks.
I’ve rarely seen a senior person push back on an invitation like this. They may not execute it well, but they’ll likely do better than if you said nothing.
It’s a lot easier to get irritated with the “You’re not helping,” complaint than to do the more proactive work of asking for help. Teach people how to help you, so you’re more likely to get the support you need.