(Almost) Everything We’ve Learned in 30 Years of Leadership Coaching

Thirty-four years ago, a manager walked into our office and said he wanted to improve relationships with his employees. Today he is the President and CEO of one of the largest food manufacturers in Canada.

It doesn’t matter what kind of company you work in. If you want to become an outstanding leader of people, you have to change what YOU say and what YOU do.

What follows is the basis (in short) of what we taught this President and CEO. Its a guide of actionable team leader behaviors.

As you read the guide, think about these four questions.

1. Are you really as approachable as you think you are with people around you? (Try asking your spouse or significant other)

2. Do your employees honestly feel comfortable coming to you with problems, ideas, or concerns on a timely basis?

3. Do you truly understand how your behavior affects the behavior of your employees?

4. Are you aware of how your employees’ behavior affects your behavior?

This guide outlines practical tips of the kinds of behaviors and activities you need to do to become an outstanding leader of people.

It mainly focuses on working with each employee one on one to build a strong relationship.

The most important thing to remember in all this is the following:

Nothing changes until YOUR behaviour changes.

If you begin to practice the skills we have outlined below, you will become more approachable to your people. Your employees will feel more comfortable coming to you with their problems. It takes time but you may even gain a better understanding of how what you do affects your  employees and how your employee’s behaviour impacts you.

This guide is a roadmap to you changing what you do to lead more effectively.

Let’s get started.

Think about the following situations and what you would do in each one.

Situation 1

You approach an employee and ask them how a particular project is going. Completely out of character the employee snaps back at you with a slightly raised voice “Look I already told you I’m working on it. I will get it to you when I can!”

What specific skill listed below would you use to respond to this person?

Situation 2

An employee is repeatedly missing deadlines for his/her part of the project. Other employees have complained to you that they are falling behind in their own work because they need this person’s data. You have spoken to the employee about this previously and there has been no change.

What’s your next step?

Situation 3

One of your top notch employees seems to be going through the motions and is now just producing average results and is just getting the job done – no more, no less. When you bring this to the attention of the employee she says “What’s the point? I work my guts out on the team and the slackers get away with murder.”

How do you handle it?

Answers to these three situations appear at the end of this guide.

This guide will provide you with immediate tools to start addressing these kinds of situations.

You may be asking the question, so you become better with people. Who really cares?

Here are some of the benefits of really creating a more motivating work environment?

  1. Increased individual and team productivity
  2. Less stress for you and others
  3. Less stuff keeping you up at night
  4. You look better to your boss
  5. Improved team cooperation
  6. Less conflict
  7. Better decision-making
  8. Equal participation (bringing out the introverts)
  9. Better chance of meeting deadlines and budget

What are the behaviors of the best bosses that you ever worked for in your work life? What did they say or do that caused you to put in that extra effort more often than not? If you have never had a previous boss or a good boss, what would you imagine them to be like?

It is important to realize that people work harder for some leaders than for others. Over the years and feedback from thousands of managers, here’s what we have come up with. Sometimes this might seem like stating the obvious but keep in mind there is a huge difference between knowing something and consistently doing something. That’s where many leaders fail.

Now let’s get practical. What do you actually need to do?

1. Set Objectives

Do your employees know specifically what’s expected of them?

What does the work look like done right? When is it to be done?

Bonus question: Do you specifically know what YOUR objectives and priorities are from your manager?

Employees consistently work better and faster when they know specifically what’s expected of them.

2. Give Feedback

Give Praise/Recognition

If I were to ask each of your employees: when was the last time you caught him or her doing something well and praised him/her specifically for that, what would the employee say?

We usually get three responses from people:

  1. My team leader is great at that. He/she is regular and specific about praise.
  2. Never, but he/she constantly criticizes me for the smallest mistake.
  3. Eyes glaze over and the employee says “Yeah, I remember it was about four years ago on a Friday afternoon.”

The point is PRAISE doesn’t cost you or the company a cent, yet consistently, specifically, and sincerely giving it can have the biggest impact on team morale and productivity.

How to Praise

If you do only one thing differently after reading this guide, catch your employees and team doing things well.

Research says that the ratio of praise should be 4 to 1. Four praises to one piece of constructive criticism.

How would you like to be known by your team as you approach them? As: “Gee, I wonder what he’s coming to talk to us about” or as “what did we screw up now?”

To be most effective, praise:

  1. Should be specific
  2. Should occur as close to the employee’s completion of the task as possible
  3. Should contain a specific description of how the task helped you, the team, and/or the department

A Best Case Example

You: “Michael, I see you finished that project yesterday with no errors. That was really helpful and it helped the team meet the deadline.”

A Worst Case Example

I worked four evenings late at work to finish something for my boss and handed it to her and she didn’t even bother to look up and just said, “Put it over there.”

3. Give Constructive Feedback

Employees really do appreciate and grow when they get feedback about tasks or activities that need to improve. The area of improvement needs to be specific, avoid blame and be future-oriented. Avoid using the word why. Use words/phrases like what and how or from now on…..


“Michael, I noticed that there were quite a few errors in last weeks project. What specifically do you think you need to do to get back on track?”

It’s easy to hide behind email or slack when you give feedback and while that is acceptable, it’s far more effective to do this face to face or by phone. Face to face is usually the best way to go.

4. Set up Appropriate Training

Make sure that your employees get the training they need to do the job properly.

Important point: Make sure that your employees get trained to their satisfaction not yours.

5. Follow up

You’re busy running around all day doing your thing and employees may ask you for dozens of things around materials and information. By the end of the day, do you actually remember what people asked you for? Or do you say to them, “Leave it with me. I’ll get back to you” (and then you never do).

One of your main responsibilities as a team leader is to get your employees the information they need on a timely basis to do their jobs. In essence, you work for them as much as they work for you.

How to Follow-up

1. When asked for something, write it down. Put it in your phone immediately (trust us, you will forget within steps of walking away from your employee).

Not only will this make sure you don’t forget, it also shows that you’re paying attention and that your employees matter.

2. If you can’t get what your employees want on a timely basis, you should go back to them and let them know that you’re working on it rather than them having to come to you.

6. Build Rapport

Let’s explore rapport building through two cases.

Case 1

Dave was a project manager who got the job done with his team. Yet his team felt there was a large void. They commented that Dave showed no interest in them as people nor did they know anything at all about him. When this was mentioned to Dave by us, Dave said “I sense this is important but quite honestly I’ve been raised not to bring my personal life into work. This is not something I’m prepared to do.” Not surprisingly, Dave’s career didn’t really progress.

Case 2

Thirty-four years ago, a supervisor walked into our office and said he needs to have a better relationship with his employees. In addition to establishing follow-up and feedback, he paid particular attention to building outstanding rapport with his employees. He continued to do this over the years, both purposefully and consciously. Today he is the President and CEO of one of the largest food manufacturers in Canada. It was a clear case where people skills far outweighed technical skills for career advancement.

What is Rapport?

Rapport is showing through your daily activities that you care about and show an interest in your employees as people.

What rapport isn’t? It is not being best friends with your employees outside of work.

Let’s talk about specific skills. How do you actually build rapport?

a. Find something in common.

You go to movies. They go to movies. You eat food. They eat food. You have families. They have families. You have hobbies. They have hobbies. The faster you can find something in common, the stronger the rapport. An easy way to start building rapport is to ask them on Monday what they did that weekend.That will give you some clues.

Finding something in common with an employee is based on two things.

i. People love to talk about themselves if someone is prepared to listen.

ii. If you ask enough questions, you can always find something in common with someone.

b. Small Talk

It’s not always about work. Small talk is also about taking those few minutes to let your employee show you pictures of their new baby or talk about a family event. Taking those few minutes goes a long way to improving rapport, understanding, and cooperation.

c. Eye Contact

Not too much, not too little

d. Smiling

The fact is employees don’t like to spend time relating to leaders who always look like doom and gloom. Loosen up!

e. Body language

a. As in Seinfeld, don’t be a close talker. Enough said.

b. Touching. Many leaders like to innocently (non-sexual) touch others when they are talking – on the wrist, on the shoulder. Here’s some news for you. Most people don’t like to be touched.

f. Humor

There are three kinds of people in the world.

i. People who are sincerely funny with others.

ii. People who have no sense of humor whatsoever.

iii. People who think they are funny but definitely aren’t (sexual jokes, putting  others down).

If you are sincerely funny, lucky you. If you’re not, here are a few suggestions.

i. Don’t tell lame jokes. They will probably fall flat.

ii. Ease into it by occasionally using relevant cartoons (eg. Dilbert, The Far Side, Herman) in your emails, meetings, or in your work space.

g. Self-Disclosure

What is it?

Being able to disclose personal things about yourself and your life. This doesn’t mean disclosing deep dark family secrets or things you discuss with your therapist. Nobody cares.

Rapport is a two way street. Unless you are prepared to open up about yourself, virtually no one will open up about themselves.

The concept of equalizing rapport.

Every day when you come into work, your employees are more aware of your habits than you are.

With incredible accuracy, they can tell you who you talk to first, who you talk to second and who you tend to avoid.

They can tell you with incredible accuracy who you talk to the longest and who you talk to the least.

They can tell you with incredible accuracy which area you spend the most time in, which areas you spend the least time in and which areas you avoid.

So here’s the thing.

It’s human nature that you are going to unconsciously spend most of your time with the people with whom you have the most in common, talking about common hobbies, sports, and family.

How do you think this looks to the employees with whom you unintentionally and innocently don’t spend much time?

If you don’t make a point of equally trying to build rapport with everyone, you could actually set yourself up for being accused of favoritism.

Bottom-line: Force yourself to spend those few minutes building rapport with the employees you have the least in common with. Go beyond your level of comfort.

7. Ask For Their Ideas

Your employees are at the front line of the work. They do it every day. Make sure that you regularly use questions like

  1. How would you do it?
  2. What’s your opinion?
  3. What do you think?
  4. What are the options?

Prepare to be open-minded. They may be right.

8. Keep Them Informed

Employees work harder and better when they understand how what they do contributes to the company’s overall objectives. On a regular basis, briefly share this information at meetings – things such as major sales. Believe it or not, research shows that employees are more interested in hearing about company developments than employee gossip.

9. Be A Good Listener

To be a good listener you need to practice the following:

  1. Good eye contact
  2. Be attentive but relaxed
  3. Don’t interrupt
  4. Don’t push solutions

Wait for the person to stop talking before asking clarifying questions. However, you can say things like “did you mean this?” or that you didn’t understand.

Ask questions only to help you further understand the employee’s situation.

Try to imagine what the employee is feeling and empathize

Give the employee an empathic reaction to what he/she is saying. You can say something like, ”That must be so frustrating/sad/good…for you”

Pay attention to voice tone, how fast they talk, facial expressions, and body language. All these non-verbal clues will help you understand the situation

Being a good listener means you the team leader must take the time to listen to an employee’s personal problem (but not being a therapist).

10. Be Firm but Fair

There are times when a problem with an employee arises (whether significant or repeated) that now causes a problem for you as a leader.

This usually happens when other employees start complaining or when tasks are repeatedly not done. While you should never stop listening, this is a time when you need to be firmer with that employee about your expectations.

This is where a skill called a three part message comes in handy. This is also the time when you really have to focus your discussion on what’s right and what needs to be done versus blaming the employee. Avoid using the word “why” and instead start questions with “what” and “how.

A three part message would look something like this.

“Dave, I’ve got a problem and I need your help. I noticed that you missed your last 3 deadlines and the other team members are having trouble completing their part of the project. This is creating a problem for me and I’m concerned because I’m close to missing a client/customer deadline. Starting tomorrow, how are you gonna fix this? This is really important to me and the team.”

The three parts of the message are:

                                         behavior, feeling and effect.

The behavior is missing the last 3 deadlines, the feeling is being concerned, and the effect is missing the client deadline.

How do you deal with excuses?

There’s a reasonable chance that your employee will give an excuse – blaming others, didn’t have the time, or the dog ate their assignment.

A helpful tip is to acknowledge and repeat:

“Okay Dave, you may have a point and if it is the case of _____ I will look into it. However, we’ve discussed your missing deadlines several times before and this really needs to be resolved. So tomorrow we need to sit down and look at how you’re going to solve this.”

11. Develop your Employee’s Career

Discuss career development with each employee at least once or twice a year.

What are the person’s career goals?

Where do they see themselves several years from now?

How can new assignments or tasks within the company help the person grow?

Keeping up to date with them as well as supporting each of your employee’s career goals helps you by ensuring a higher level of employee engagement at work.

Answers to the Questions at the Beginning

Situation 1

You stand back and you say something like “That’s not like you. Is everything okay?”

The predominant skill to use here is listening. Be a good listener and the employee will be the one coming up with most of the solutions.

Who owns the problem? The employee owns the problem and you are just there as the facilitator to help them get to a solution.

Situation 2

You approach the employee and you say something like “I have a problem and I really need your help.” You describe the problem as it is affecting the whole team. Then you offer a solution such as “I need this solved by next week unless you can come up with something better.”

The predominant skill to use is be firm but fair.

Who owns the problems? You, the team leader as well as the employee

Who should be coming up with the solutions? Both you the team leader and the employee in a collaborative discussion where the leader is firm but fair.

Situation 3

You sit back and say “I am glad you told me this. Thanks for the feedback. What would you like me to pay more attention to?”

Get suggestions from the person as to what needs to change to make it a more motivating environment. Thank the person for their feedback. Tell them you are going to follow-up with them.

The predominant skill to be used is listening. You will also be using your following up skills.

Who owns the problem? You primarily own the problem.

Who should be coming up with the solutions? You


There you have it. A guide of 11 actionable behaviors that will put you on the road to being a highly effective leader. It certainly doesn’t stop here but it’s a solid beginning.

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