Influencer QA

How to Develop Your People

David Maxfield

David Maxfield is coauthor of two bestselling books, Change Anything and Influencer.


InfluencerQ Dear Crucial Skills,

As a manager, I’m guilty of getting very task focused and not taking the time to develop my people. I focus on my customers and put them above all else—usually taking it upon myself to handle the really difficult customer issues. As a result, I fail to give my people a chance to be “bloodied” or to “earn their stripes” with tough, demanding customers.

Mixed-up Manager

A Dear Mixed-up,

I’ve coached leaders for more than thirty years, and you’re wise to recognize that this is a serious problem. Our research shows that nearly half of all managers struggle with the same challenge. It’s a true career blocker.

I think you described the dilemma perfectly. You want what’s best for your customer and you want to minimize headaches and opportunities for potential screw ups. You decide to either handle the customer yourself or assign one of your experienced staff. It may sound like a smart way to operate, but in the long run, you will fail as a manager. Managers need to have every member of their team build the necessary competencies to become “experienced.”

There are lots of ways you might address this challenge. I’ll suggest three potential strategies, and then use one as an example:

1. Build staff development time into your day. For example, regularly have inexperienced members of your team partner with you when you work with customers. Coach them in advance regarding the customer’s situation and assign them a role that requires face-to-face problem solving with the customer.

2. Create a formal mentoring program. For example, assign senior and junior team members to work together.

3. Use pairing across your team. For example, have people work in pairs, and mix up the pairs on a frequent basis.

Each of these strategies can work, but the key is to support it using all six sources of influence. Make sure you document what you do and the results you obtain—collect data and use it to analyze and adjust your strategy.

I’m going to use the “pairing across your team” strategy as an example. Menlo Innovations, a software development firm in Ann Arbor, Michigan, uses pairing across their organization. Programmers work in pairs and share a single computer. They are paired with a different partner each week and never get to write code without a partner looking on.

The obvious question is whether or not having two people at one computer cuts productivity in half. The answer is, “No!” Pairing has cut mistakes and missteps at Menlo Innovations dramatically. It has greatly expanded the number of programmers who can handle tough, demanding challenges and has resulted in amazing levels of customer satisfaction.

What if you tried pairing your people? Imagine you paired people on every project that didn’t involve travel. And you switched up the pairing fairly often. My bet is that you would provide a higher level of customer service while building incredible bench strength within your team.

Suppose you have an important presentation coming up with one of your most demanding customers—a presentation on market analytics. You’d have one of your senior people pair with a more junior analyst and place the keyboard in front of the junior analyst. They’d work together to prepare the presentation, and then tag team in front of the customer.

Let’s suppose you thought enough of this idea to give it a try. You would want to test it in a way that gives it the best possible chance of success. Below are a few ideas, drawing on the six sources of influence:

Measurable Results. The results you want are improved customer satisfaction and improved skills/experience across your team.

Vital Behavior. The vital behavior is to pair up people, always have them work with a partner, and switch the partners often—perhaps weekly so people continually cross train.

Personal Motivation. Take a team to visit Richard’s organization in Ann Arbor, or visit their website to see case studies of how well it works. My bet is that a single visit will convince you and your team to give it a shot.

Personal Ability. Menlo Innovations has been at this long enough to build “people skills” into their interview and selection process. You can begin by setting some ground rules, anticipating concerns, and role playing how to handle these concerns. And, of course, reading Crucial Conversations will help.

Social Motivation & Ability. Partners will motivate each other. Working together increases accountability and focus in marvelous ways. Of course, you will also be a resource by coaching all the pairs.

Structural Motivation. Your organization’s reward system probably focuses on individual accomplishment which can undermine teamwork. Make sure everyone knows their performance review will not only focus on individual performance, you also will review their ability to help their partners succeed.

Structural Ability. The biggest structural change is taking away people’s computers. At Menlo Innovations no one has their own. They truly share. Again, this may be difficult at your organization, but what if you tried it for a month? People would have to remove Facebook and iTunes from their computers, but is that such a great loss at work?

Let’s step back a minute. You might not go with pairing. You might select a different approach to combine mentoring with customer service; however, whatever you choose, make sure you line up all six sources of influence to support your vital behaviors. Evaluate your results and make course corrections as you move forward.

Again, thanks for sharing your challenge. If you tackle this problem, not only will you help your people “earn their stripes,” you’ll make yourself more eligible for a few extra bars on your career jacket.


Crucial Conversations QA

What Happened: Customer Support Conversations

This letter was received in response to a question Kerry Patterson answered in the June 15, 2011 Crucial Skills Newsletter titled, “Surviving Customer Support Conversations.”

Dear Kerry,

Your response to my question was very useful and helped me resolve the problem. I am very hot-tempered and I have always had a “ready-fire-aim” approach when trying to deal with customer service issues. After reading your article, I thought back to my past communication with this company and realized where I was too quick to jump to violence and not at all receptive to what people were trying to tell me. During the next couple of calls, I applied the good advice you shared to resolve the issue. For example, I reminded myself that the person on the other end of the line does not set the policies and most likely is powerless to change them. Also, I made sure to think about what I really wanted.

I have since had two other situations (with other companies) where I needed to contact customer service and found the issues much easier and faster to resolve. I am satisfied that the reason for the successful interactions is because I stopped and thought before dialing. I thought first about mastering my story: even though I have had bad experiences in the past that does not mean this experience has to be the same. I then thought about what I really wanted to do—get answers to my questions—and made a deliberate effort to speak politely and factually in order to accomplish my objective.

I found the closing points of your article interesting. As I mentioned, I am hot-tempered, I come from a long line of hot-heads, and surprisingly we all have issues with cholesterol and blood pressure. I have enough cholesterol issues, so I am going to make an extra effort to handle myself better during these calls, so I do not contribute to my existing health concerns.

Thank you for your excellent response to my question.

Frustrated Customer

Editor’s Note: If you would like to share similar feedback about how the authors’ advice has helped you, please e-mail us at

Kerrying On

Kerrying On: Feeling Frazzled?

In early 1951, a few months before I entered the first grade at Larrabee Elementary School, the U.S. embarked on one of the most peculiar and troubling lines of research ever conducted. Sixty-five miles northwest of Las Vegas, in a place known as the Nevada Proving Grounds, scientists began detonating nuclear devices. You know, just to see what would happen.

I first became aware of these blasts when Mrs. Plunk, the rather gruff principal (who ruled Larrabee not unlike General Patton ruled the Third Army) started projecting movie clips from the Nevada test site onto the cafetorium wall. When each nuclear display ended, Mrs. Plunk blew a whistle and we kids scattered about the room like—well, like kids in a nuclear-attack drill.

After careening about wildly and trying our best not to scream too loudly, we eventually found an empty spot on the edge of the floor, laid face down, and placed our hands tightly behind our necks. We needed to practice this ritual, Mrs. Plunk earnestly explained, in the off chance the Soviet Union—which was also testing nuclear bombs—tested them on Larrabee Elementary School.

One day, the newsreel contained even more haunting images than usual. This time, American soldiers, dressed in green fatigues, toting rifles, and holding their helmets tight to their heads, walked resolutely into a cloud of nuclear dust as the latest blast rolled across the desert. Would the guys be knocked down? Would the blast break their bones? Or, in the words of six-year-old Bobby Keefer who was lying face down next to me, “Would the soldiers wet their pants?”

If you were to view this same footage today you’d surely ask, “What were those scientists doing to those poor soldiers?” It’s not as if the dangers of radiation were a secret. Certainly not in 1951. And yet, the testing continued.

You can’t watch this “science-gone-mad” video without asking, “What similarly insane things are we doing today?” What modern invention have we wholly embraced, appears to have made our lives better, but is actually slowly killing us? In short, what “nuclear walk” are we taking today?

For some it’s plastic bottles. Don’t people realize that plastic slowly leaches Bisphenol A, which will eventually turn us all into helpless blobs of oozing flesh? Or how about holding cell phones close to our brain while they emit invisible death rays? That can’t be good, right?

Here is the latest trend that has me concerned (this week). If you took a vacation nowadays with a group of a dozen adults of differing ages and backgrounds, you would quickly note that they fall into two groups. First, you have those who set aside their worries, take their minds off their jobs, and throw themselves into the true spirit of vacationing. That’s Group One.

The people in Group Two offer up the occasional “Ooh!” or “Ah!” but they aren’t exactly living in the moment because they haven’t exactly unplugged from their jobs. They’re digitally linked to their offices—constantly fidgeting with their electronic devices, dashing off messages, and whispering underneath the tour guide’s lecture. Group Two folks are also highly stressed from trying to keep one foot in the moment and the other back at work.

My, how things have changed! Thirty years ago as I prepared to depart on my first overseas vacation, my boss kindly exhorted, “Please don’t phone us. Don’t even think about us. Disconnect, relax, and recharge your batteries. We’ll take care of whatever comes up.”

Contrast this thoughtful advice with the experience of two of my friends, Lisa and Jordan, who work as managers in a firm not far from my office. Lisa and Jordan’s bosses (like many of today’s leaders) don’t offer a comforting speech as their employees head out for a week of family fun. Quite the contrary. Lisa and Jordan’s bosses insist that they respond to phone calls, e-mails, and texts—24/7—especially during vacations.

Of course, much of this torture is self-imposed. There are advantages to being constantly connected to work. For one, you gain flexibility. You can take a mid-afternoon break to attend a niece’s soccer game and then make up for lost time by connecting to your office and working from home later that evening. In addition, if you stay continually tethered, you can also promptly respond to your phone calls, e-mails, and texts. You can be amazingly prompt and everyone wants that.

But what if you (dare I say it) unplugged from the grid once in a while? Would disconnecting for, say, an hour or so actually make your life better? In a word, yes. Consider the effects of constant interruptions. Every time you stop your current task, deal with an interruption, and then return, you place the original task from short- to long-term memory, put the new job into short-term memory, and then reverse the entire process to get back on task. Completing this conceptual lifting dozens of times a day creates stress, which (and the research on this is yet to be completed) just might lead to distress and all of its attendant health problems.

As if this weren’t bad enough, frequent interruptions can also lead to job dissatisfaction. Instead of working continuously for periods of an hour or more on a task that’s challenging and solvable (elements that career expert Mihály Csikszentmihályi insists contribute to job satisfaction), we purposely interrupt our flow, add stress, and make our jobs far less enjoyable.

There’s more. On those occasions where blurring the borders between work and home leads to additional time on the job (which it usually does) this too exacts a hefty toll. In a study recently conducted in England, those who labored 11 or more hours per day had a 67 percent higher risk of coronary heart disease than their less-tethered 9-to-5 office mates.

Even if you don’t work extended hours, the mere act of remaining connected can be surprisingly damaging. Waiting to be interrupted—expecting to be interrupted—can trigger a stress response similar to that of actually being disturbed. And then, of course, there’s the whole problem of being interrupted, flitting off to the new task, and its impact on ADD. No matter your electronic devices, if you’re constantly switching tasks, it’s not long until you become less able to hold focus.

Obviously, with the release of each new innovation, there’s much to think about. As we invent and embrace new devices, we may not know the toll they’re taking on our mental, emotional, and physical health until it’s too late. Whether we’re setting ourselves up for job dissatisfaction, family tension, failing health, or ADD, one can only speculate. So, what’s a person to do?

As a starter, make the current practice of remaining constantly tethered and frequently interrupted part of your family and corporate dialogue. There’s no need to suffer quietly—you’re not alone. In fact, over two thirds of subjects recently surveyed in a poll conducted by the bureau of labor statistics suggested that they’ve experienced problems with their employer because of conflicts between their job and their duties as a parent. Much of this unresolved conflict is a natural consequence of today’s constant tethering.

So, speak up. Talk openly about the two-edged sword of innovation. What new invention or trend is working for you? What’s slowly killing you? Or better yet, how is an invention or trend that’s working for you, also killing you? Decide how and when you want to be connected and where and when you want to be interrupted. Make it a choice, not the natural extension of embracing what appears to be a helpful new tool.

And remember, it’s not an all-or-nothing proposition. You’re not required to take a vow of digital celibacy. You don’t have to chuck your devices; you just have to control them so they don’t control you. For instance, you can set your devices to notify you only at certain times; as opposed to the instant a message arrives. You can also negotiate with colleagu
es and bosses to watch your back while you vacation, disconnect, and recharge your batteries. Friends can and should be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. Friends don’t let friends walk into a nuclear cloud.