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Sunday, 9 October 2016

What Don’t You Know About Your People? Ask Them The Story of Their Life!

A couple of years ago during the summer we (my wife Hilary and I together with Bailey, our Cavalier King Charles spaniel) took a day out in Cheshire finishing up in Chester.  While Hilary went into a well known store to buy something to eat that evening, I stood outside with Bailey and did some people watching.

We were accosted (in the nicest possible way) by a charming African American lady who insisted on showing me pictures of her Cavalier back home in the US and then took several photographs of Bailey.

I wished her well for her trip to England and she said:

Oh, I come here often.  This time I’m here to speak at a conference”.

Intrigued, I asked her what the conference was about and she said:

It’s an Anglican conference – I’m a Bishop” and went smilingly on her way.

I hadn’t even considered her occupation during our chat.  Looking back I suppose that I could have imagined her being a senior administrator in a business or a head teacher, but that wasn’t relevant in the context of our meeting.

The fact is that unless we ask our people or at least give them the opportunity, we frequently don’t know or even think anything about them other than their interaction in the business and their performance.

Too often our people are allowed to come in to work, take off their coats, take off their brains, hang them both up and then do their allotted time until they go home again having put on their coats and their brains.  What a waste of talent.

I have fond in my one- to-one sessions with business people particularly at the first meeting that it can be disarming to say to someone: “So, tell me story of your life” and the result can be remarkable. If the leader then keeps quiet and listens he/she can find just how happy people are to talk about themselves.

I recall an occasion in a previous business that was developing a coated fabric ostensibly to be used for wet suits for divers.  One of the machine operatives asked the technician the purpose for designing the product.

The operative told the technician that it wouldn’t be suitable for use on wet suits and the technician rather patronisingly asked why would he have an opinion of any value.

The operative told him that he was, in his spare time, the secretary of a nationally based sub-aqua club and he was an acknowledged expert in the subject.  To give the company the credit they pulled the operative off the line for a period so that he could give of his expertise and help to develop a suitable fabric.

It is always a matter of giving people the respect that they deserve and of showing genuine interest in them and their lives.  Of course, trust and confidentiality are vital and need to be stressed.

Even more importantly, we can learn so much more about our people, their interests, their hobbies, their families. There is the constant surprise when we find out that someone does something remarkable in their spare time.

And why shouldn’t those hidden talents be brought to bear in the business to the advantage of the company and, more importantly, to the advantage of the member of the team?

Most of them aren’t Bishops, of course, but they are all individuals with feeling, interests and aspirations, and they deserve to be respected as such.

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