This 60-Second Conversation Will Send a Powerful Message to Your Employees

January 2, 2018

For managers, the best staff members can operate at two different altitudes — they take care of their work but also help drive the broader goals of their company.

Call them “dual citizens.” That’s how Helene D. Gayle, CEO of The Chicago Community Trust, described such employees in my interview with her when she was running CARE U.S.A. “ We can’t have people who are competitive and just thinking about their turf,” she told me. “You’ve got to be thinking about your own interests but also wearing that broader corporate hat.”

Hard to argue with that logic. But how do you make people think like dual citizens?

Here’s a simple approach from Kerry Hatch, a colleague of mine at Merryck & Co., a leadership development and executive mentoring firm. During her years as a general manager, she had a straightforward conversation with new employees when she started working with them.

She would say that they should do their job X% of the time and also help her do her job, as their manager, Y% of the time. “The theory is that if we are all thinking about what is best for the business overall, individually and collectively, we will have a much better chance of doing something fabulous and transformational in the marketplace,” she told me.

The X and Y percentages in that formula depend on how long someone was in their job. “If you are brand new to the role, you can spend 90% of the time on your job and 10% thinking about the business overall,” Hatch said. “After six months, the mix should be 80% and 20%, and after a year, it should be 70% and 30%. I would never expect them to spend less than 70% of their time on their role.”

It’s a clever approach because it’s a smarter way to delegate. Instead of saying, in effect, “I’m taking this off my plate and giving it to you to handle,” you’re encouraging the employee to work at that higher altitude. It’s a subtle shift in framing, but subtle shifts can have a powerful impact in motivating your employees. It also helps with alignment because it nudges everyone to focus on the broader strategic goals.

This theme came up frequently during my interviews with CEOs for my Corner Office series in The New York Times.

During my conversation with David Novak during his tenure as CEO of Yum! Brands, I asked him about his best career advice that he shared with others.

“I tell people that once you get a job you should act like you run the place,” Novak said. “Not in terms of ego, but in terms of how you think about the business. Don’t just think about your piece of the business. Think about your piece of the business and the total business. This way you’ll always represent a broader perspective.”

Some people are motivated to do that on their own. But Kerry Hatch’s “your job/my job” approach is a surefire way to help inspire people to think like dual citizens about that broader perspective.

Adam Bryant is managing director of Merryck & Co., a leadership development and executive mentoring firm. A veteran journalist, he interviewed more than 500 CEOs and other leaders for the Corner Office column in The New York Times. He is the author of two books, including “Quick & Nimble: Lessons from Leading CEOs on How to Create a Culture of Innovation.”

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