“How do I make sure employees understand my messages?” asked one of my clients, who’s recently taken on a new leadership role with a much larger span of control.
Test your messages in advance, I responded. Draft your message ahead of time and then ask a few people to read or listen to it and give you feedback. Be directive and specify that they advise whether you’re being clear, inclusive, approachable, and whatever else is important to you.
Even better, if your message involves a request to act, ask them to follow through and then report back to you. For example, were your directions easy to understand? To comply? Could they complete the task fairly quickly with minimal angst? Any suggestions for improvement?
“But isn’t that a lot of work for people?” my client asked. “Will they be willing to do it?”
Be like Fergus, I suggested. Give them a meaningful task that’s simple to do without any friction and they’ll be fine. They might not even notice that they’re doing all that much work. Instead, they’ll be focused on helping you out, and might even have a good time. Or worse case, they’ll have a neutral experience.
Having piqued her curiosity, I told her about Fergus, a friend’s border collie. Fergus was a “remarkably bright workaholic” as is typical of the breed. During the years I knew him, Fergus taught me several lessons about playing well with others, including how to involve people to rally around him.
My favorite Fergus story, which is the most applicable to my current client’s situation, involved a pinecone at the local dog park. A group of five humans were walking around the 23-acre off-leash park while our dogs were wrestling around us – except for ball-crazy Fergus who was playing fetch.
His human decided Fergus needed a break from running so she put away her Chuck-it! and the ball and told Fergus “Enough.”
But Fergus wasn’t through playing. He quickly found a pinecone that he could chase. Knowing his human wouldn’t approve, he ignored her and instead turned his attention to the other four humans, unobtrusively alternating among us to enlist our help.
He placed the pinecone in front of one person’s foot for a good kick. He’d then chase the pinecone and bring it back to another person, dropping it in front of them for another kick. He then brought the pinecone back to the third person, then the fourth, and started all over again, all the time avoiding his human.
At some point, I noticed what he was doing and started watching him more closely to confirm what I suspected. And sure enough, I saw him rotating among all of us, taking advantage of our split attention. We were paying more attention to our conversation than to him, so no one, especially his human, knew how hard he was playing. And by the time I called out his clever behavior, our morning walk time was over and we headed out of the park.
A few weeks later, I started applying this technique with a client with offices in a San Francisco skyscraper. Rather than call the same individual to come downstairs to sign me in and accompany me upstairs, I rotated through the team, reducing the individual burden on them.
Later I started used Fergus’ technique for requesting feedback when I was testing various messages, similar to what I recently suggested to my current client. Similar to kicking pinecones, I discovered that each individual felt they were involved the right amount — enough to provide valuable input without feeling like they were being burdened with extra work.
After years of copying Fergus, I’ve learned that if I want to elicit help from others, I need to make an effort to:
- Sincerely ask people for their opinions; you want people to feel included, not exploited.
- Be clear what type of help you’re looking for and how you’re going to use it.
- Thank them for their work and contributions, and wherever possible show them how they made a difference.
Since Fergus was a likeable dog who knew how to herd, he didn’t have to bother with these three tips to convince those around him to fall in line. He was clear about what he expected us humans to do – throw or kick a ball, pinecone or anything else he found.
And as I’ve learned, even without the intense gaze known as the “eye,” clarity with courtesy are a power combination to influence others to help your improve your work.
Connect the dots plus dot the “i”s to be more intentional, inquisitive and inclusive
How well are you tapping into the skills and wisdom you need to lead in a VUCA world?
All the old playbooks are out-of-date. Instead, you need to reach inside yourself, tap into your wisdom, and connect the dots for yourself and others.
To start, you can use these 5 tips to embrace your humanity and become a better leader.