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Inspire, Empower––and GUIDE! "I want to be a dentist!"

This is not a post about pursuing a dental career––it really is about leadership! Bear with me…

There is growing acknowledgement that one of the most essential skills of an effective leader is the ability to read and appreciate not only the talents and abilities of others––but their passions and interests too. This is how you connect the right people with the right job. This is how you access that elusive “discretionary effort” and empower people to go the extra mile.

This involves several key disciplines:

#1 Listen––above all!

#2 ASK! If people seem uncomfortable or unsuited to a particular role, ask them about it.

#3 Pay Attention.

Listen to people––ask them what their interests are––pay attention to what’s going on not just on the P&L statement or the monthly reports, but what’s happening in the lives of the people doing the work of the organization.

Too often a good person is cut or demoted when the problem is not as much one of performance, but a bad match with their passions and interests. Finding the right fit can lead to an exponential increase in performance and creates the ripple effect of inspiring others to new levels of performance too.

Thankfully, researchers are now demonstrating the power of these simple ideas. I’m grateful for the validation. But I didn’t learn about this practice in an HBR On Point or in a weekend leadership retreat. Like many of the most powerful leadership lessons that impacted my life and work––I learned this from my Little Dragons.

The Little Dragons were my 3 to 6 year old group in my dojo…

One of my favorite things to do with these kids was to just sit on the floor and have a “mat chat.” Parents told me for years that these little talks had an incredible impact on their kids that lasted into adulthood. While I appreciate the kind words, I’ve got to honestly say I learned more from them than they did from me.

One of my stock conversation starters was just to ask who wanted to be Black Belt. On this particular day, all the kids shot their hands up but one.

“You don’t want to be a Black Belt?”

“No Sensei.”

“OK––What do you want to be then?”

“I want to be––a dentist!”

(And yes––he did actually pause for dramatic effect!)

Believe me, I had to practice Black Belt focus in that moment to keep myself from bursting out laughing. I didn’t want to make this kid feel like I wasn’t taking him seriously. He was definitely not trying to be funny.

I could have tried to convince him that he could be Black Belt first, then a dentist later. It would certainly have been logical to tell him that becoming a dentist was hard work and that if he applied himself to becoming a Black Belt, that would be good preparation for the hard work he’d face in dental school.

I don’t pretend to understand what triggers a particular moment of enlightenment, but in this very instant I knew I was having one. I realized right then and there that my job was not to impose my vision for his immediate future on him. It was to shift gears and commit myself to serving his interests.

I would still train this young man to be a Black Belt––but right now my job was to help him become a dentist. All I said was…

“And I’m sure you’ll be a good one!”

Think about this story the next time you’re confronted with a manager who seems out of place in a new position––or better still, as you’re considering candidates to fill a spot.

In addition to technical skill and domain competency, does the new position match a particular person’s needs, interests and passion?

If not, can you find a better match?

It is hard to find good people these days. Of course, this has been said in every age by every generation. I no longer believe it’s hard to find good people––it just requires a little more work to place good people in the right roles. And it’s sad––and expensive to lose good people simply because they were put in the wrong position.

Effective leaders empower and guide. Rather than forcing a round peg into a square hole, the best leaders can shift gears and guide people to the position that best serves the individual as well as the organization.

When you find that match between talent and interests, the results can be truly amazing. To find that match you need to listen, ask and above all…

Pay attention.

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