The fundamentals are all you need

Bruce Tulgan

In our advanced management seminars, I take experienced managers through one problem-solving session after another. In these problem-solving sessions, we focus on one real life case study after another — the real employees the managers are really managing in the real world. “Who are the employees with whom you are really struggling? What are the really tough cases?”

Of course, like clockwork, the same basic cases come up over and over again— the same 27. Maybe it’s the superstar whom the manager is afraid of losing; the slacker whom the manager cannot figure out how to motivate; the one with an attitude problem; or the two who cannot get along. From tracking managers before, during, and after the training, I’ve identified the most frequently occurring “most difficult challenges” with which managers tend to struggle, and the best step by step solutions.

Of course, I’ve learned through our years of research and training that different challenges yield most readily to specially focused techniques. What’s astounding, however, is how (nearly) every challenge, even the most difficult, yields to the withering medicine of relentless high-quality communication.

Almost always, the ad hoc manner in which most managers talk to their direct-reports every day actually makes inevitable the most difficult employee situations that tend to vex managers. What is the key to avoiding most of these problems and the key to solving them quickly and with relative ease as soon as they appear? The key is high-structure, high-substance one-on-one dialogues with every direct-report. With each of the most common challenges managers face within each area, I will show how managers typically respond to these problems when they become aware and how these typical responses sometimes exacerbate the problems. Then I’ll explain how to use the structured dialogue to control the situation and zero in on the specially focused techniques for continuing to grow the one-on-one dialogue in this situation.

The fundamentals are all you need.

As a manager, do you want to stop agonizing? Do you want to stop struggling? Do you want to sidestep one crisis after another? Do you want to get the most out of your people? Do you want to quickly master the seemingly most difficult management relationships?

In our seminars, I teach managers to do what the very best managers do: build and maintain an ongoing regular one-on-one dialogue with every person you manage to:

  • Make expectations clear
  • Track performance and provide ongoing candid feedback
  • Provide support, direction, troubleshooting, and guidance
  • Make accountability a process, not a slogan
  • Recognize and reward in line with performance

That’s it. Highly structured, highly substantive, one-on-one dialogue. Of course, there is much nuance in the details.

What is high structure?

High structure means regularly scheduled and conducted according to a clear, well organized agenda. That doesn’t mean it should be a one-way conversation. Of course, you need to allow for give and take.

The first person you need to manage every day is yourself. You need to set aside the time every day to manage. I recommend a minimum of an hour a day, like taking a walk every day. Make that your sacrosanct time for managing. During that hour, do not fight fires. Use that hour for managing up front, before anything goes right, wrong, or average. During dedicated one-on-one time:

  • Concentrate on three or four people per day
  • Follow a regular format with each person, customized for that person
  • Always start with top priorities, open questions, and any work in progress
  • Prepare in advance for one-on-ones and make sure your direct-reports prepare
  • Consider holding meetings standing up, with a clipboard in hand (to keep them quick and focused)
  • Don’t let anybody go more than two weeks without a meeting
  • Don’t do all the talking;
  • If you manage people working other shifts, stay late or come in early
  • If you manage people in remote locations, conduct your one-on-ones via telephone with no less rigor and discipline than your in-person one-on-ones.

What is high-substance?

High-substance means rich in immediately relevant content, specific to the person and the situation, with a clear execution focus.

Talk about what’s going right, wrong, and average. What needs to be done? What are the next steps? And the next steps after that? Spell out expectations in clear and vivid terms, every step of the way:

  • Remind everybody of broad performance standards regularly.
  • Turn best practices into standard operating procedures and teach them to everybody.
  • Use plans and step-by-step checklists whenever possible.
  • Focus on concrete actions within the control of the individual employee
  • Monitor, measure, and document individual performance in writing.
  • Follow up, follow up, follow up, and provide regular candid coaching style feedback.
  • Follow through with real consequences and rewards based on performance in relation to expectations.

Every step of the way, ask really good questions and listen carefully to the answers! One person at a time, one day at a time. It’s all about the fundamentals.

Reprinted with the permission of Bruce Tulgan, a speaker and the author of numerous books including the best seller It’s Okay to Be the Boss (2007), the classic, Managing Generation X (1995), as well as The 27 Challenges Managers Face (2014), Bridging the Soft Skills Gap: How to Teach the Missing Basics to Today’s Young Talent (2015), and Not Everyone Gets a Trophy: How to Manage the Millennials (2016). This article is an excerpt from Tulgan’s book, The 27 Challenges Managers Face.


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