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How well do you know your team?

They each have a Ferris Bueller day off in mind and you should know what it is.

Knowing your team doesn’t mean being able to recall the specifics of their role, their tenure or whether you think they deliver value. When the going inevitably gets tough recalling these things (or any other surface level fact or observation) will do little to help you navigate the team through difficult waters. Play this out a little further. How will this basic knowledge help if a team member suffers a personal tragedy?

It won’t.

Exercising empathy and compassion, two essential behaviours which need to be available at full volume during times of adversity, is difficult, in fact nearly impossible, in the absence of knowledge about people you lead.

When I think about building teams my mental model is to create an environment where I can help each person achieve their hopes and dreams. There are few priorities higher than this as a leader because the payoff is a virtuous cycle of strengthening contribution, the outcome of which potent and sustained performance the likes of which see organisations and individuals achieving their mission and vision.

To understand the hopes and dreams of your team you need to demonstrate that you’re worthy of this knowledge. It’s important to be real about this and recognise that for some revealing what they actually want to achieve personally and professionally (if they know, and many don’t) may make them feel vulnerable at work. In any case I consider developing this insight is important and I approach it carefully. Here’s what I do. My mentee’s have also enjoyed success employing it with their teams.

Collect gradually and apply thoughtfully.

If this isn’t already part of your everyday, start actively listening and looking out for insights that help you better understand each member of your team. The three arenas below make up the framework I use to start to learn about each team member. And to make sure I don’t misplace this important knowledge, I try, as soon after learning it as possible, to add it to the notes section of the address book card of each team member alongside their contact details.

Arena 1: Birthdays! From the moment as children we become aware of this occasion it’s deeply cherished. It’s relevance may lessen as we grow older but for a large portion of our life this one day a year is rightly a celebration. Dates of birth are simple to find, just take a look at HR records or simply keep an eye on LinkedIn or Skype (they’ll tell you on the day). Whether it be a loud, whole-of-office affair or discrete and just involves the delivery of a cupcake, every birthday must be paid attention. Make them count.

Arena 2: Family. The desire to be present with family has almost always been traded off with professional pursuit. Understanding who is part of that trade-off on the family side is important. If family is a partner, know their name. If family is a spouse and children, know their names. If family is a pet, know their name. Get the gist? Work life flows into home life and vice versa. Checking-in from time-to-time to see how the family (by name) is responding when work flows into the home establishes the basis for an authentic conversation, one which might lead to more productive environments at work and at home.

Arena 3: Interests. “If you had a day to do whatever you wanted, what would you do?” Ferris Bueller knew. If you don’t know how each team member would respond, perhaps it’s time to ask. Obviously, recreation doesn’t always equate to an interest per sae. Working in software I’ve come to expect that engineers work on side-projects. I’ve not yet been anything short of fascinated by learning about what they work on in their spare time. In fact it’s provided incredible insight into their potential and their desire to work on other interesting problems at AirShr — win:win!

These three arenas are a starting point. It’s not rocket science to collect or act on this information and as you do other important themes will begin to reveal themselves. However if you don’t, you’ll be denying yourself the opportunity to demonstrate that you’re worthy of understanding the hopes and dreams of team members. And this IS the main game. Understanding the hopes and dreams of your team pays immense dividends. It helps unlock potential and creates the basis for compassion and support, all of which is essential to achieving greatness as a company.

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I write about what I see building companies. Currently growing dropbio.com

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