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5 Questions to Ask at the Start of a Management Relationship

Regardless of how one steps into a managerial role — be it through promotion or external hire — the initiation of a management relationship is a critical juncture that warrants careful consideration.

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Jan 17, 2024
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Last updated on Dec 18, 2023

There are many skills people leaders need to master, but perhaps none is more pivotal — yet often overlooked — than the skill of kicking-off a management relationship. The way these early moments are navigated can either build trust and establish a robust foundation or set the stage for misunderstandings and miscommunications down the line.

Regardless of how one steps into a managerial role — be it through promotion or external hire — the initiation of a management relationship is a critical juncture that warrants careful consideration. It sets the tone for the entire trajectory of the working relationship and is especially crucial in remote work environments, where the nuances of face-to-face interactions are absent

Let’s teach our people leaders techniques for embracing this moment in time.

The "Getting to Know You Coffee" Approach

One effective method, I’ve employed throughout my two decades of team management, is the "Getting to know you coffee" approach. This approach, especially crucial in times of remote management, involves scheduling a meeting or video call within the first week of managing someone new. The subject line is simple yet powerful: “Getting to know you coffee” (or tea or chat). Allocate one hour for this meeting; it may be one of the few unrushed times the two of you will ever have.

Navigating the Conversation Effectively

While many managers conduct some version of a kick-off meeting, what sets this approach apart is the sequence of questions designed to foster relationship building. The following five questions, asked in this order, can unlock valuable insights:

1. Tell me your story 😃

Whether you’ve worked with this person for years or you’re new to this relationship, it’s amazing how much you’ll learn just by asking them to tell you their story. Guide them by saying, “I’d love to hear your story. Feel free to start with where you were born and anything you’d like to share so I can get to know you—e.g., how many siblings you have, what you liked to do as a kid. It’s all fair game.”

Encourage them to go beyond their professional journey, exploring the personal elements that have shaped who they are. This can include their upbringing, hobbies, and significant life experiences. By understanding their narrative, you gain insights into their values, priorities, and the factors that have influenced their career choices.

2. How do you like to be managed? ⭐

The answers to this question are always insightful. Some say "I don't know” or "I've never been asked that before,” while others have very specific preferences: “I like clear direction and then lots of autonomy.” If they have a hard time answering, ask them to tell you about a manager they loved or disliked and why.

Encourage them to reflect on their past experiences and articulate their preferred management style. This not only helps you understand their expectations but also allows you to tailor your approach to match their needs. Effective management is not a one-size-fits-all endeavor, and this question opens the door to a customized and collaborative working relationship.

3. What motivates you? 🎉

Make it safe for them to be honest by letting them know there’s no wrong answer. Some people are motivated by money, others by praise, career growth, learning, job security, or helping others. Knowing what motivates them is crucial. If they don’t know, it’s your job to help figure out what their motivating force is.

Understanding their motivations is like having a roadmap to their professional satisfaction. It allows you to align tasks, projects, and recognition with what truly drives and fulfills them. Whether it’s providing opportunities for skill development, acknowledging achievements, or fostering a collaborative team environment, tailoring your leadership to their motivations enhances engagement and overall job satisfaction.

4. What are your goals? 🏆

The timeframe doesn’t matter. It can be goals for this year, next year, or five years from now. Just get them talking about their goals. Is it to master this job? Save for a house? Reach a certain level in their career? Own their own business? Run the company? Their answer will give insight into how they think about the role.

Exploring their professional goals provides a glimpse into their aspirations and ambitions. It creates an opportunity for you to align organizational objectives with their personal and professional development. Whether it's offering mentorship, identifying growth opportunities within the company, or supporting their pursuit of advanced skills, understanding their goals allows you to be a proactive advocate for their success.

5. What else should I know about you?💡

Ask this question verbatim and then remain silent. What you'll find out from this open-ended question is invaluable.

This open-ended question is a gateway to uncovering aspects that might not fit neatly into the previous categories. It invites them to share anything they believe is relevant for you to know as their manager. It could be their preferred communication style, any challenges they foresee, or even personal circumstances that may impact their work. By actively listening to their response, you demonstrate a genuine interest in their well-being and create an environment of openness and trust.

The Art of Active Listening

During the conversation, focus on active listening. Share bits about yourself but reserve the majority of the talking until the end. When they finish answering, express gratitude for their openness and share insights into your background, management style, and expectations for ongoing communication.

Active listening is the linchpin of effective communication. It goes beyond hearing words; it involves understanding the underlying emotions, intentions, and nuances of what is being said. By actively listening, you convey empathy and respect, fostering a positive and collaborative atmosphere from the outset.

Utilizing the Insights

The true measure of a great manager lies in how they use the information gleaned during this initial meeting. Here are some ideas:
  • Tailor your approach based on their preferences. For instance, if someone dislikes interruptions on Slack, minimize non-essential messages.
  • Acknowledge individual needs, whether it's the need for clear direction, frequent updates, or autonomy in task execution.
  • Embrace personal touches. For example, sending a box of items in the individual's favorite color as a recognition of hitting a professional milestone.

In a world where the pace of work is relentless, and interactions often transactional, taking the time to share a moment of human connection becomes a gift to both manager and employee. It's an investment in understanding, respect, and ultimately, a more productive and harmonious working relationship.

As leaders, let’s prioritize these essential moments that can shape the course of our teams and organizations.

Extending the Impact: Going Beyond the First Meeting

While the "Getting to Know You Coffee" meeting lays the foundation, extending the impact requires ongoing effort. Implementing the following practices will continuously nurture the manager-employee relationship:

1. Regular Check-ins

Schedule regular one-on-one check-ins to discuss progress, address concerns, and provide feedback. These sessions allow you to reinforce the understanding gained during the initial meeting and adapt your management style as needed.

2. Flexibility and Adaptability

People evolve, and so do their preferences and goals. Stay attuned to any changes in their work style, motivation, or aspirations. Flexibility and adaptability are key to maintaining a dynamic and supportive manager-employee relationship.

Jami Zakem teaches these skills and more as part of her Manager Essentials Workshop. She’d love to help you design a manager training program for your organization. Contact her at jami@zakemconsulting.com

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