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on knowing your team

Something that I learned, the hard way as usual, early in my management career was to know my people. I don’t mean that you need a dossier on them, but being aware of what makes them tick and something of their history and hopes gives you something to work on.

I once took over an operation with around 350 people on the team mostly in unskilled manual or clerical jobs. I asked my predecessor what he could tell me about them and he mentioned a few troublemakers, but the rest, he said, took the grey coats off the peg every morning and left their brains hanging there until home time.

People don’t always talk about themselves, but will often talk about others and about three months after that brutal assessment I could number many remarkable people amongst that team. There were umpteen running sports leagues; darts, snooker, football, netball and more. There were three who sold the art that they painted or drew plus a couple of potters also supplementing their income. A handful involved in amateur dramatics, singers in choirs, musicians in bands and one who was amongst a small number of people in the country who was licensed to breed monkeys. The range of talent was great even if much of it had little direct impact on what they did for me, so why was it important?

The answer is partly in developing the working relationship, but rooted more in showing respect. You will offer common courtesy and show respect in that way, but being able to show respect for someone’s ability or skill brings another dimension. Even the most modest person will respond to your showing interest.

My hard lesson came in one of my earliest jobs. I worked for a wholesaler and we employed elderly men as packers. Just after I started work there a new packer arrived in our department and the twenty year old me just saw an old man in a brown coat. What I did not even bother to find out was that this man had just retired as a Port of London tug boat captain. He had been responsible for guiding and manoeuvring much larger vessels in and out of the docks on the North bank of the Thames, a job involving considerable skill, experience and qualification as well as a lot of responsibility; certainly a lot more responsibility than I had at the time.

I learned a lot about people in that job for many of my male colleagues had fought in WW2 and of the generation between them and I they had all dine national service. It was a great environment for learning how to manage and how to lead because there was no hiding place. If I got it wrong there was no mercy and I had to find out how to earn their trust and respect. Fortunately I did learn so that when I moved into the job that I mentioned earlier I knew just how wrong my predecessor had been. He was, albeit in a much more senior role, every bit as ignorant as I had been earlier in my career. What he showed me at that handover was that I had an uphill climb to make in my new job, but he also gave me a steer on how I could make a good start: I could treat my team better than he had done. That much was easy.

Every team is made up of individuals and whilst there are processes and laws that say that we should treat everyone equally individuals have differing needs. If you try and take a one size fits all approach to leadership then you will fail to achieve as much as you could by treating people according to their needs. These will differ according to their background so the more that you know your team the more you can understand them.

Leadership is never easy, but why make it harder? Taking a few simple steps can help you, and one of the first that you should take is to get to know your team

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