Leadership 15: You must respect your team member’s skills.

“Autonomy is the whole thing; it’s what unhappy people are missing. They have given the power to run their lives to other people.” Judith Guest

In the previous post we discussed the importance of treating people in a manner which respects them as people.  In addition to just being the right way to treat any human, in a team situation treating people respectfully builds trust and loyalty, which in turn enhances creativity and productivity.  The second part of the “respect equation” is to show respect for each team member’s particular skill set.  Your people are not interchangeable parts, they have strengths and weaknesses and the more assignments are assigned to match their skills, or to help them learn the skills they need to overcome weaknesses, the better they will function, the more the team will achieve, and the more loyalty the team member will have to the team and its members.

In a Nutshell: The Leader must know what each team member is good at.  The leader can change a person’s life by helping each team member recognize their unique gifts, encouraging them to develop those gifts, share their gifts, and be recognized and appreciated for doing so. Helping people recognize their unique gifts and their strengths and weakness. Highlight meaningful work that is fulfilling. How to share your meaningful work with those around you. Autonomy is a skill enhancer. Respect the skills of your team and make the work meaningful by providing autonomy and allowing team to tackle a project as a whole. What does autonomy look like in practice? An example of how the loss of autonomy can hurt morale. Knowledge of outcomes is critical for autonomy. Provide skill development opportunities. Bring together people doing the same jobs to share their knowledge, support each other, and sharpen their skills.

The Leader must know what each team member is good at.

This is so obvious that it was always incredible to me how often a boss admits to me that they do not know what their people are good at.  And what stung was they would tell me they don’t care, they are the boss, they hand out the assignments as they wish. And they did, willy-nilly, and then they had no patience when someone who was struggling with something the whole team knew was not in that person’s skillset.  Can you imagine a parent with young children signing them up for sports without asking them what they wanted to do this season? “Okay kids, gather ’round the kitchen table, it’s time to pick our sports for the fall! Now last year I was running around way too much, racing to your ballet Jill, and then over to Billy’s soccer practice, so this year both of you will sign up for the same thing!  Won’t that be fun! And less driving for me!  So I went through the recreation guide and there is a new co-ed 6th grade Tackle Football Team I think could be fun, and Rhythmic Gymnastics has openings! Hmmmm. I always enjoyed watching rhythmic gymnastics on tv at the Olympics! I am going to flip a coin and we will see if we need to buy football cleats or gymnastic slippers for you two!  No matter if it is heads or tails, I am going to really enjoy watching you do these things this year!”

In our family Iliana was the rock climber and Elizabeth was the soccer star, and trust me, never did those twains meet!

Well, the parent will have a good year, in the same way that a lazy boss can just pass out work assignments to the first person who walks by the office.  But it is imperative that a leader quickly discover what each team member is good at and try to assign tasks that match their skills.  On those occasions when we must assign a task that a person is not particularly good at, and which they will not enjoy, we need to recognize that fact, acknowledge that this is going to require some sacrifice on their part, provide the needed support, and celebrate the completion of it.  Hopefully, the team member may discover they are better at this task than they imagined.

I was always very direct with a new team member once I have gained some trust with them, “What are you good at?  What do you like to see on your to-do list?  What are you bad at?  What do hate to see on your to-do list?”

Another way to discover what people are good at is to observe your team at work and do casual check-ins as the member works on a task.  A simple, “How is that going?” can provide you with a wealth of information regarding how much they are enjoying it, how much difficulty they are having, and when it is time to call in reinforcements.  Use your leadership listening skills to hear their tone and observe their body language and facial expressions.  They may say everything is going fine, but if they have a haunted look, there is a discussion to be had.

The leader can change a person’s life by helping each team member recognize their unique gifts, encouraging them to develop those gifts, share their gifts, and be recognized and appreciated for doing so.

We have discussed in a previous post how recognizing what a team member’s gifts are can make work a more pleasurable and productive experience, and we used the example of Brandon’s willingness to translate 80 page packets from English to Spanish, and Medha’s 200 hour project project producing a state-by-state guide on how to help detainees get a copy of their criminal record.  They enjoyed their work, and would have been miserable if the projects had been reversed.

Brandon and Medha

One obstacle you will encounter when trying to help someone recognize their unique skills is that we all have a bad habit of discounting our own proficiencies.  We either think that if we can do it easily it is not that hard, or if we can do it, everyone else can do it, too. And we are usually wrong on both counts.  There are certain skills which are hardwired into our brains at birth, and there are other skills we have honed over time simply because we just enjoy doing them. When we do recognize our gifts, and we will have the courage to step up when those skills are called for, we can become a more valuable part of our team.

An example of a person with a gift she thought everyone had was Gaby’s ability to remember exactly what she has heard.  A common question and answer encounter with Gaby went like this.

Gaby: “There is a man on the phone, and he has a final order of deportation, he wants to get out of detention, but it has been four months since he was ordered removed and the consulate won’t give him travel documents, and ICE won’t release him under supervision.”

Me: “Okay, we can send an email to the Consulate to try and get them to either issue travel documents, or acknowledge they will never issue them. If they say they will never issue travel documents because they have no record of the person as a citizen, ICE should release him quickly. But be sure to tell him that if we send that email the Consulate may issue travel docs in which case he would be sent home, so he is risking deportation.  Also tell, him that usually the Consulate does not respond to us,  but this can also be useful because we will include the ICE Field Office on the email and the Consulate has not been responding to ICE either, so when the Consulate does not reply to us, then the Field Office will see it is hopeless and is more likely to release him more quickly release the detainee under supervision.”

As you can see that is a long, complicated message and when an intern took it back to their phone I often stepped to the door of my office to hear how much of the message was accurately relayed to the caller, and I was also in a position to walk over and correct any confused part of the message.  But when Gaby was carrying the message, I always stepped out to listen just for the sheer joy of hearing her repeat it verbatim.  It was uncanny, and I celebrated her for that skill.  And now that she is aware of it she can use it throughout her career, and she would be an absolute terror in a courtroom, objecting to the other attorney’s mischaracterization of what a witness had said.


Helping people recognize their unique gifts and their strengths and weakness.

Everyone hates the interview question about what is your greatest strength and biggest weakness, I never used it because I thought it was unfair to put the person on the spot. I did ask what they enjoy doing because I wanted to see if our work would be an enjoyable fit for them.  When you are coaching someone who is just beginning their career they often can’t think of what their strengths might be so I will include a list I have adapted which is taken from a video, “What are your Strengths and Weaknesses – answer clearly and confidently.” You can use this list as a starting point to help people identify what they are good at. You can see the video here: https://youtu.be/ZtHYbSzraQ4

1. Adaptability: you are ready to adapt to new changes, a new team, location, supervisor, client, or county. 2. People skills: your manner of dealing with people. You know how to deal with various kinds of people in an organization and how to handle various situations and people. (talking to supervisor or team members diplomatically; handing conflict situations.) 3. Team player: You understand what it means to be part of a team, and what team work means.  The recognition it is not about what “I” can do, it is about what “WE” can do. 4. Hard-working: You are willing to put in the time and effort necessary to accomplish the mission. 5. Quick learner: you understand instructions clearly and quickly, you have the ability to focus. 6. Reliable: You can be trusted to complete a given responsibility, and if you run into difficulty you will seek assistance promptly. 7. Proactive: You are somebody who never waits to take on new responsibility, when you see something that needs to be done, you jump in to help. 8. Ability to work independently: When you are given a clear objective and have the proper support you have the confidence to make decisions to keep the project on track. 9. Honest: You understand the importance of properly admitting when you made a mistake or need assistance, you give others the credit that is due them when a joint project is successful. 10. Organized: You understand how to prioritize your work and how to establish the steps necessary to complete the task. 11. Optimistic: Every cloud has a silver lining. You can accept a less than optimal situation and move forward with a positive attitude. 12. Persistence: You keep pushing on, seeking solutions, and you recognize the importance of seeking assistance when needed. 13. Problem Solver: You are the type of person who sees obstacles as puzzles to be solved, you enjoy being challenged. 14. Clear attention to details: You understand the importance of focus on the work before you, you edit your work carefully, click on attachments before sending to be sure it is the proper document, and it is important to you that all your work looks professionally done. 15. Ability to meet deadlines: You understand the importance of completing work on time.  If something happens that may delay your work, you promptly report that to get guidance on whether to change the scope of work, move the deadline, or bring in additional help. 16. Self-motivated: Everyone likes to be praised, but you also bring a disciplined attitude to your work because you know that the true test of your effort is whether you did the best you could under the circumstances. 17. Solid leadership skill: You have the ability to direct other people, you can establish trust with teammates, and you are constantly monitoring the welfare of your teammates.

I also wanted to also highlight an interesting article entitled “10 employee strengths every employer is looking for,” by Edge Training. I will include a link to the article but what I found intriguing was their citation of the three most important strengths.  It may give you something to think about.

1. Coachable – employee knows they don’t know it all and they are eager to learn

2. Enthusiastic, Ralph Waldo Emerson once stated, “Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.”  You want the team and the company to progress and move forward into greatness.  They want you to know that they’ll often choose a less qualified, less skilled applicant who is enthusiastic and wants to learn over a highly qualified, highly skilled employee who is dour and acts like they hate their job.

3. A tad humble You can see the other seven strengths here: https://www.edgetrainingsystems.com/10-employee-strengths-every-employer-is-looking-for/#:~:text=The%203%20Most%20Important%20Employee%20Strengths%20are%20to,is%20being%20consistently%20enthusiastic%20and%20a%20tad%20humble

Highlight Meaningful Work that is Fulfilling

We will pass this way but once, therefore, whatever good we can do, let us do it now.”

What can make work fulfilling?

You can see the entire video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9KvDvRUNw9k

While I might think twice before suggesting how the person next to me might lose some weight, I otherwise agree with Simon that we can find meaning in helping other people. Establishing that our work was meaningful was never a problem for me because I always led teams who were working with people in crisis.  It was clear to each of them their work was affecting the lives of other people.  Whether it was domestic violence, political asylum, or assisting people in immigration proceedings who were being detained by ICE, the one-on-one contact, the wins and losses, the exhilaration of victory and the heartbreak of defeat, made the importance of our work stand out in stark relief.  Since I would never take a job that did not have an element of helping others, (life is too short to not try to make the best use of my time) it was easy for me to impress on my team the meaningful nature of our work, but not everyone is given the luxury of being on the front lines of the fight for justice and human dignity.

How to share your meaningful work with those around you.

During 20 years at the American Bar Association I saw that while my team was often on a social justice high, there were a lot of other folks around us were engaged in the important, but uninspiring work necessary to keep the organization going.  No big successes nor failures, no fireworks.  The year had a predictable cycle, Annual Meeting, holiday party, Mid-year meeting, annual review, Annual Meeting, on and on it went. Last February was exactly like this February.  But those people can share in the satisfaction of meaningful work if they are made to feel part of the larger team engaged in important work.

My office name tag which included my group, the Commission on Immigration.

At the ABA each workspace had name tags and beneath the name was the section the person worked in and as you walked down the hall it was like a rollcall of the most important issues of the day: Election Law, Domestic Violence and Trafficking, Criminal Justice, Human Rights, Health Law, Law and Aging, Children and the Law, Family Law, International Law, Taxation, The Rule of Law Initiative, etc. It was incredible to me the amount of important work that was happening under one roof, and I was always lobbying for more information sharing through newsletters and presentations highlighting the important work these groups were doing.  I believed that everyone on the ABA team would be proud to be coming to work in such an organization if they only knew how much world changing work was occurring just down the hall. Perhaps someone in finance, up to their elbows in expense reports, or a meeting planner putting together the logistics for the same old Annual Meeting, might not think that their particular role was exciting or meaningful, but hearing about the lifechanging  work which the ABA was doing in all areas of law, and around the world, in protecting vulnerable people, would give that staff member pride in being  part of a community within the organization that was changing the world.

Brown Bag Lunches

I am sure I don’t need to mention how much I loved mentoring my interns and other coworkers.  My goal was to make their time with me one of the best work experiences of their lives and I was always talking about leadership and modeling it because I wanted them to be better leaders than I was, and I expected them to produce better leaders than they were, and together we would start a guerrilla revolution in leadership.  And my intern team had a wonderful experience, they were part of a supportive team doing life-changing work for our callers, they had constant contact with their coaches, and I helped them make contacts to further their career.  I tried to build a transformative internship so that when an intern left, they were more confidence in their skills.

But I was concerned looking around at other ABA interns.  Most of the other interns were having a transactional internship.  They came to work for a semester or summer, they were given a task with varying levels of supervision, they often worked in isolation, and hopefully at the end of their internship they had finished the project, they got a pat on the back and a good recommendation. 

I compared their experience to my interns’ experience and was not satisfied, so I started the intern/staff brown bag lunch program.  I know and admire many incredible lawyers and other advocates, both in the ABA and in the broader DC NGO community, so each week I would invite one of my heroes to come to the ABA and speak to interns and interested staff during their lunch break, hence the name brown bag lunches.

The speakers were asked to share information about their education, their career path, what jobs they had had, what their responsibilities were with each position, and why they had chosen to dedicate part of their life to that particular issue. 

The audience was always riveted by these tales and would have been happy with just that information, but the first time each of my heroes spoke I had a trick up my sleeve which involved one particular question, and I will use the dramatic presentation of a woman who was a Public Defender as an example. Her role as a PD was to provide no-cost legal defense representation in criminal cases and after she spoke with enthusiasm about her career path, this dialogue followed.

Me: “How does it feel when you are defending someone in a criminal case in court?”

And she froze.  She went completely silent and motionless for 45 seconds and I was thinking, “Perfect, she is transitioning from the intellectual explanation of the nuts and bolts of her job, to her emotional reaction to it.  Hold on to your seats, interns and staff, prepare for blast off.”  After the long silence she came back to the room looked around and began to PREACH!

PD: “No middleclass person gets up in the morning knowing that they are going to have to commit a crime to get the money they need to make it through the day!  And if you aren’t offended by a society that can push a person into that corner, if you don’t understand how you or I could be that person if we were born in a different neighborhood or to different parents, where facing bad choices is your only choice, then you don’t belong in a courtroom working to keeping our  broken criminal justice system as honest as possible!”

And that was just the start.  You could see the inspiration in the eyes of those listening and I thought some of them would elevate from their chairs!

Use your position of power to inspire and influence other people as much as possible.

Autonomy is a skill enhancer.

“Autonomy is the whole thing; it’s what unhappy people are missing. They have given the power to run their lives to other people.” Judith Guest

Respect the skills of your team and make the work meaningful by providing autonomy and allowing team to tackle a project as a whole.

General James Mattis describes the importance of autonomy thusly: Giving your team the autonomy to complete a task means giving them responsibility: responsibility to make certain decisions and authority to be able to enforce those decisions. Such a level of control over what they do and how they do it increases satisfaction by reinforcing their belief in their own abilities. The application of new skills to successfully complete tasks of various challenge levels pushes them further along an upward spiral of confidence. Allowing a team member to carry a project from beginning to end will be perceived as an accomplishment for the individual, and when you have successfully connected this task to being a part of something bigger, there is even more satisfaction.

What does autonomy look like in practice?

“Well, I suggest you gentleman invent a way to put a square peg in a round hole. Rapidly.”

To illustrate what giving a team autonomy looks like, we are going to revisit a scene from the movie Apollo 13.  When we last left the movie the 3 astronauts were stranded on a crippled space craft and had been force to shelter in the smaller Lunar Module with no heat and little light, while they waited until it was time to reenter the space craft to attempt a re-entry and landing.  As this scene starts, engineers are bringing a new problem to Gene Kranz, NASA Chief Flight Director.  CO2 levels are rising in the smaller craft which was built to remove the CO2 from 2 astronauts for a day and a half.  Now the filters are being overwhelmed as they remove the CO2 for three astronauts over several days.

You can see the original video here: Entire https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ry55–J4_VQ

Here we saw the Chief Flight Director give the team a goal, ““Well, I suggest you gentleman invent a way to put a square peg in a round hole. Rapidly.”  Then the team had complete autonomy to complete the project.  In real life, the team succeeded, the astronauts were able to follow the procedures and built the contraption that saved their lives.

Credit: Apollo 13 CO2 filter gizmo.com

The actual scrubber in the upper hatch tunnel as shot from the Lunar Module.

And I guarantee you that the people on that team looked back on that project as one of the proudest moments and greatest achievements of their lives, and it was just tubes, plastic, cardboard and duct tape, and the genius born of autonomy.

An example of how the loss of autonomy can hurt morale.

I encountered an example of how autonomy can be snatched away from an individual when I was a lawyer leading an office working with poor people in Iowa and I supervised paralegals who were handling Social Security Disability (SSD) cases.  To receive disability payments a person had to be suffering from a mental or physical condition which was severe enough to meet this definition: “the inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity (SGA) by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment(s) which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” Because disability cases were decided in an administrative law court, not a court of law, non-lawyers could represent SSD applicants and Iowa Legal Service used well-trained paralegals who were supervised by a lawyer.  And I have to say that our paralegals did a superb job, often proving to be much more able advocates than some of our lawyers. The paralegals were given the autonomy to handle the case from beginning to end. They conducted the intake interview, presented the case to the staff who had to approve accepting the case, spoke with doctors, arranged medical check-ups and collected medical reports, wrote up a brief supporting the claim, and prepared the client for the questions which they would encounter in their hearing.  The paralegal would then represent the client at the hearing before an Administrative Law Judge, (ALJ) and when the hearing had a successful outcome, the client would begin receiving monthly payments for the duration of their disability, the case was closed,  and the paralegal had the satisfaction of having had complete control of the case from beginning to end.

I was researching an article on how to avoid burnout in Legal Services (which seemed like a joke, I burned out every two years like clockwork) and as I interviewed every Iowa Legal Service employee one of the questions I asked was this. “Is there something that makes your job more difficult or frustrating?”  Every paralegal said that when the client lost their case at the ALJ level and the case had to be taken to federal court where a lawyer was required, the lawyers would swoop in, grab the file and work alone on preparing the court case, leaving the paralegal completely out in the cold.  The autonomy the paralegal had enjoyed up to that point had been shattered, they felt slighted, disrespected, and the lawyer was overlooking a valuable asset in preparing the court case because the paralegal was the expert on this client’s facts, any defects in how the IALJ handled the hearing, and any specific reasons  why ALJ’s decision was in error.  By simply insisting that the lawyer include the paralegal in trial preparation, autonomy for the paralegal continued, everyone felt their contribution was meaningful and complete, and the case preparation was more thorough.

Practice Pointer: When I was leading an office, I found it useful to have a rule that everyone had to speak at staff meetings.  I implemented this when I noticed that the lawyers and paralegals always spoke up in our meetings as we were deciding whether to accept new cases, or when considering new office procedures, but the office manager, secretary and receptionist often would sit through the whole meeting without making a peep. So before the meeting ended I went around and had each person tell me one thing that made their work more difficult or frustrating this week.  And oh boy, did they speak up then! One of the first volunteers was our receptionist who, in the vernacular of the Midwest would be described as a happy-go-lucky young lady who was all smiles and wouldn’t say “crap” if she stepped in it. But she had something to say this day.

“Well, if you are going to make me talk, I’m happy to get something off my chest.  Your clients call when you are out of the office, and I take the message and write it down, and I put the message slip in your little slot on my desk, and you pick it up and read it and walk in your office.  Then you can’t be bothered to call the client back and the client gets client calls back and yells at me, and it’s not fair because I did my job and you didn’t do yours! And it not fair, gosh darn it!”

Well, the lawyers and paralegals were mortified, they had not realized the pain their failure to return calls was creating for someone they cared about.  They swore to return their calls more promptly and it did make it easier on the receptionist.  General James Mattis used to meet with the troops and end a listening session with, “Give me a problem I can solve right away.”  You might want to consider using a similar question.

Rebecka had a better way to start a meeting on a positive note with, “Tell me something good that happened this week, in the office or out.”  I would suggest starting positive, and ending with people voicing any frustrations.

One telephone message I did return.

One day I was out circuit riding, traveling from county to county meeting with clients, and when I returned to the office in the late afternoon I was handed this message:

“Mr. Tom ____, for his daughter, custody, death threats from his son-in-law”

They’re coming this afternoon w/ guns.”

Unfortunately, I called “they” had come with guns and stolen the child.  It is the type of situation that made me wonder why I ever quit running into burning buildings for a living as a firefighter.

Knowledge of outcomes is critical for autonomy.

An individual who knows the results what her or his efforts, or know how their contributions and/or mistakes affected the outcome, will be motivated to perform well. Feedback plays an important part in creating this knowledge: whether it comes from a co-worker or a leader, it helps the team members recognize if they got achieved the desired outcome or not.

When I was a firefighter, we had a problem in this area.  I was in charge of a rescue and first aid truck and many times when we would go on a car crash, fire, or heart attack, we would bust our butts to keep the person alive until the ambulance arrived.  But once the doors of the ambulance slammed shut and it disappeared with lights flashing and siren wailing, we almost never found out what happened to that person unless we saw an obituary.  Therefore, all we ever got was negative feedback about outcomes, rarely did we get any positive outcomes.  The few positive times we got good new involved people bringing a birthday cake to the fire station to celebrate the day we saved their life, there “rebirthday.”

The same problem arose with immigration detainees who called our hotline to get information on how to handle their case in court to avoid deportation, often to a country where their life had been threatened.  Our paralegals might speak with someone for months, helping them identify the issues in their case, search the internet for documentation that the type of persecution they suffered does, in fact, occur in their country of origin, explaining to the detainee the facts the Immigration Judge needed to hear during the hearing.  Then the client had their hearing, and we never heard from them again.  But when we did get good news, or thank you notes, we posted them proudly.

Provide skill development opportunities.

A sign on my office door.

“The more the employee feels the company is investing in their future, the higher the level of engagement,” says Brad Shuck, an assistant professor at the University of Louisville who specializes in organizational development.

By encouraging training and career development the leader increases the team members’ sense of value within the company, and fosters loyalty and ultimately staff retention.  It is curious how often a leader gets pushback from above when they are advocating for increased training for their team.  It remains me of this exchange.

“What if we spend the money and they get trained and they become better employee and then they leave?”

“What if we don’t train them, they lack the skills they need, and they stay?”

Always encourage your team members to take advantage of any training or tuition funding available through your organization.

Bring together people doing the same jobs to share their knowledge, support each other, and sharpen their skills.

One way to help people develop their skills is to connect them with people who having been doing the same work longer, and who can coach them. I tried this approach for program assistants at the ABA.  Program Assistants are the unsung heroes, lowest ranking, often saddled with the most boring, repetitive tasks.  But when the PAs are out sick, things grind to a halt faster than you can say, “Anybody know EXCEL?”  It was also an entry level position which had a high turnover, often a place for recent college grads to get some office work on their resumes.  And because of the turnover the supervisor of a PA could find themselves repeated training new hires.  I am, by my nature, lazy.  So rather than keep training, I decided to try and make the work easier and more meaningful by building teams of program assistants.  I would introduce a new hire to an experienced Program Assistant who remembered what it was like to struggle learn how the ABA did things alone.  Soon the new person was operating at full speed, and with a person they knew in the office who could mentor them.

Later it occurred to me to harness the full knowledge of Program Assistants and I bought lunch and invited 30 PAs together to meet one another. We went around the room and had everyone answer my usual ice breaker questions, (Name, where they work in the ABA, how long they have worked, what they were expert on, and where they grow up.)  This allowed people to make connections and establish mentor–mentee relationships.  We even had a popsicle party on the lawn in front of the Whitehouse when that was a place where people wanted to be seen.

Always remember to respect the skills of your team members, as they develop those skills your team will be more creative and successful which will be a reflection of your leadership.

Coming Attractions: Leadership 16: A leader must create a space where team members have the time to accomplish their tasks. The goal of the leader must be to provide as many blocks of uninterrupted time as possible.

“Why is there never time to do it right, but there’s always time to do it twice?” My Dad

Published by Robert Lang

Social Justice lawyer and mentor, nurturing calmness, kindness, and adventure. Just trying to leave something good behind.

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