Helping People Think


by Mark Miller

Each Friday, I respond to a question from a leader somewhere in the world. Today’s question continues the theme of the week around our role as leaders in helping people grow and develop. Today’s Challenge: How do you help people learn to think?

As I think about this question, I’m reminded of the classic axiom: if you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day – if you teach him to fish, you feed him for a lifetime. I have a strong bias on this issue – I believe people are born with the ability to think. Therefore, I really don’t like to think for people; nor do I like them to think for me.

Tragically, thinking skills seem to be latent in some people. Why would this be the case? One of three reasons comes to mind…

– Thinking may not be expected of the individual;
– Thinking may actually be discouraged by those in authority;
– Thinking skills may be underdeveloped.

What can a leader do?

First, create the expectation for people to think! Encourage them to do so at every opportunity. Then, engage in purposeful activities to help people develop their ability to think. Following are a few ideas to get you started (I covered a couple of these ideas earlier this week.)

Give people challenging assignments (without an obvious solution.) I’ve been given some very challenging assignments in my career – and I’m thankful for every one of them! Managing a difficult person, leading a struggling team, solving a complex problem – all of these helped develop my ability to think.

Ask more questions (specifically ones people don’t know the answers to.) Hard questions stimulate thinking. As leaders, I believe the best leaders ask more questions than they answer. Thinking itself is a developmental activity – the more people think, the more comfortable they can become with the entire process.

Read the rest here:

The Aim Frame

In the book, The Competent Leader, Peter Stark & Jane Flaherty discuss how to develop consensus in chapter 13.  One phrase jumped out to me as I read through this great material.  “Focus on the aim frame.”  What they are referring to is that too often in meetings where consensus is sought, participants are focusing on everything but the same goal – the aim frame.  As they write:

“When groups have a difficult problem to resolve and are trying to come to a consensus, it is helpful for the manager to focus the group in the aim frame.  Focusing on the aim frame asks the group two questions.  The first question is “Where does the group want to be with the decision or what is the ideal outcome?”  The second aim frame question is “How do we get there?”

I like this concept.  It’s true!  I’ve seen it at work.  I’ve seen it in relationships.  I’ve seen it in professional sports.

As a manager/leader, think about a team member you lead right now that needs some development.  They need to grow to the next level.  It is so easy as the “boss” to point out shortcomings or, as we like to call them, “opportunities”.  We can call for lists of action plans to address these.  The team member then brings back their action plan, works it, and what do we do?  We call for another round of action plans to address shortcomings.  How do they end up feeling?  Damned if I do/Damned if I don’t.  Without a correction (from you), this employee is at risk of choosing “I don’t” and you lose them.

What if you take Stark’s & Flaherty’s idea of the “aim frame” and work with the team member to ask those 2 critical questions:

  1. Where do you want to be 3-6 months from now (could be a new skill, a mastery of a current duty, etc)?
  2. How do we get you there?

This is realistically setting a specific goal and then creating a plan to get there.  Both of you need to come to a consensus of the goal.  Buy in on both sides is critical.  Are there shortcomings that need to be addressed?  Of course!  But those can be tackled on the way to achieving the goal.  As their manager, you work along side of them coaching them, counseling them, steering them to keep them on track.  But you are keeping the goal in sight.  You are reminding them that the goal can be achieved, but they have to keep up their end of the agreement (so do you!).

How will your team member feel about himself/herself with this approach?  Challenged.  Valued.  Proud (as they achieve steps along the goal path).

How will they feel about you?  Empowered. Valued. Respect.  Trust.
Focus on the aim frame and what the difference it will make in the lives of your team and your own life.

Someone Else’s Success

I just returned from vacation today.  While perusing through Flipboard (great iPad/smart phone app), I came across a good article written by Keith Ferrazzi (in the Harvard Business Review, July 11, 2012).

In his article entitled “How to Turn a Relationship Into a Sale”, Ferrazzi wrote:

“…people like people who focus on their success.” 

He goes on to discuss how to effectively grow sales through building quality relationships with people.  It’s well worth the read (

But this quote above got me thinking…isn’t this also true about managers who desire to develop their staff to the next level?  It’s far easier to develop someone who wants to be developed, right?  And to get that develop-ee open to change, managers need to find ways to connect with them.  If it’s true in sales that “people like people who focus on their success”, then it stands to reason that team members needing to be developed like managers who focus on their success.

Ferrazzi states that an effective sales call  is “a success if it advances your customer’s cause and builds the relationship…”  Insert the word “team member” for “customer” in this sentence and read it again.  If you can, in the course of getting a team member to the next level, advance their cause and build a stronger relationship, then you’re well on your way to creating a successful team member and a highly effective team.

So, how do you focus on your team member’s success?

  • Know what their strengths are right now.  Build on those.  Show them how they can mentor others on the team.
  • Know what their weaknesses are right now.  Co-create a mastery plan that will lead to more strengths.
  • Get to know your team member personally.  I don’t mean that you should become close friends.  I do mean you should know what they value, some important things about their family, what are their short-term/long-term goals and dreams, etc.
  • Encourage reading.  What articles, blogs, books are they reading right now?  They “aren’t into reading”? Give them a book list.  Share articles.  Share blogs you frequent.  There are many free pod-casts they can download and listen to.  In coaching sessions, ask what they are learning.  Set an expectation that in order to grow and development, exposure to other thought is critical.

You can do this, manager!  You can turn a relationship into a motivated, effective, and purpose-filled team member!