Interview: Tania Luna, LifeLabs Learning

By Culturati Staff

Interview: Tania Luna, Lifelabs Learning

Ed. note: our friend, author, and training guru Tania Luna at LifeLabs Learning has a new book out. She recently sat down with Charter for an interview about patterns of success she is seeing amongst great managers.

We’re hearing frequently from leaders in organizations that they’re interested in strategies for retaining and recruiting talented employees in this moment of worker empowerment and a tight labor market.

To hear her advice, we reached out to Tania Luna, co-founder of LifeLabs Learning, a management training company, and co-author with LeeAnn Renninger of the new book The Leader Lab: Core Skills to Become a Great Manager, Faster.

How do you explain the high percentage of US workers who say they’re considering changing jobs?

My hypothesis is that a lot of it doesn’t actually have to do with a change in the jobs themselves, but the fact that we’ve all experienced a massive amount of change as a society. And change begets change. We see this all the time with people who experience some sort of major life event whether positive, like getting married or starting new jobs, or negative, like receiving an illness diagnosis or experiencing a loss.

What we know about how the brain works is that in those moments of change, it creates a new pathway that makes another kind of change more imaginable. With what we experienced and are continuing to experience with the pandemic, it is actually forcing people to pause and reconsider. Instead of just mindlessly continuing with what we’ve been doing, a lot of people are using this — because the world has forced us to stop — as an opportunity to pause and reflect. There’s some really interesting research that shows that sadness is very adaptive in the sense that it causes reflection and rumination. People have been sad and that sadness has sparked introspection in a way that people weren’t taking the time to do before.

It’s the fact that there’s change, the fact that people have spent some time introspecting. It is the fact that people are also feeling a sense of wanting control and power at a time of extreme powerlessness. So my macro hypothesis is that change catalyzes change.

You didn’t mention the factor of many workers being physically remote from their colleagues. Do you think that leads to a looser attachment to their employers?

It probably does, but it certainly doesn’t have to. Because even pre-pandemic we’ve worked with and studied hundreds of organizations that were already remote or hybrid and their sense of connection and closeness is not statistically lower than people who work in person. If we look at, for example, engagement survey data.

So, yes, probably some proportion of people are feeling unmoored or disconnected. More so, my guess would be that there are now more job opportunities because you don’t just have to look at places that are within your geographic, commute-time zone, but you could look in a lot more places. But I actually wouldn’t assume that it’s largely because people suddenly are having that sense of disconnect.

Given the data suggesting that many workers are considering changing jobs, what should organizations be doing to retain them?

You want to step back to say, what is our vision for engaging and retaining our team? Do we genuinely want to retain the people here? Why do we want to retain the people here? As a leader or a manager, instead of immediately saying, how do we keep people from leaving, start with linking up to what do I want for my team. What is ideal in terms of engagement? What is ideal in terms of retention? Because then you’re designing an employee experience through the lens of a goal versus playing defense and being responsive and reactive to fear. We’ve seen some leaders say, ‘Huh. Some people on my team are using this as an opportunity to question whether they want to be doing, how can I help them leave in a way that is very high integrity to the organization, to the individual?’ Because sometimes those people leaving and you supporting them in leaving thoughtfully is going to actually lead to better outcomes for the team in the short-term and the long-term. Not everyone should stay within their role.

At LifeLabs, we do training. But we also do research on really effective managers and leaders. One of the things that I have been continuously surprised by is that both managers and organizations that have the highest retention encourage conversations with their team, with their employees about leaving. They’ll actually say, ‘Talk to me about this. Are you thinking about staying? Are you thinking about leaving? If you’re thinking about leaving, let’s discuss that. Is there something that we could do within your job right now that would a) make you excited or b) if you do want to leave, could you already be doing something in your work now that would prepare you and open doors for you outside of this organization?’ And then, if you’re already ready to go, ‘How can we make sure that we set up the team for success and set you up for success so that if you take on another opportunity, we can continue to be supporters for you. You can continue to be supportive for our organization.’ Recruiting and hiring is so hard. If you can have people that leave and spread wonderful word of mouth about you as an employer, ultimately the long-term benefits of that are so much bigger than finding means of retaining people who aren’t happy to stay.

One of the tactics some managers use is the stay interview, which is like an exit interview but for someone who hasn’t yet quit. Is that something that you recommend?

Honestly, I don’t think it needs to be all that formal. One of the things that we know from research is that the most effective managers have very consistent one-on-one meetings with their direct reports, ideally weekly or every other week. I think Gallup research found that doing one-on-ones monthly was worse than not having one-on-ones at all. Sure, it’s great to have a campaign where everyone has stay interviews. But the sustainable solution is get into that habit of those weekly one-on-ones. Or if you have to, every other week check-ins. Every single one of those conversations you should think of as a stay interview. It’s not a once one time initiative. It’s a weekly, ‘Hey, how are you doing? What’s working? What’s not working?’

Once a week, we get to reflect on how we can extract the learning about what’s leading you to feel engaged and what’s leading you to feel disengaged and every single week let’s make a little tweak. So that either you feel more invested in, or you feel like you’re growing and learning more. If there are problems and obstacles getting in the way of really making this a fantastic workplace experience for you, let’s remove them. Like if someone’s unhealthy, sure you can do a cleanse or something, you could do a bootcamp, but there’s no replacement for having the discipline of constantly assessing and investing in your health on a daily basis.

A tool that we’ve created at LifeLabs based on our research is something called the CAMPS model. The CAMPS model stands for certainty, autonomy, meaning, progress, and social inclusion. Those are really the five biggest drivers of engagement, which ultimately is a predictor of productivity and retention. You could subtly ask about those different drivers, but even especially at a time like now be explicit about it. You can literally say, ‘Hey, I found out about this thing called the CAMPS model. Can we do a quick CAMPS check-in? On a scale of one to 10, how satisfied are you with your amount of certainty? How satisfied are you with your amount of autonomy, meaning, progress, social inclusion.’ One of those, if not more, is almost always going to give you the diagnosis you need for what is lacking for the individual that’s considering leaving. Do this with your most-engaged people, and do this with your least-engaged people. With your most-engaged people, it’s going to help you understand how to continue to invest in those areas that they care about. With your least-engaged people, it’s an opportunity to really problem solve.

How has the role of the manager evolved over the last 18 to 20 months?

The weird thing is that over the last 18 months or so, more managers’ roles are becoming closer and closer to what the roles already were of the best managers we studied. There is significantly more emphasis and desire on the manager side, the employee side, and the organization side for the manager to be more of a coach than a job and task delegator, to be more focused on emotional needs, to be more focused on not just, ‘Hey, did you get your work done?’ but ‘Let’s zoom out and look at things within the organization, or even outside of the organization, that are either supporting or impeding your success.’ There’s just a lot more focus on making sure the person feels seen and cared for as a human being. A lot of the shift from task-based to people-based leadership that is increasingly expected is not brand new in that the best managers were already doing this and having fantastic results. Now it’s just being written into people’s job descriptions.

What are the key skills that separate great managers from average ones?

I can answer that very literally because that’s the research we’ve done at LifeLabs. What we found based on our research — and our approach was looking at managers across different geographies and different industries, different company sizes — was surprisingly similar among all these very different people. What we found is that there are eight skills that distinguish these managers. We call them the core manager skills. The first ones are coaching, feedback, productivity skills (or enabling your team to be as productive as possible.) The next ones are effective one-on-ones, strategic thinking, leading meetings really effectively (we call it meetings mastery), leading change effectively and helping people stay adaptive in the face of change, and then people development (both on an individual level and on a team level thinking through what are our skill needs, how do I deliberately and consistently fill those?) So those are the eight. We call them ‘tipping point’ skills because what we found is that if managers invest in really mastering those eight — and especially the first four that I listed — that capability tips over into a really wide range of skills. For example, managers who were really strong at having feedback conversations are also strong in conflict resolution, in negotiating, and even things like interviewing skills, in creating development plans at a time like we’re in now where there’s such a scarcity of time to develop. One of the things we’ve been excited about is recognizing that you don’t have to get great at everything just to get great at those four foundational skills. An analogy I really like is thinking about it as like the primary colors. You just need the primary colors to make an infinite array of colors. You don’t need all of the colors.

Can I ask you for a bit more detail on a few of the skills, starting with feedback?

I’ll start with what’s the intention of it? What are the outcomes? Then what are some of the inputs? So the outcome of feedback is being able to allow someone to calibrate, allow teams to calibrate to the same expectations. The most important piece of feedback is to catalyze development, to allow the person through feedback become better or keep being really good at something that they’re doing. So that’s the intended outcome. Within feedback, some of the micro skills are things like being able to articulate the observable behavior that you want the person to be aware of by what we call ‘de-blurring’ what you saw. Most people, when they’re giving feedback, might say something blurry like ‘I really liked how helpful you were during that conversation.’.

That doesn’t really help me learn, because what is helpful? What specifically did I do? How can I learn from something if I don’t understand the specific behavior in question. A de-blurred version of that might be something like, ‘I really liked how you asked questions during that conversation,’ or ‘I really liked how you provided external context or the history of the organization in that conversation.’ That’s the first piece of it. The second really important piece that so many people miss out on is the link up to why it matters, the impact statement. So ‘I really liked that you asked questions during the conversation. And I mentioned that because I noticed that it allowed us to come to a really creative solution versus feeling stuck with the two solutions we had before.’ Or ‘I really appreciated that you shared the organizational history because it allowed us to make a better decision quicker without recreating mistakes from the past’ or something like that. So that’s an example of two of those micro skills within feedback, the ability to describe a behavior in a way, and the ability to clarify the impact statement.

How about meetings mastery? Have the micro skills there changed significantly over the last 18 months?

The thing that we just keep saying is nothing has changed. There’s just more pressure to do it. For example, we already knew that the best meeting facilitators and meeting leaders were deliberate about making sure that there was equal turn-taking in the conversation when we were in person. For some reason, people just didn’t notice that this wasn’t being done deliberately. In a Zoom room, it becomes much more painfully obvious that some people’s little green boxes aren’t showing up. They’re just sitting there staring at a screen and they’re feeling disengaged because they can’t just turn and chat with someone who’s sitting next to them who’s also disengaged, except I guess through the Zoom chat. They’re feeling like ‘I can’t even get my voice in because the majority of our interactions now are through meetings.’ Versus if you’re working in person, I could make up for that deficiency by having a quick hallway conversation. So all of the skills are the same — the necessity of those skills is just now much more urgent.

What are the key skills for recruiting top talent these days?

It starts off first with understanding your employer brand or your team brand. Recruiting is really like any relationship. You don’t want to just find a bunch of people — and you don’t even want to find a bunch of people that are good at something — you want to find the people who are good at something who are going to be aligned with your values] as a team or as an organization. If we’re talking more on a macro level it’s like dating — you don’t want to just find a bunch of people who are hypothetically good at being in a relationship, but you want the people who are going to be good at being in relationship with you. So the first thing is just be really explicit upfront in saying here are our values, here is our vision for what you will get out of working with us. Here’s our vision for the way of working that our team member will have when they join us. At LifeLabs, one of the things that we’ve really invested in where we’ve seen a good return on investment is making as many of our expectations explicit as possible. We’ll say things like here are our values. Here is how we’re assessing people throughout the interview process. Here is a week in the life of LifeLabs.

One other thing that we’ve done over the last couple of years is just also really clarify that who knows if our job description is perfectly accurate. If this looks interesting to you, but think you don’t perfectly qualify, please go ahead and apply anyway. Because maybe we’re wrong about our requirements and let’s go through this interview process together and assess each other. Clearly spelling out your benefits, spelling out your values, your process, spelling out how you’re judging people, all of that being as transparent as possible, is super important.

The next piece of it is just really making sure that you feel confident in your interview process. Unfortunately there are still so many companies that don’t have a structured interview process, meaning they’re asking different candidates different questions in a different order, which is a very unscientific approach to trying to make a very important decision. The next piece there is just making sure you’re very clear, what are the ways that we’re going to assess fit here and how do we make that really structured so that we’re assessing all candidates in the same way versus essentially giving all different people completely different tests and different ways of grading that test.

Is there a single piece of advice that most managers need to hear right now? And relatedly, are there any common mistakes you’re seeing managers making?

The first thing that’s coming to mind for me is that it’s really important to recognize that a manager’s job is not to manage people. As a manager, you can manage process, you can manage time, you can manage resources. But you can’t control people, like manage as a synonym for control. And the more we try to control, paradoxically, the less effective we are getting the outcomes we want. So as a manager, it’s so important to think of ourselves as catalysts of great performance and ask ourselves, what can we do to be in service of bringing out the best in others versus how do I make sure that people do these things?

The tactics around that are focusing less on whatever we wanted this person to do and focusing more on what does this person need from me so that they can achieve great results. Getting even more tactical: ask a lot more questions than you’re already asking. One of the key things we keep finding in our research over and over and over is the best managers ask more questions than average. By a lot more questions than average, we’re talking about on average in 15 minutes, most people will ask about two questions. The best managers we studied ask about 10 questions. Try out that orientation of how can I find out what this person needs from me to be successful? Assume they want to be successful, assume you don’t have to motivate them, assume that they already just like you want to do great work, want to feel good, and want to feel like they’re making meaningful contributions.

That’s a human feature that we all have in common. Instead of thinking about motivating, controlling, directing, just think about how can I really learn what this person needs from me so that I could help them have the support, the resources that they need to be successful.

It’s similar on the mistakes side too. To simplify, the mistake people make is assuming that people need to be motivated. What we need to do is find out how to serve the person and find out what they need versus trying to infuse them with motivation.

Charter bridges research and practice to give leaders tactical playbooks for what work can and should be. To learn more, check them out here.

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