Working Within Limits

How do you work with a direct report or colleague who has limitations on their ability to perform — shy, or nervous, or afraid to perform some of their job duties?

It can be hard to respect another person’s reluctance to do something we find easy — I’ve found myself impatient with one person’s unwillingness to make sales calls, or another’s inability to speak up at meetings.

The good leader, however, first accepts people as they are, and then helps them move in the direction they need to go.

I recently got asked to coach a stellar person, a lawyer, who has some remarkable deficits. One is, she cannot ask for help. Another is, she finds it almost impossible to make phone calls, though she is perfectly comfortable receiving them.

These two deficits are becoming a problem as she is now looking to network and build a practice. How can you network without asking for help and without making phone calls?

The good news is, we found some short term solutions for her.

Long term, she’s in therapy for some of her issues that date back to her childhood. In the medium term, she may get some coaching on how to increase her comfort level in asking for business help and making business calls.

Short term, we were able to be creative and find work-arounds for all of her challenges.

For networking, it was actually easy. Good networking is not about asking for help or asking for a sale — good networking is doing favors and offering help and building relationships. Her reluctance to network was built on a faulty model of how to network.

In good networking, you:

  1. Listen deeply to understand the needs of the other person
  2. Think creatively about how you might help, or who you know who might help
  3. Follow up within 24 hours with your suggestions or introductions
  4. Follow up in a week or two to see how it worked out

Once we agreed on that model, the only remaining challenge was the two followup steps. Fortunately, she has no problems with sending email. So the followups could be entirely by email.

And finally, we devised a system to reduce her need to initiate any phone calls at all — by having an assistant do it. The new plan is to collect all the non-urgent and followup type calls in one place and train her assistant to make them. This will be during a time when the lawyer herself is available. If the person being called answers, the assistant will connect them. If not, the assistant will leave a scripted voice mail asking for a callback.

When they do call back, it’s now an incoming call, which is within our lawyer’s comfort zone.

As a leader, it’s your responsibility to understand and respect the limits and abilities of your people, and find creative ways to help them be productive. In extreme cases that may mean changing their job or moving them out of the company. In most cases it’ll mean working with them. You’ll get greater productivity and loyalty as a result.

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