Chapter 6 Give Them an E.A.R.: How Great Leaders Communicate
If you want to remember everything you need to communicate to your people every day, you only have to grab your E.A.R.
I know, I know, that’s cheesy. Even so, if you want to remember the three most important message you must communicate to your team everyday, all you have to do is grab your ear. How do you spell “ear”?
e . . . a . . . r . . .
Encouragement, accountability, and recognition. In other words, “You can do it. Did you do it? You did it!”
E.A.R. is that simple, and this cute mnemonic device ensures you remember it.
Before you learn how to delegate with clarity and competence correctly so you get the most from the E.A.R. framework, there’s three things I encourage you to do before reading this chapter. One, drop the mask. I mean with yourself. If you get good at telling yourself the truth, your life will go much better. So begin by telling yourself the truth. Drop the mask.
Two, ditch the attitude. I’m not a rocket scientist. I don’t have a Ph.D. It’s not what we know, it’s what we do that builds our character. So even if you know it all, ask how well you’re applying that knowledge. Ditch the attitude.
Three, kill the bear. In the movie The Edge, Anthony Hopkins is rich with a hot wife. Alec Baldwin wants the money and the woman. Thanks to movie magic, they end up in the wilderness pitted against a bear. The plot is simple. Either they kill the bear, or the bear kills them. Anthony Hopkins has never killed a bear before, but he knows that someone somewhere has. And he says this: “What one man can do, another man can do.”
If what you read in this chapter and those ahead leaves you thinking, Oh man, I should have done that fifteen years ago! Or I could never do that, remember: If someone’s done it before, so can you. Kill the bear.
Now you’re ready to learn the E.A.R. framework.
Introducing the E.A.R. Framework
What does E.A.R. mean?
In the previous chapter, we covered incentives. You might equate incentives with encouragement, but they’re different concepts. The best explanation I’ve found is this ancient military example.
Greek and Roman armies had a position called the paraclete, or “comforter.” The paraclete would put his arm around his fellow soldiers and say, “You can do it.” And as they were going into battle, he would hold them accountable, asking, “Did you do it?” Then, after the battle, he would recognize them by saying, “You did it.”
That’s what it means to encourage people.
You can do it. Did you do it? You did it. Those are the three messages you need to be consistent in communicating to those who you hope will succeed you.
Think about your organizational chart and your direct reports. Who needs encouragement? Who needs accountability? Who needs recognition? Identify those people, and have the corresponding conversations with them.
If you haven’t held someone accountable based on performance in the last month, that’s a lapse in leadership. Likewise if you haven’t recognized someone for a job well done.
That’s the E.A.R. framework. Let’s explore each part.
Aside from a simple, “You can do it,” how do you encourage your people? What professional and personal struggles do they face?
First of all, make sure you’re rewarding the behavior you want to see repeated. That means encouraging the right people in the right roles. Pushing ambitions on people who don’t share your hopes just makes them angry. Back your encouragement with the right mindset. That’s how you direct your people in the right actions.
Always be transparent in the motives behind your encouragement. People are desperate to know the why. That deep sense of understanding is essential for excellence.
Think about encouraging people in terms of their performance. Like we discussed earlier, high performance is concentrating on tasks that, if done with excellence, have a significant impact on individual and group outcomes. You can encourage the outcomes that each of your direct reports must achieve in order to succeed.
One of my clients is a young guy at an office that just opened in Reno. He’s dealing with tons of distractions. So I asked him recently, “What are your top three outcomes?”
He answered right away. “Develop relationships, bid and win work, build it successfully.”
You want to ask your people the same question and get clear answers like those. For example, your superintendents and foremen need to be safe, fast, and do high quality work.
Once you’ve got your people’s answers, pinpoint the one outcome that adds the most value to your company. Then identify the top three tasks responsible for that top outcome and pick the most important task. Now ask your direct reports, “In what specific ways can you improve your performance of this task?”
Letting your people think through how they can improve their performance is vital to encouraging them. As a leader, you should walk your subordinates through the tasks that generate the outcomes you expect. Tell them “You can do it.”
Maybe you have one direct report who has potential, but whose job performance is a little shaky. You need to sit down together and make sure it’s crystal clear what must be done to achieve high performance. Again, identify expected outcomes and the tasks that lead to them. Pick the most important task, and invite your direct report to think, “How can I improve my performance of this task in the next thirty days?”
Then look that person in the eye and say, “You can do it.”
Of course, encouragement alone isn’t enough. Let’s talk about accountability.
What is accountability? It’s holding people responsible for their actions and outcomes within their realm of responsibility and corresponding with their authority. It sounds easy, but accountability can be derailed by stealth obstacles. Let’s look at a few.
Chances are, your biggest obstacle to holding people accountable will be time. Having a tight deadline makes it hard to delegate, because you feel like no one else will get tasks done on schedule.
In Chapter 2 of this book, we called out three ways construction leaders get in their own way. Two of these are recurring issues I’ve had to help clients overcome again and again, so I bring them up again here. They’re heroism and perfectionism.
As a leader, of course, you want to be the hero. Your people love it when you come flying in and save the day. And you love the buzz that comes from their admiration. But that buzz will hinder your ability to pass your company on to others.
Recall from Chapter 2 that perfectionists find it difficult to hold others accountable. For example, you may think nobody can do it as well as you, and you may be right. But that’s not the point. Who decides what’s good enough? The customer does. Not you.
I’m not saying you should lower your expectations or standards. Maybe you can do it better than 90 percent of the people in your organization. But that doesn’t matter. What matters is if your people can do it well enough to satisfy the customer.
You might say, “The last time I delegated to someone, they screwed it up and I had to take over anyway. Now I know better than to trust people.”
If you struggle to trust people, you’ll resist giving them tasks to begin with. That’s why delegation is the flipside of mistrust, and a key part of accountability.
A Quick Delegation Framework
Choose which tasks you’re willing to delegate. Pick the best person to delegate them to. Give them clear, detailed instructions. Then set a completion date. This lets you delegate responsibility and authority, not just the task.
How do you decide which tasks to delegate? Think of one thing you’re doing right now but shouldn’t be. Someone else should be doing it, but you’re a perfectionist who avoids the hard work of teaching it to others. Stop doing it.
One November day, I said to my wife, “Come January, I’m not doing the dishes anymore.”
Here’s why. I know my wife and I can do the dishes better than our kids. We’ve been doing them for years. But the kids can do the dishes themselves. I drew a line in the sand while giving us a little time to teach the kids. How did it go? It’s gone awesome. Now they’re doing the dishes, and it’s good enough.
When you’re delegating, ask yourself, “Am I clear about what I’m delegating? Does this person understand what needs to be done? Is this person capable of achieving the outcome I want?” These questions help you fill in any missing information for a more favorable outcome.
Beware of Abdication
While some leaders have trouble delegating, others have the opposite problem. They love delegating—to the ones in their company who stay late and get everything done. But at a certain point those workhorses reach overcapacity, and their performance goes down. So take your people’s capacity into account, and spread the delegation around. Because otherwise you’re abdicating, not delegating.
Maybe you understand how to delegate, but holding your people accountable is still a challenge. A simple and effective solution is to have accountability conversations.
An accountability conversation should include three questions: “Did you do it? If not, what got in the way? How can I help?” That’s all it takes to hold people accountable.
Who in your company needs accountability? Make a list of anyone and everyone who could benefit from this conversation. Once you have your list, don’t wait until next month to hold those people accountable. Have those conversations today.
Just as important is recognizing the people who’ve reached (or surpassed) your outcome expectations. Let’s explore how.
Think back to a time when you were recognized for a job well done. How did it feel? Pretty great, right? Others feel the same when you recognize them for the work they do.
To be effective at recognition, you have to be specific, personal, and consistent. We live in a cheap recognition culture where people sometimes get recognized just for showing up. I’m not talking about that.
Back when I was just starting my career, I worked as the lead generator for an entrepreneurial company selling copiers. One of the owners used to pull me aside at the end of the week and say something like, “Eric, I really like what you did over here on Wednesday. It was awesome!” It meant the world to me every time.
Why? Because it was personal. When I won Marketer of the Year, it was impersonal. But when my employer gave me a plaque with the specific amount I’d sold, I ran home and said to my wife, “Let’s put this on the wall!”
Who in your organization needs specific, personal recognition? Maybe there are people you haven’t spoken to in a while. Stop by and recognize them for the work that they do. It can have a tremendous impact. Because everyone wants a place to belong.
Before you give recognition, be aware that different people like to be recognized differently. Some people are humiliated if they’re brought up in front of a crowd. Other people love the spotlight. Some people just want a face-to-face conversation. You don’t even have to give them a bonus. Just look them in the eye and tell them you appreciate them. Those moments stick with people for years.
So as you’re grabbing your E.A.R. and thinking about encouragement and accountability, remember to give recognition where it’s needed.
To be meaningful, consistent, and fair, recognition needs to be based on standards. What standards should you hold contractors to? Read on.
Seven Attributes of the Best Construction Leaders
I have a friend who’s been in the construction industry for thirty years. He got laid off recently because his employer had an issue with their client. If I told you even one detail about that project, you would know it.
Now, my friend is a kick-ass project manager and estimator. So how’d he get laid off in the middle of a booming economy? It’s not a lack of work that kills construction companies. It’s having too much work to execute it correctly.
You might remember I mentioned the seven attributes of effective strategy in construction companies, which I learned from The Construction MBA by Matt Stevens. My friend got laid off because his employer lacked these seven attributes. I’ve adapted them slightly as a guide for construction leaders.
- They pursue niche work at which they are excellent and profitable.
- They deal with clients they know well.
- They work with project partners they trust.
- They maintain high quality, efficient construction work.
- They emphasize and demand safety.
- They insist on timely payment for all dollars earned.
- They have a financial cushion.
Let’s reconsider these seven attributes where you are concerned. Reflect on ones that you do well and ones you need to improve. Think about the up-and-coming people in your organization. Who is one of your direct reports that you’ve pinned some hopes on?
Does that person understand these seven attributes? If not, can you teach them so they can be an effective construction leader? According to David Foster Wallace, a real leader can help others overcome their laziness, selfishness, weakness, and fear.
Don’t think you’re immune to those things. We all face challenges. The best leaders meet and overcome those challenges. Using the E.A.R. framework not only helps you overcome laziness, selfishness, weakness, and fear, it helps you lead others to conquer them, too.
Time for a brief example from history. In 1805, Napoleon was poised to conquer England. His French and Spanish galleons met the English fleet at Trafalgar. To fight battles back then, each side would line up and close in on the other while firing on the enemy’s ships. And when they got close enough, they’d board one another’s ships and hack each other to death.
If the English had done that, they would have been wiped out by Napoleon’s better-armed galleons. So Nelson, the English admiral, came up with a different approach.
The English were better shots, and the soldiers on their boats were efficient fighters. So Admiral Nelson and his commanders planned to cut the enemy lines in half with their smaller, lighter boats, board the Spanish galleons, and take them out.
Let’s examine what Nelson did right as a leader. Number one, he had a clear command intent. His captains understood how they were to execute the battle. Number two, he picked competent decision makers he could delegate crucial tasks to. Number three, he had his men gather rich information about the battlespace and share it. And number four, he fostered mutual trust at all levels of command.
Working with contractors since 2004 has convinced me that what separates winners from losers is the leadership team’s communication. For better or for worse, your company reflects you and your ability to communicate with those you lead.
Think about your immediate successor. Is there room for improvement in some area? Which one? How well does this person communicate? Now think about the people who report to you. How many of them do you trust? How many of them trust you?
Life is a battle. That’s why you must fill your company’s chain of command with competent, trustworthy decision makers to secure its future.
Bringing competent people on board is only half the battle. The other half is keeping them. The E.A.R. framework can help you retain top talent. Here’s how.
The E.A.R. Legacy
Remember my hypercompetent friend who was laid off? He got three offers from other companies. One offer came from a corporation, another from a company out of the Bay Area, and another from a local business. The local firm offered him two or three dollars an hour less than the corporation, but he picked the local organization because of the culture fit.
It’s your culture that will keep the best people. And the best organizations are those which recognize high performers appropriately. That’s where the E.A.R. framework comes in.
Recall the Battle of Trafalgar. The Spanish and the French together intended to invade Britain under Napoleon’s command. But there was Admiral Nelson, who, instead of attacking head-on, led the English naval towards their foes from a diagonal angle of attack. Britain destroyed twenty-one Spanish and French ships while losing none of their own. But the English suffered one substantial loss—Admiral Nelson. He died to win that battle.
Consider how much you’ve sacrificed to build your construction company. Are you going to hand down that legacy? Nelson’s column stands in Trafalgar Square as the legacy of his leadership. What we do today impacts future generations, for better or for worse.
Think about the quality of your leadership and the messages you’re communicating to your direct reports. To cement your legacy, give your people your E.A.R..