A triathlon is a three-sport race:  Swim, Bike, Run.  Always in that order.  Many triathletes begin with strong skills in biking or running, making the swim an obstacle to a greater or lesser degree.  But as endurance athlete, speaker, author, and coach Terri Schneider says, “You have to get through the swim before you can do the parts you’re good at.”

I wanted to race.  Cycling was my sport and not too shabby at the running, but I didn’t know how to swim.

Many managers and leaders face a similar obstacle.  They are really good at their “technical” skill:  Sales, engineering, finance.  Conversations about these topics allow manager and staff to speak the same language.  The obstacle comes when a people problem needs to be solved and the manager stumbles over that first step – speaking up in a non-technical language.  Sometimes taking the first step is the hardest part.  Some managers don’t take that step and problems linger, affecting the bottom line.

My first step in triathlon was to show up at one of Terri’s workshops at the local pool.  Vacation/fashion swimsuit in place, no goggles, no cap, no clue.  Doggy paddled on command so Terry could see what she was working with.  After class she handed me a business card to the Jim Booth Swim School.  I learned to swim at age 40 and raced for several years, placing 9th in my age group at the Wildflower olympic distance triathlon one year.  The photo is me struggling to get out of my wetsuit.

Good managers and leaders develop all the skills needed to lead people, not just the expertise in their content area.  Giving negative feedback may never be comfortable but it can be done well.  Try this structure:

  1.  Say the topic.  “I’d like to talk about your latest report.”
  2. Say what you’ve seen.  “I noticed it was missing the summary and the numbers on page 3 don’t add up.”
  3. Say the impact.  “Since it needs to be redone and it’s due to the executive team today, I’m concerned.”
  4. Invite the person to discuss.  “Let’s talk about that.”

What follows is a dialog to find out why it happened and how the person will correct it.  You make an agreement.

How willing are you, to show up in the wrong suit to take the first step?