Paul (not his real name) sat across the desk from me, receiving the hard news that he was being fired. I could wrap nicer words around it – let go, released to a new opportunity, downsized – but because of his poor results as a sales rep and a spirit that didn’t lean into coaching, he was being fired.
I’m not a fan of long goodbyes in these situations, so Paul was now instantly in his final hour of active employment and he would soon be leaving with a cardboard box of personal things, two weeks pay and a mixed bag of relief and disappointment. But, what happened in his final minutes at the company changed my leadership forever and improved the team culture of every team I have led since.
Whether through downsizing, performance terminations or people joining in the Great Resignation, church and ministry teams are experiencing turnover rates so high I don’t even need to cite data to substantiate it. I’ve seen it. You’ve seen it. Maybe you’ve been “it.” In the midst of employees coming and going, may I suggest the one question you must ask as a leader or teammate of anyone exiting your team, and you have to ask it with all the sincerity, humility and openness you can muster. And it’s the question I asked Paul as he stood before me with his cardboard box, saying “thanks for the opportunity,” and I was saying, “I’m so sorry it didn’t work out.”
The one-question exit interview went like this:
Me: Paul, before you leave, I have one question for you, and I’m asking you to be as candid with me as you possibly can. You don’t have to answer the question, but it would be a gift to me and to others who work with me in the future.
Paul: Yeah, what.
Me: Is there anything that you can share with me about my leadership that I may not know about, that would have made a positive difference for you here?
Paul: (after thinking for just a moment) Yeah… Evan, you are the most easy-going, anal retentive person I have ever known. You don’t care about how 95% of stuff is done, but then, out of the blue, there is something you want done exactly a certain way. The problem is, I never knew what those things were until it was too late. And then it was like “wham.” And that was so discouraging and hard to figure out.
Me: Thanks, Paul. I can see that. I’m sorry you experienced it, and seriously, you have just helped me a lot. Thank you.
That one question, and Paul’s honest feedback, shared over 25 years ago, changed my leadership and team culture moving forward. In part, it helped me look for the situations where I was responding that way and adjust, or at even better, set expectations very clearly when how something was done really mattered to me. For instance, if you are in charge of ordering food for a retreat or business meeting I’m leading, I expect there will be too much food. If you’re not sure if two or three pizzas is the right amount, I want you to order four. By setting that specific expectation clearly, it’s better for everyone. And remember, the other 95% if meeting logistics…I don’t have an opinion on. My team culture improved because there were fewer surprises, frustrations and disappointments.
What I’ve learned in the past 5 years is I don’t have to wait for an exit interview to ask this question. I can pose this question to any of my teammates at any time, and if our relationship is healthy, I can trust they will be candid and clear with me. The result? Blind spots can be worked upon and my performance can improve over time. Have I done this perfectly every time in 25 years? Of course not. I’ve blown it sometimes. But, in general, I’ve received, pondered and adjusted over time.
Make it Practical:
Try it out. Consider two or three teammates (those you work for, work with, or lead) and ask them these questions:
- “Can I ask a question of you, and if you answer candidly, it would be a real gift to me?” Assuming they say “yes,” then ask…
- Is there anything that you can share with me about my leadership (or my work on the team) that I may not know about, that could be better and would make a positive difference in our work together here? (Be quiet and receive the feedback.)
- Follow up with, “That’s really helpful to hear. Anything else I should know or any example of how this plays out?”
- Say “thanks” and let them know you are going to ponder that, and let them know you really appreciate them sharing this with you. Don’t try to offer a rebuttal or make excuses (I’m not always good at this part). You don’t have to apologize for it, simply receive it, ponder it, and consider how you can take this insight and grow.