Saturday, June 13, 2015

Those Dreaded Few Words...Do You Have a Minute?

Imagine if you will, that you are sitting at your desk, busily beavering away at the three quadtrillion (yes that is a word) things on your 'to do' list.  Outwardly, you are looking calm and on top of all your tasks, even if your heart is doing that flip-jack, twitchy thing that suggests that inwardly, your outward demeanour is fake.

There is a knock on the partially open door (if you are lucky enough to get that heads up), and a face appears around the frame, with that 'look'.

"Do you have a minute?", the face asks.

Your heart sinks all the way to your sitz bone, you plaster a welcoming smile with perhaps an inquiring eyebrow lift, onto your face, and warmly usher them in.  (Already I can sense those of you who are 'eyebrow lifting' at the use of 'warmly' - if that is not you, feel free to replace with 'less than frosty' or 'cordial')

You then wait.

Sometimes, you wait with that sense of impending dread.

Talk to any leader, and ask them what kind of images are conjured up from the seemly innocuous statement that comes straight after a knock on your office door or a head that pops around the door frame with "Do you have a minute?".   I have not yet met one who tells me that it does not bring with it some sort of news that you most definitely do not want to hear.

The thing about a "Do you have a minute?" moment is that it is rarely a minute, and even rarer if it is a positive sharing of something to celebrate.  In fact, I am pretty confident finding a set of poultry dentures (hens teeth in case you missed the subtle reference) is more likely.

If you are new to leadership, and have not yet fallen prey to the "Do you have a minute?" moment, be wary it is not disguised as something else.  Other versions include:

- "Can I see you for a moment?"
- "When you are free, could you give me a call - it is important we have a 'quick' chat?", also masked as "Call me when you can" if you are offsite and at a meeting - it is especially scary if it has the word urgent anywhere in the message
- "Have you got a minute?"
- "Can I drop by and see you when you have a free minute?"
- "I just need to see you about something for a moment"
- "I hope you don't mind, but I just need a quick word"
- "Are you busy?" (seems a redundant question to ask don't you think, when anyone with a dollop of wisdom or functioning eyes in their head can see you are knees deep in compliance driven paperwork)
- "I just have a quick question"
- "I just wanted you to know" (incidentally, I have just updated this post to add this from feedback from a fellow leader - and on reflection, I think this particular statement has many stomach lurching moments attached to it...)

Either way, how you manage the "Do you have a minute?" moment at your place will either be to make a rod for your own back, where you are likely to become the doormat of other peoples problems and monkeys, or alternatively, assist your staff to grow a mindset that is strengths and problem solving based.  I like to call this the Future Focussed Model.

The Rod

This is where you drop everything the moment you get the 'knock' and then proceed to solve the others person problem for them.  Sometimes the drop everything approach is not an efficient use of your time.  Being available is not a bad thing, but being available 24 hours a day is unrealistic and possibly symptomatic that things are not as organised as they could be.  

The last thing you want by being there for eveyone all the time is to be the cause of why your team are unable to problem solve by themselves, take on new responsibilities and/or develop their skills like delegation and leadership.  When you help them learn strategies for problem solving themselves, you are building up their resilience and showing them that you trust them.  Looking at how things are delegated, what the lines of communication are and what causes bottlenecks at your place, are all good places to start.  A little self review into how your team deal with issues and problems could be quite an enlightening process.  

The Future Focussed Model (Aka strategic questions based on a GROWTH mindset)

The consensus with most people I have talked to about the "Do you have a minute?" moment is that having a process is useful because simply saying no is problematic, and sorting the issue for everyone all the time creates a rod of dependency that shifts the monkey from them to you.  Generally when someone wants your time what they are really asking for is your undivided attention and whatever is sitting topmost in their mind is important to them.  In our leadership role it is important to acknowledge the people we work with and to be available and approachable.  Here is where a process - or model - is helpful.  Having a model to work through helps you shift though the various nuances that sit behind the 'Do you have a minute?" moment, and determine how much time you need to give.  

Sometimes people just want to be heard, and when you ask 'what would you like me to do?', they will tell you they just wanted to get it off their chest.  Investing some time for people in these situations is never a bad thing - you just need to make sure that you schedule in the time for it to occur.

For me it is a bit of a juggling act.  I have an innate sense of curiosity and possibly a bit of a sixth sense (honed from more than my fair share of 'have you got a minute' moments that have caused the tummy to clench and blood to run cold) in terms of judging the seriousness of the "Do you have a minute" moment.  I always like a bit of a heads up then I can determine where the issue fits into my priority list - often one persons priority is not always as high as yours.

I now tend to ask a few key questions that help me decide the following:

  • how serious the issue is likely to be
  • how much time I will need to invest
  • whether I am just needed to be used as a sounding board
  • If I am the right person to be involved

I have always used questions to help me find out more, both as a teacher with students and as a leader with my team.  Sometimes it is all too easy to rush into a problem solving approach with limited information and attempt to 'rescue' the situation.  This can end up in disaster.  In this scenario, some well placed and well timed questions can make all the difference.  

One of the processes I have found to be most helpful in recent years has been to employ a coaching approach.  I particularly like to use some solutions focussed tools such as the scale to help me determine which direction to take  This is especially useful if the issue is one that belongs in the hands of the person who bought the issue to you.  Obviously if its urgent, fits under a health and safety umbrella, or is a major PR blunder, then I would not use a coaching approach.  In that instance you go into a different mode, and that is a number of blog posts on their own!  Using a Future Focussed Model helps you determine the right course to take.    

Some Useful Questions:

  • What solutions have you already thought about?  

Encouraging your team to think of at least two alternative solutions before they knock on your door helps your team develop problem solving strategies that they can employ at other times - over time this will decrease their reliance on you as the sole problem solver - and increase their own skills.

  • On a scale of one to ten, with one being very serious and very urgent and ten being not very serious or urgent at all, how serious and urgent is this issue to you?

This helps you, and them, quickly assess how much time might be needed and where it will fit into your priority list.  It also addresses that age old concern of being thought of as being selfish, unapproachable, 'unleaderlike' or just plain rude and self absorbed if you say no.  This way you are not saying no, simply rescheduling to a more appropriate time.  Just make sure you follow through. 

  • How much time do you need?

This seems obvious, but sometimes we are not so great at cutting to the chase.  If you ask this question and they need ten minutes but you have five, suggesting the come back at a later time is going to be beneficial to you both.  Sometimes people really do only need a few minutes for a yes or no (for example, it might be a budgetary decision) - asking this question can save you all time.  On average it takes 23 minutes to get back on task after an interruption so its worth asking this question to save you later angst! 

  • In what way do you need my help?  What might that look like?

This helps you and the other person nut out what exactly they need your help with.  It also helps you determine if you are indeed the right person to assist - see the next question. 

  • Am I the right person to assist you, or can you think of someone else who might be better placed to help?

This one is important.  Not all issues are best sorted by you.  This is why we have teams.  Think of the strengths in your team.  Sometimes someone else is better placed to assist someone and this question can help you and them decide if this is the case. 

Whose Monkey is it and do you have a Gate Keeper?

Think about the resources in your school or workplace and ask yourself how well do you use them to assist with the "Do you have a minute?" moment.  One in particular is your PA.  If you have a Personal Assistant, in what way can you use them more effectively as your Gate Keeper?  If people have to go through them to see you, they are less likely to just 'drop' in and leave their 'monkey' with you.  At my place, my PA, Receptionist and all office staff are exceptionally skilled at being the Gate Keeper.  They know how to head pesky salespeople off at the pass, and they are adept at making sure any one with a concern sees the right person.  If you don't have office staff for many hours a week (I only had a part time Secretary when I was a teaching Principal in a small school) then try and schedule them to be working when you are in your office.  Train them up to be a great Gate Keeper and this will help you no end, and in particular, it will keep those pesky monkeys that belong to other people sitting on their shoulders!   It is not the be all and end all, but great things can be accomplished with small steps and making the best use of your available resources is important. 


Finally, this post is not hard and fast, and I do not pretend to be the expert.  I have made more than my fair share of mistakes in this regard and I am confident there are plenty of people over the years who have found me to be unapproachable or less than ideal in these situations, at times.  I have however worked hard to learn from each and every mistake I have made, tried to make amends the next time, and make things better.  This post is based on some of those reflections and from discussions with my colleagues.  

One of the things I have noted when discussing this with my colleagues is that there have been times where they have walked into a new situation as a leader, only to find a culture of learned helplessness.  What they noted is that when you first start growing peoples problem solving ability, it is not always welcome.  Probably the most successful approach that I have found thus far for encouraging healthy problem solving, professional efficacy and resilience, has been through educational coaching, especially Solutions Focussed.  

The problem with leadership is that what one person sees as fabulous another sees as insufficient.  I have blogged about how our strengths can be our greatest asset or our greatest downside, and the way we manage interruptions of the "Do you have a minute?' kind are testament to this.  At the end of the day, your role is important and knowing how to prioritise the "Do you have a minute?" moment so that you are not inundated with other peoples monkeys is a key element in assisting you to manage your workload and stress levels.  Most importantly, it helps develop the culture at your place so that your team has a growth mindset and they are able to problem solve and grow their own leadership skills.  They may not thank you for it initially but persevere because long term, this will be the most important legacy you will leave them with.  

At the end of the day, "Do you have a minute?" can either be something you dread or a smooth process that grows the culture at your place.  


  1. I didn't have a minute to read this

  2. You must be very busy then....I understand...

  3. A worthwhile 5 minute read, especially what do you want me to do about it! Thanks...

  4. You're welcome - sometimes it is just helpful to have a couple of things up your sleeve!