You’re leading team meetings regularly and you’re frustrated. Even though you consider yourself a collaborative leader, you’ve noticed that when you invite your team to participate in discussions you’re often met with silence. They stare back at you. Not much is coming out of their mouths’ that’s helpful to the issues you want their input on.
There are also issues that you should know about that your team isn’t bringing to you. You’re finding out about them from unexpected sources. You’ve told your team you need more information from them, yet nothing is working to assure that you have the information you need to properly lead your organization.
I hear about these frustrating situations from the leaders I work with, and they often blame their team. There will always be some missteps in communication. However, when you notice the kind of withholding described above that prevents you from effectively leading your organization, ask yourself:
“What’s my role in this situation?”
You need to look to yourself for a cause and a solution.
Have you let them know what kind of information you need? Be specific in informing your team about what you need to know, when, and why. They may be making some assumptions about the information you require.
Are you shooting the messenger? Expressing anger when you hear something of concern may keep people from telling you anything. Take a deep breath before you speak, and stay calm; if you remain composed you have a better chance of continuing to hear the things you need to hear.
Are you really listening? Stop trying to add your take on what they tell you. Stop shooting down their ideas. Listen to what they have to say with all of your attention.
Have you thanked them for informing you? Just say “Thank you for letting me know”, or “Thank you for adding your thoughts to the conversation”.
Have you asked them what they need in order to contribute? Ask your team what would help them to participate fully or bring you the kind of information you need. This simple question might just give you a ton of actionable information.
Do you give them what they need to be able to contribute? Once you know what they need, give it to them. If they don’t have enough information to contribute, teach them. If they need training, give it to them. If they don’t feel safe enough around you, change your behavior and make it safe for them to speak.
Look to yourself for solutions when people aren’t speaking up. What can you do, say, or ask to change the situation?
I love it when I come across true servant leaders. They know how to connect with others and how to develop the kind of relationships that have the power to move their organizations into the extraordinary zone. These humble leaders seem hard wired to assist their stakeholders to become the best they can be through coaching and mentoring those who need a boost in their ability to connect and deepen relationships.
Jan was one of those leaders. People were drawn to her style that brought out the best in them. She was a positive force with a great deal of “helper” in her; much of her time was spent with people who asked for her assistance.
When we talked about how she helped others it became clear that her intent and her behavior weren’t in sync; there were ways that she could be more even more effective.
Through our conversation Jan realized that she was really helping herself in some very subtle ways. When she was mentoring and coaching, she was giving her opinion, directing, and advising others (often disguised in “leading questions”). In other words, she was telling others what to do and how to do it in a way that served her because she loved getting that boost of adrenaline that solving other’s problems gave her.
There’s a place for advice, opinion, and direction. Think about a time that you received unsolicited advice or direction. If it came from your manager you may follow through but you may not be as invested as you would be if you figured it all out on your own. All of the self-learning came from your manager packaged neatly, tied with a bow, including a label of “how you should do it”, preventing you from discovering new ways to do things without directed help.
If you truly want to help the people you serve to learn and develop, consider:
Your intent: Is your intent to really help them or is it to show what you know, what you think is right, or to get quick action? Think about it. If you surmise that the people you are helping can figure things out on their own, your focus should be on assisting them to do that. Let go of your need to personally get something out of your efforts and help them to think and find creativity within themselves.
The gift of questions: Be curious. Ask some of those great open-ended questions that don’t lead them to “your way” and that they may not know the answers to. Heck, you might not even know the answers to them. Be careful with the questions you ask when being helpful; they just might be disguised as your advice, direction or opinion.
Heartfelt encouragement: As you watch people learn and develop more than you ever thought possible, encourage them from the heart and let them fail. The freedom to figure things out for themselves is what they’ve always wanted and they need you to cheer them on.
Think carefully about who you are really helping with your opinions, direction and advice. It may not be who you think it is.
“I believe that human beings are desperate, always, to belong to something larger than themselves.” David Whyte
The traditional idea of success in our organizations has everything to do with playing the game, dressing the part, and doing what’s expected. You work hard, you climb the ladder and make oodles of money that can buy you all the trappings of success as defined by external forces rather than your own internal calling. If you’re not careful, you get swept along in the definition of success as defined by everyone else.
You aren’t everyone else; this becomes clear the minute you declare yourself a leader.
If you don’t spend some time reflecting on what success means to you, you allow powerful forces of to take you for a ride when you’re not in the driver’s seat. After years of travel, you may come to the end of the journey and find that it wasn’t your own. It might be too late to change course.
You will have a chance at success when you can define what it means for you, putting the external forces of society, the organization you work in, and how others define it aside. Resist the pull of external sources of success and reflect on:
What puts you in flow in the sense of knowing what puts you into a state of clear focus and happiness. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes that flow happens when the challenge and skills required to do a task are high. For many of us, this occurs when we feel as if we’re contributing something to world. The tasks that put you in flow will move your spirit. When have you felt a sense of flow? When this happens you may have an indication of what you need to be doing to be successful. The beginning of the journey!
What’s important to you. As Stephen Covey has wisely said, start with the end in mind. At the end of the journey what can you say about your life? One of the best ways to think about what you’ll leave behind is to consider what you’d want others remember about you when you’re gone. If you articulate that, you can work backwards to define where to begin your excursion of self-defined success. (p.s. It’s no small thing that a side benefit of clarity about what’s important to you is that you become able to set boundaries that point to what you’re willing to do and what you aren’t).
Real success as a leader can mean not listening to what external forces think defines it for you. Instead, listen to that inner voice, with reflection and silence, and follow it. This kind of success can be difficult, lonely, and risky. Yet it’s the beginning of the journey that can impact your ability to lead at your best in ways you can’t imagine now.
I often get inquiries from people who want to become an executive coach and don’t know where to begin their journey. I’m more than willing to talk to them, because I have some opinions about what it takes not only from personal experience, but from watching this profession expand and shape over the years. And just maybe, they’ll take away something that will be helpful.
They often come to me believing that being an executive/leadership coach is what they’ve wanted their whole lives; a starry eyed approach similar to the one I started out with. I completely understand and felt that way myself but it’s not enough to make a go of it. When I became an executive coach nobody told me how hard it would be.
So I’m going to be measured and grounded in what I tell them. I’ll relate the good parts but I won’t sugar-coat the hard parts; like the first couple of years when I was scared to death as I worked to build the business wondering if it would be enough to pay the bills. There is now a crowded marketplace requiring them to distinguish themselves from all the other competitors out there. And some pretty sticky situations can happen when working with powerful leaders in complex organizations.
Yet for me the difficulties are worth it when I see the clients who can go from good to great leaders while being happy, persistent, and enduring in the work they do and the lives they live.
I don’t know if the same will be true for those who reach out to me to get some pieces of wisdom that may keep them going when times get tough. I’ve watched the executive coach career door revolve too many times to think that all of them will be successful. I’m satisfied that some have told me years later that they remember and used some small piece of my experience that was important to their success.
I’d like to believe that these new coaches hear a realistic viewpoint from me. In the end I’m glad I’m being truthful with them, even when some of the messages are less than positive. This is fulfilling work for many of us but it’s not for the weak of heart. I’m hopeful that the realism I provide will provide the balance for new coaches to be persistent and make their own mark with the work they do.
So what’s the message for you here?
Be honest and real. Balance the messages you deliver with realism. If all you do is sugar-coat the news you have to deliver to others they will smell it a mile away. And if all you do is communicate the hard stuff your followers will get bogged down in negativity and never have a chance to realize their potential. Don’t hold back, be honest and speak from the heart and you’ll gain trust and make great things happen. And isn’t that what leadership is all about?
Winton Marsalis has said that the best listener in an improvisational jazz session often ends up contributing the most to the music because they are able to play off whatever is being offered by the other musicians.
And so it could be with the conversations you have within your organization. How often have you been in a meeting where everyone is vying for attention and waiting for their turn to speak? The dialog is disjointed, with disparate pieces of information coming in from all sides. If you’re leading the meeting, you have to work doubly hard to make meaning of the cacophony. The music of the conversation is discordant, without common threads.
If a jazz musician is focused on what they’ll play next rather than listening to what is going on in the ensemble, they’d miss out on contributing in a meaningful way. Likewise if we focus in a conversation on what you are going to say next, we don’t have the important information necessary to contribute to the meaning that is emerging.
Like many leaders, you may have concerns about the absence of creativity and insight in your organization. If you and your team were practicing listening like a jazz musician, creativity could flow through the “listening conversations” you have.
Listening like a jazz musician
I was recently reminded of the power of listening conversations when hosting a World Café in my community. To be honest, it’s a very difficult yet essential thing to do when you are the host (leader). Yet, as I listened deeply to the thoughts, opinions, and stories that emerged in the conversation I could see how each contributor played off the others in the room. Not only was I listening like a jazz musician, but the others in the room were too. Participants approached me later to tell me how unusual this kind of conversation is.
The guidelines for a World Café conversation can be adapted and made explicit by you for all team members during those times when you need to have conversations that include deep listening. It is particularly important for you, as the leader, to demonstrate them and discuss them with your team:
Speak with your mind and your heart.
Focus on what matters.
Listen to understand together for patterns, insights, and deeper connections.
Link and connect ideas.
Slow down so you have time to reflect.
None of this is easy in our discordant organizations. Some of the assumptions behind the conversations that happen in a World Café conversation may be helpful for you to embrace as you facilitate these kinds of conversations:
Collective knowledge and wisdom needed are present and accessible in others.
Intelligence emerges as positive connections are made in the conversation.
These deep listening conversations can uncover a great deal of the intelligence, wisdom, and creativity that you’ve been craving for your organization. They can- and should – be a part of any conversation that requires new insight. Can you see where you might be able to have the kind of conversations that jazz musicians have?
Perhaps it hasn’t occurred to you to consider that the leader you are now is highly linked to who you are. You are unique, and what is both obvious and hidden to you about who you are greatly impacts your behavior and actions. You, as a human being, are the leader you are because of a multitude of things that make up you: personality, history, education and beliefs among others.
Likewise, the leader you will become is highly linked to the human you will become. A day from now, a week, month, year and decade into the future you will be someone different because you will be influenced by everything that happens in that time. You will change.
Some changes come to us in the form of the unexpected. So when those surprises happen we can thoughtfully and intentionally choose how we’ll react; and then we can decide how we’ll learn and change from them.
Then there are the changes we can consciously and purposefully make in ourselves. These are the things we get to choose proactively and intentionally about the kind of human being we want to be. Putting your effort into shaping yourself into the best person you can (choose to) be will mold you into the leader that you will be. It’s hard. It requires you to look at all of the things that currently shape you – the good, the bad, and the terrifying.
It will make a difference to how you lead. The human being you will be is the leader you will be. Why not shoot for the stars? Envision who you are as a person in that imagined, but perfect future. You can start with:
The destination: What kind of leader do you want to be? When you take a deep look at yourself today and consider all of the options available to become something more, what do you see? How will others see you? What beliefs, thoughts, qualities, values and behaviors will you have?
The path: What is the path you’ll take to become the person and leader you will be? Who can support you? What do you need to put in order before you begin walking on the path you’ve chosen? What are you fearful of, and how will you overcome your fears?
The way: What’s the first step you can take? How will you stay true to your destination? How will you choose when the path doesn’t follow the direction you thought it would? What can you do to sustain yourself while you reach for the stars?
The leader you will become is so much less about what you do as it is about who you become as a person. Why not be intentional about how you will shape yourself as a human being? When you set your personal destination, path and a way to get there, great leadership can follow; you can become the leader you’ve chosen to be.
How often do you have a conversation with your team that consists of something other than what’s being done, what needs to get done, and what they didn’t do? Slow down and include some conversations that are a level deeper than that; you’ll find that if you ask a few good starting questions and listen, you – and they – will learn, grow, and develop the kind of relationships that actually help to get things done with enjoyment and engagement.
There are lots of conversations you can have that you aren’t. Here are some of my favorites and some questions you can ask to get things going:
1. Development: You don’t have to dream up development plans for your team members all by yourself. Enlist their help with questions like:
What do you imagine your future looks like?
What do you think you can do to move toward your imagined future? How can I help?
2. Leadership: Share your leadership with your team by having a conversation about what it means for them to be leaders. Begin the conversation with:
What words would you use to describe your leadership now?
What kind of leader do you want to be? How will you get there?
3. Values: By having a conversation about the values you share as a team, you make them explicit. Ask:
What are the top values that we share together as a team?
What does it mean for us to truly commit to those values? How will we hold each other accountable for them?
4. Ethics: The conversation about ethics often doesn’t happen until it’s too late. Be proactive by inquiring:
What is our team code of ethics?
How will we self-manage around the code?
5. Conversations: A conversation about conversations? Yes, absolutely! Ask:
What conversations do we need to have that we aren’t having?
If we were to have a conversation now about how we can improve our work (or whatever other topic you need to dialog), how would we start?
6. Relationships: My guess is that you’re not talking about relationships, a foundation for great teams and leadership. Begin today by asking:
What relationships, that when improved can help us to achieve our goals?
If you could describe our team relationships in one sentence, what would that sentence say?
7. Team conflict: Conflict is everywhere – you can’t avoid it. Have a conversation about the elephants in the room by probing:
What conflicts within the team aren’t we talking about?
How will we manage conflict now and in the future?
8. Balance: Everyone wants “balance” but almost nobody is talking explicitly about it. Start by inquiring:
What questions do we need to ask ourselves to assure we’re balanced in all areas of our lives?
What do I need to do to promote and model work/life balance for all of us?
9. Appreciation: Your team craves appreciation. Why not learn together about how to appreciate each other by asking:
What do we need to learn about how to appreciate each other?
How can we best express our appreciation to each other?
10. Helping: Great teams learn to recognize when teammates need help. Help your team become aware of how to know when help is needed with these questions:
What opportunities do we see to help each other more?
What assumptions and challenges do we need to test that keep us from asking for (or accepting) other team members’ help?
Sometimes you may not know how to begin a conversation you need to have with your team. Questions are a great way to start!
Many of you have achieved a certain status or position in your companies because you’re intelligent. Like others who’ve risen through the ranks by being knowledgeable, you may have discovered a big obstacle in your leadership. You’ve realized that brilliance isn’t enough for you to be the best leader you want to be. You may now see that you need to focus more on the people who support you, but you’re stuck because they’re unpredictable and not subject to any of the things you’ve learned through books and education.
It’s time to develop the wisdom it takes to work well with people; it’s something that you just don’t learn in traditional ways. The good news is that if you are awake, aware and see people as essential to your organization’s success, wisdom can follow if you are willing to learn in a different way.
Your organization, community, and our world desperately need you to go beyond brilliance. We need you to develop the wisdom to lead people well, and that requires your intention, dedication and time to:
Get to know people: I’ve heard it all too often: “I don’t have time to spend with people”. The consequences of such a strategy can be dire. When you begin to spend quality time listening to your stakeholders, you begin to understand their talent and potential. When you fully help others to utilize their strengths, then you can be wise in finding work that satisfies and motivates them without the assumptions that result in errors of judgment about who is best able to do work. Schedule and spend time with the people who are important to you and to your organizational mission. Get to know them, discover their gifts, and become aware of what matters to them.
Do right by others: Wise leaders know how to balance business needs with the right things to do for the people involved. You can learn to treat others with kindness, care, and empathy even in the toughest business situations when you listen to them deeply. Stop talking and slow down. When tough decisions need to be made that involve others, use your heart to ask what the moral choice would be; you’ll know. Business can be brutal, but you don’t have to be.
Reflect: You won’t always make the right choices about people. Learn from your mistakes by taking the time to reflect on what you’d do differently next time. This reflection can be painful, it takes time, AND it helps you to cultivate the kind of wisdom required to lead others. The next time you’re confronted with a similar (because they’re never the same) situation, you will be confident and assured that you are acting with others in mind.
Brilliance will only take you so far. The wisdom to lead others requires a different kind of learning and it’s exactly what the world needs of you now.
Adele is a leader in a company that produces software. She’s climbed relatively quickly to her current position, where she is a “manager of managers”. Although she’s been in this position for only nine months, she’s hit a barrier in her ability to lead her new team.
Adele is risk-averse. In an industry that’s fast moving and very competitive, success comes with taking risks. Adele’s need to be absolutely certain that the end products of her team’s work will be perfect will eventually translate into lost revenue for the company. Things won’t get done on time, or there may be a lot of unnecessary tweaking of final products before they’re launched.
She doesn’t recognize that she’s fearful yet; but her boss is starting to notice something’s amiss and asked me to work with Adele. I recognized the signs of her fears during our first couple of months of work together when she had intellectually gone through the motions of working with me, but wasn’t willing to take even the smallest step toward changing her behavior.
At some point, she trusted me enough to name it: “I’m afraid”. Fear. It permeates everything in organizations, and is particularly insidious when it’s hidden in the hearts of leaders like Adele. Her team is waiting for her to step up because they want to move forward. They want her to demonstrate the courage they also lack, so that they can match it and make the difference every one of them wants to make.
Because Adele has finally taken in the reality that fear is behind her lack of progress, she feels like she can do something about it.
If you recognize your own need to develop more courage in Adele’s story, you can begin here:
Baby steps: Trying new risky things in small baby steps helps to move things along. If you’ve broken things down into small enough bites, when they don’t work out, the negative impacts are minimal. Look for opportunities to ramp up the risk to bigger steps, and celebrate your success in gaining courage as you go along.
Asking for help: Adele had me to support her, to help her think through the risks and to stand beside her when she failed as well as when she succeeded. Eventually, we’d work for her to continue her courage journey by finding others to support her. Find someone who can be a courage partner to stand beside you in your journey in a confidential way.
Continuous inclusion and feedback: Include your team in the courage journey; chances are, your vulnerability and the support you get will engage and motivate them. Facilitate, coach, and involve them at every step. Ask for feedback from them and any other stakeholders who are important to your success in gaining confidence and courage.
It takes courage to lead, yet behind almost any excuse you make for not moving forward – with work projects, or with personal change – is fear. Recognize it as such, and take baby steps with the support of others toward developing the confidence you need to lead with courage.
Josh is a seasoned leader who identifies with being introverted. As such, he prefers to stay in his office, head down, only looking up to answer the phone or to acknowledge someone who is at his door. He’s a hard worker, he’s smart, and he gets lots of things done. He’s noticed that his team seems scattered, losing their sense of direction often. Josh knows something is missing in his leadership; he just can’t put his finger on it.
Marie is a C-suite executive who climbed to where she is by being driven to take action and get results. She’s fast paced with high expectations for herself and others. She keeps on top of things by working long hours and sending messages to her staff on evenings and weekends to remind them of their deadlines and to redirect them (often) when she thinks they aren’t doing things correctly. She feels like she’s starting to wear out at the ripe old age of 42. She knows she has to make some changes in her leadership and her life but can’t quite figure out where to begin.
Leaders may avoid having conversations, seeing them as sucking up valuable time that can be spent “taking action”. That was the case for both of these leaders.
Yet they each have come to a crossroads. They can keep doing what they’ve always been doing or they can try something that just might boost their ability to lead others to a new level.
Could it be that “something missing” might be the very thing they’ve avoided because they don’t see it as “taking action”? What if that thing, called “having conversations” were actually an action? Without two-way conversations:
- Resulting activities by their teams can veer off course because expectations aren’t clearly discussed and understood;
- Team members may be seen as incapable or misunderstood when they haven’t been fully listened to;
- A leader can be viewed as unapproachable, preventing them from hearing information that is important to their ability to lead well;
- Casual conversation is absent making the bonds between the leader and their team tentative.
As you move up the corporate ladder, conversations with others become ever more vital to your success and ability to thrive as a leader. Leadership is all about influencing and motivating people to take action, and that won’t happen without your willingness to spend a significant part of your day in conversation.
The kind of conversations you need to have consist of two obvious parts that may require different approaches than you’ve used before:
Talking should be kept to a minimum. What if you let go of the need to direct a conversation and spill out everything that’s on your mind? A conversation needs to be two-way, but particularly when you are leading your own team, I’d suggest that you shoot for talking 30% of the time or less. The words that you speak should be stated with care, brevity, and clarity. A significant portion of those words should be open-ended questions such as “What do you think?” or “What are your next steps?”. Finally, remember the power of silence and don’t feel a need to fill it. Trust that if you don’t talk someone will; your silence will encourage real conversation.
Listening more than you might be comfortable with now. If you’re talking 30% of the time, then you’ll be listening 70%. The kind of listening you should be exhibiting is the kind that is without external distractions (checking your cell phone, reading something on your desk, etc.) and devoid of internal distractions (otherwise known as brain chatter). If you notice your mind wandering, just go back to listening. The great thing about listening is that is creates emotional connections with others and fosters empathy and trust. At the same time, listening can be a selfish activity, providing you with valuable information needed to help you to lead.
Conversations are action, and they are necessary for subsequent actions to be focused appropriately as well as to foster healthy relationships. What conversations do you need to start with today?
This post was originally published on Smartblog on Leadership