The Point: Time is a very valuable commodity these days. And with what seems like less time on your leadership hands, you’re probably compelled to speak more than listen. After all, as a leader contended this week during an executive coaching session, how else would he be able to give direction to his troops! However, what exactly are you attempting to accomplish in such leadership moments? Granted, the leadership challenge of “getting things done” should always be forefront in your agenda. So it’s within these “shutting up” moments that we’ll examine if you’re a leader looking to succeed by simply dolling out orders, or if you’re a leader looking to identify direction and let your stakeholders identify orders and priority therein… Enjoy!
I Listen… Don’t I?
Terry was a successful C-Suite leader that had been successfully running the operations department of a Fortune 1000 organization (He was Chief Operations Officer – COO). Engaged in a classic Marshall Goldsmith Stakeholder Centered Coaching initiative afforded us the opportunity to not only engage him in leadership development and executive coaching, but also his stakeholders (peers, superiors, and subordinates) in feedback moments regarding his progress. While Terry was successful in accomplishing project after project thrown his team’s way, there was a bit of a “rip current” running within his department.
Turns out Terry, despite all of the accomplishments and accolades bestowed upon him wasn’t a very good listener according to his stakeholders. The reasons for these poor listening moments runs the feedback gambit:
- Always in a hurry
- Never really paying attention to feedback
- Providing detailed direction with little interpretation necessary
- Not engaging his stakeholders in meaningful dialog
- Goal accomplishment “his way” was paramount
Two Ears… One Mouth!
If Terry’s plight sounds familiar, it should. We’ve all either seen a leader that behaves this way, or perhaps are guilty of conducting the leadership behavior identified ourselves. In leadership development and executive coaching sessions, leaders describe their least favorite leadership moment as those involving the broadcasting of message/direction with little chance of engagement/meaning being available for the tasks at hand. So if we know that one-way communication channels such as these aren’t preferred, why do we engage in them time and again?
“Listening is hard work” Terry told me. Of course it is! It’s even harder work when you don’t ask good questions. Think of all the questions you’ve asked your stakeholders in the most recent week… What were they? If they bordered on the “light” leadership scale (meaning they were pretty weak, superficial, and/or placated your stakeholders), then you missed a great opportunity to learn from them. If you have all the answers all the time, then perhaps a team isn’t necessary. If you want to get buy in for the job at hand, you should consider asking your stakeholders questions.
How to Shut Up as a Leader
So exactly how can you ask better questions to put yourself in position to listen? The task is hard, but not impossible to shut up. Here are a few tips/techniques we reviewed:
- Open dialogs with stakeholders with an open-ended question (One that requires an answer in more than a one word answer)
- Listen for the “hidden” meanings in stakeholder’s response
- Explore those meaning with follow-up, or drill-down questions (Again, open-ended works best)
- Seek input/feedback on how to perform the project at hand
- Put your finger to your lips to keep your mouth closed
- Take a deep breath while listening
- Criss cross your hands
- Blink with heavy eyelids
- NOTE: Don’t do all of these simultaneously… You’ll look like you’re not paying attention – That’s worse than not listening!
- Keep on-time/on-target objectives for feedback (Getting their feedback is not an opportunity for complaints!)
- Confirm your understanding of what has been said
- Chart future course together!
In this post, we took a look at the leadership challenge of shutting up. Some leaders excel at asking questions (One I worked with used to call it out ahead of time by saying “Now I’m going to ask you a provocative question…”) and then listening. If you find that you are not getting the results you want in the time period desired, perhaps there’s an opportunity for you to do a better job of listening, instead of talking all the time as a leader. Remember, leadership isn’t that hard… but is sure can be difficult!