Two newly appointed managers were discussing their vice president.
“I have a hard time communicating with him. He asks for status reports but he doesn’t listen, he interrupts, and seems easily distracted.”
“How do you present your information?”
“I send him written reports. In meetings, I give him updates and back them up with data and justifications.”
“He doesn’t want to hear all of that. He is not a reader. Just give him two or three key data points. Use charts and graphs. If he wants more information, he will ask.”
To communicate well, managers must learn to read their bosses preferences. Does the boss prefer written or oral reports? Just a summary or gobs of tedious minutiae?
Some managers want to hear about plan disruptions immediately. Others like more systematic, periodic reports and may say, “Bring that up at our next meeting.”
Above all, find out what most interests your manager, that is, what may keep the boss up at night. Is it schedule? Work quality? Safety? Customer service? Something else?
By learning your boss’s preferences, you will know where to put your energy. Further, your encounters will be both more pleasant and more effective.
When I’ve asked managers how they make important decisions, I get responses like:
“Who can say. We talk about an issue and after a lot of back-and-forth propositions and challenges, an option sometimes emerges.”
“We discuss and discuss. We may not even agree on the problem.”
“It’s like trying to get a pro golfer to explain how he hits a ball so far. We just do it.”
Too often, leaders plunge into discussions that just keep churning and churning until there is a brewing chaos. Amidst doubt and confusion members adjourn without a clear direction. Or worse, members agree to a watered-down option for which there is only lukewarm support.
To avoid endless delays or high-risk moon shots, present an issue and discuss until key players agree on the exact problem. Set a deadline for making the decision. Create a climate that encourages vigorous debate of multiple options. View differing opinions as helpful. Take no votes or polls.
Strive for an option that most all can, at least to some extent, support. If no such option emerges, the leader makes the call. Close by saying, “This is what we are going to do and I need everyone’s commitment.”
“We have a very cohesive team,” a manager commented.
“How do you determine that?” I asked.
“Members respect each other and get along really well. I think it is because I seek consensus when making tough decisions.”
I had a chance to visit with some of the members of this manager’s team and got differing opinions.
“He calls a meeting,” said one member. “Two team members are pretty vocal. They offer opinions and most everyone else just goes along.”
Another member commented, “I did offer a different view at one meeting but no one responded. The conversation continued as if I had never said anything.”
Still another, “We are all very polite and friendly and we tend to go along with whatever the talkers want. But I don’t think the team is really committed.”
Managers who strive for consensus decisions often send signals that conflict is undesirable. But in reality, team members will have differing ideas about almost any issue.
Effective leaders understand that “disagreement” is the natural order of teams. They strive for passionate debates among members and then select the option that best serves the mission. If disagreeing members have a meaningful voice, they can still support the decision.
“In meetings, I ask for suggestions before I present my view,” a manager said to me.
“Why?” I asked.
“If I present my ideas first, others may be reluctant to express views that differ. I get fewer opinions.”
Team members tell me that free-flowing discussions do not depend on who goes first. Rather, the critical factor is how leaders react to opposing views.
One member reported, “Our leader always begins by asking our opinions. However, he quickly attacks ideas that he disagrees with.” The member continued to explain that participants tried to guess their leader’s view. Those who agreed with what they believed to be the leader’s position spoke up. Those who opposed remained quiet.
A member of a different team reported, “Our leader likes a good argument. He tells you what he thinks and he encourages push back. We have rancorous debates but there are no hard feelings.”
Leaders who create a climate conducive to openness are respectful of all suggestions. They value opposing views. Differences are never personal. Honesty and freedom prevail. There is no guessing what others think. Passionate discussions are the norm. The result is improved decisions and greater commitment. Who talks first is not an issue.
Thomas Edison, the great American inventor, often spoke of his many failures. When giving a talk to sixth-grade students, I paraphrased Edison’s message as, “For every success in the laboratory, I had ninety-nine failures.” Then I asked, “What is the significance of that remark?”
One youngster promptly replied, “It shows what he might have been able to do if he hadn’t been so dumb.” He had already learned that failure was a bad thing.
Yet, most great successes were preceded by many failures. Henry Ford (The Ford Motor Company) was broke five times. R. H. Macy (Macy’s Department Store) failed seven times.
Michael Jordan, the basketball icon, who was once cut from his high-school team said, “I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. That’s why I succeed.”
Successful leaders do avoid annihilation such as experienced by Sears, Eastman Kodak, Studebaker and so on.
Author, Sam Walker, believes veteran leaders rarely fail dramatically simply because they have failed before. They have learned to avoid the fatal error.
The challenge is to find the sweet spot between failures that lead to growth and those that take you out of the game. When taking on a perilous assignment, for which you have little experience, seek counsel from those who have been there.
“I guess I should not have had that last drink,” Fred commented. “But it was a party. We were having a good time. The vice president was in worse shape than I was. I don’t think anyone will hold it against me.”
At the annual holiday party, Fred a front-line manager, had apparently told a couple of off-color jokes and sang a karaoke tune loudly and badly. And that was after he spilled his food dish into the lap of one of his staff member’s spouses.
Like it or not, you are the leader twenty-four-seven. Your behavior off-the-job, on the weekend, at the grocery store or during annual celebrations impacts your leadership.
Whenever and wherever you make a fool of yourself, descriptions of the incident will get back to your workplace; it may even be on YouTube. And you can bet that all unprofessional behaviors will negatively impact your leadership effectiveness.
Do attend your company events and use the experience to enhance your leadership. Initiate greetings with your staff and family members. Make it a point to say something nice. Visit with people from other departments. Express your appreciation for their contributions. Ask others about their personal interests. Minimize the alcohol.
In describing his approach to problem-solving discussions, Felix said, “I like to sit back and listen to what others are thinking.”
“Not me,” countered Marilyn. “I get my ideas on the table first and then I encourage others to challenge my views. The give-and-take helps me clarify, and often improve, my suggestions.”
“Aren’t you afraid you will suppress others’ thoughts by speaking so quickly?” asked Flex.
Marilyn answered, “No. I encourage others to chime in. In short order, we get our adrenaline flowing with rapid-fire comments and counter points. We get more creative suggestions.”
“I see it differently,” Felix said. “I’m very cautious about putting forth suggestions. I want my team to own the solution. I don’t get that if I talk too much.”
Most of us can recall verbal colleagues who express views on everything–including topics they know nothing about. These people do lose influence because they eventually expose their lack of preparation.
Still, leaders do talk more than most during meetings. Managers overlook some very capable people because they are reluctant to express their opinions. To increase your influence and your value to your company, prepare well for your next meeting then show up and speak up.