When Leading, Words Matter. Use More of Them. (The right ones)

Removed from the true Start-up life for a few years now, and completely removed since last fall, I’ve been enjoying listening the ‘Startup‘ Podcast from Gimlet Media over the past few months.

It’s like one of those movies where the plot is just predictable enough you want to scream “Don’t go in the basement!” at the screen while delivering enough surprises to keep you on the hook.

Their latest episode focused on “Burnout” and specifically, how their entire team had hit that stage and were ‘done’, “Burn the place to the ground” done in their words. You can listen to the episode here:

It’s a great episode but what I want to focus on though, isn’t the burnout aspect, but rather a revelation their founder Alex Blumberg has partway through the episode when he realizes what he thought he ‘said’ and what he actually said were worlds apart, and caused his team huge amounts of stress to his team.

Employees will fill a vacuum

Several years ago I participated in a workshop run by a group called Eagle’s Flight – my biggest takeaway from the particular program they were taking our team through was that when there were unanswered questions it left a vacuum – and left too long, employees would fill them on their own. And let’s be honest, it probably won’t be the rose coloured, everything is awesome, kind of filling.

In the Startup episode above, Alex admitted he had a few occasions where his own lack of clarity in his answers sent his staff’s minds down some troubling rabbit holes. They filled the vacuum for him.

I’ve experienced this first hand on more than a few occasions – the worst was when we had to lay someone off at one of my first companies. Circumstances dictated we needed to do it, but when you knew the details it wasn’t the doomsday prophecy our staff ultimately perceived it as. Laying off one person to get through a tough period ending up costing us a few developers who were highly employable and got spooked.  These were the guys I would have probably laid myself off before letting them go, they had nothing to worry about. A better explanation & filling their ‘vacuums’ for them could have saved a lot of grief.

This isn’t unique to startups though – this will happen from the smallest company (or relationship) right up to the largest enterprises. It’s something I’ve tried to be cognizant of as we build programs in the bank where I work today as much as I was in a start-up shop of 6 people.

Filling the Vacuum Yourself

When you’ve got time to think…

If it’s a situation where you’ve got the time to prepare, take advantage of that opportunity. Whether alone, or with some trusted advisers/colleagues, stop and ask “What are all the questions that people could have about what I’m going to say?” – throw them on post-its and then ask yourself “Which of these can I answer right now?”

When I do exercises like this at work I have people sort the questions into three categories:

  • Green – We can answer completely this right now.
  • Yellow – We’ve got the answer but need someone or some piece of information in order to answer properly.
  • Red – @#!$, I don’t even know where to begin.

Obviously the first thing to tackle is those Reds & Yellows. Then, when you’ve got those answers, revise what you have to say to ensure you satisfy those questions (at least to the extent that is practical). When you can take the time to tailor your response to cover the important bases the end result will be so much better.

When you’re on the spot…

On the spot is that much harder. Take a breath, do the spot check with yourself (“What questions will they have?”) frame what you have to say as best you can. Then ask the all important question(s) – there’s a couple of obvious one’s:

  • Does that make sense?
  • What are your concerns?

But one of the most interesting approaches I’ve encountered is to ask someone to tell you what they just heard – an approach known as “Active Listening“. As wikipedia’s entry puts it:

Active listening is a communication technique used in counselling, training and conflict resolution, which requires the listener to feed back what they hear to the speaker, by way of re-stating or paraphrasing what they have heard in their own words, to confirm what they have heard and moreover, to confirm the understanding of both parties

I had the ‘opportunity’ to work on a slightly dysfunctional team where we brought in a coach to try and help resolve our challenges – it wasn’t confrontational but it was clear there were communication issues.

Active listening was one of the techniques the coach applied to tremendous effect. We’d have a conversation between the four of us on the team and then he ask someone to tell everyone what they’d just ‘heard’ – generally most of us were in alignment but there was one teammate whose interpretation seemed to come consistently out of left field. It was an excellent reality check and was something we worked through as a group to improve our level of conversation.

In tough circumstances, consider trying this approach after you’ve delivered news that you’re unsure of what the reaction will be.

In Conclusion

As an entrepreneur, or leader in an enterprise, you need to choose your words wisely on every occasion. Use more words (the right ones) thank you’d probably like, and don’t leave your message to chance.

When in doubt, ask your team what their questions are – fill those vacuums before they have a chance to.

What’s your take? Have you seen vacuums at work in your workplace? How did you help fill them? Let me know in the comments below.


Coming Up: Visual Thinking & Literacy Conference

I’m excited to announce I’ll be speaking/facilitating at the upcoming Visual Thinking and Literacy Conference in Michigan on March 17, 2012.

The 2012 Visual Thinking Conference is for anyone focused on visual approaches to thinking and communication. So whether you are a business leader giving presentations, a marketing manager designing websites and materials, or a grade school teacher looking for new ways to reach students, no other event offers you more of today’s solutions… and tomorrow’s vision. Continue reading Coming Up: Visual Thinking & Literacy Conference

Why? What? How? Why it’s good to question yourself.

One place I consistently see people struggle is in creating an approach or work-plan for attacking a given problem. Often you see people try and drive straight to solutions without putting in the thinking or time to comprehend their motivations, goals or even where they are today.

But We Know What We Know!

I think a major reason for this is people tend to assume that they already know what’s happened, or what the strategy is or what their motivations are but the truth is, unless you have a clear, concise and CONSISTENT way of expressing those positions or goals you, and the people you work with, will never be as effective at delivering on your vision.

Often the difference between just ‘barely making it’ and ‘nailing it’ lies in the details and a nuanced understanding of what it is you’re trying to achieve. Continue reading Why? What? How? Why it’s good to question yourself.

Creating an Environment for Great Ideas

“Ideas are Cheap” is a maxim you hear with alarming frequency. For the most part it’s true, ideas are everywhere and yes, the real key is in the execution. The risk of this attitude though is that we begin to treat ideas as a commodity.

Ideas are living things, they start off small but cared for, and helped to develop, they can begin to take on a life of their own but to really be transformational your idea will likely need a little TLC before you even think about executing in it. That said, where ideas really need the TLC is before you even have them.

Nature vs. Nurture

Some ideas are born great, others need some help and hate to break it to you, most ideas fall in the latter category. It’s rare to have that ‘a-ha’ moment in a spontaneous fashion. Your ideas need time to grow. Think of the idea as a seed, often the idea gets planted and as soon as we see any green poking out of the ground we’re harvesting it (Get it done!) but have you really thought everything through? How often have you seen a team run with an idea only to hit a major roadblock that wasn’t anticipated? Have you even had the best idea yet?

Continue reading Creating an Environment for Great Ideas

The Power of a Single Marker

Dave GrayWant to create a dictatorship in a workshop? Put one marker in the room.

I suppose I always knew this in the back of my head but learned it first hand this week while facilitating a 3-day long ‘think tank’ workshop at the bank I work at. As part of the process team I had helped design a self-facilitated process that teams would guide themselves through over the course of the day.

It was fairly standard vision-creation fare; ‘What’s our vision? What’s Stopping Us from getting There? How does our business model need to change? What do We Do First?” and exercises to help them think about do the thinking to answer those questions. To help them out we also had a team of roving facilitators (myself and the crew from The Moment) who would check on them periodically and either help them through parts they didn’t understand, or in the case of the teams who might be storming through, make sure they’re really working on expanding their thinking and not just trying to ‘Slam Dunk’ the idea.

A Room Full of Leaders
We expected there might be the odd challenge for teams as these were all high-performing individuals, each a leader (or potential leader) in their own respect – it didn’t take long for my first interesting scenario to pop-up.

I immediately knew one team was in for an interesting ride when I walked into their room 5 minutes into the morning and one team member (let’s call him ‘Bob’) was already laying out their ‘idea’ to them. My presence in the room received looks from other members of the team that clearly conveyed “help!” – their guide packages hadn’t even been opened yet. A quick pep-talk on trusting the process and the thinking that they needed to do before jumping to the ideas seemed to get them back on track and I wandered off to check on my other teams. However, when I returned a little while later I noticed that Bob was up once again, marker in hand and in control of the conversation.

The Invisible Hand
Now, when I do these types of sessions I try to insert myself into the team’s discussion as little as possible – I always picture those cars at amusement parks – the ones where you can steer a bit but there’s a rail to prevent you from getting too far off course. My job is to be that rail – if you’re steering nicely then most of the time you won’t even notice it’s there a little rub here and there to help make the corner but the passengers are probably completely unaware it’s happening – sometimes it takes a slightly rougher bounce to reinforce the path. The latter should be a rarity though if your process is designed right.

As a result, most of my time is spent listening to the teams trying to get a sense of how they’ve advanced since I last saw them as well as feeling out how ‘healthy’ the dialog is. Is everyone engaged & contributing? Has anyone checked out? What’s the body language in the room?

In the case of this room, Bob was the only one standing. The rest of the team were in their chairs. A couple of the team members looked to be on the verge of checking out, a few were actively listening and two were actively contributing to the dialog. Nothing surprising until I realized almost nothing was getting captured unless Bob either came up with the idea, or the idea supported his theory. The team wasn’t consciously aware of it but you could certainly see how it was playing out in the body language. As I scanned the room though, something clicked for me – I couldn’t see any other markers. There was only one visible, and it was firmly in Bob’s hand – the team hadn’t realized it but they had unwittingly granted him a dictatorship over their process.

Restoring Democracy
Four whiteboard pens and a highlighterSo how to restore democracy? Bob was a good guy and I don’t think he even realized what he was doing – I know when I’m capturing stuff in sessions there’s time where my mind really doesn’t want to add some other idea to the board but as a facilitator I’m conscious and aware of those types of thoughts/actions when I’m in the room. Had I stopped him and asked he probably would have told me he’d captured all the ideas that the team had come up with. I also risked alienating him and/or causing him to checkout from the process if I called him out on it in front of the team.

Instead I didn’t do anything, I left the room and asked the facility staff for some more markers. When I came back I placed them on the table (in front of the two who were actively trying to get in on the conversation) and simply said “I noticed your room didn’t get enough markers” then walked out. Ten minutes later I peeked in the window and there were a couple of people up at the boards, people were leaning forward in their chairs and the dialog was rolling along again. They never knew what happened, no one felt their car rub the rail.

Letting Other Ideas Bloom
I also made a mental note to come back to these guys at a critical moment in the conversation where they would flesh out their future vision. Time was tight and I didn’t want to chance them getting stuck in a similar cycle again if Bob really tried to drive his idea home.  It was a part of the process that had been deliberately left open, in that there were no instructions other than “You’ve got an hour, and this is what you need to have by the end of it” – the roving facilitators all knew to visit their teams early in this step and help the teams get off to the right start. So with this team I suggested they break into two groups and do some brainstorming & bodystorming to get some ideas, then regroup and discuss later in the hour.

I didn’t want to squash Bob’s idea but it’s important to ensure other ideas have the opportunity to grow and the team has a crop of ideas to choose from. By splitting the team I ensured that even if Bob convinced half of the team his idea was the way to go other ideas would have the chance to bloom with the other group.

In the end, the team came up with their own idea that incorporated bits and pieces of their individual ideas (including Bob’s) and I think they came up with an interesting concept. This was another case where the team didn’t realize what was happening but they had gently been guided around another corner.

All-in-all if you asked this team how much facilitating I actually did they’d probably say not much, that’d I’d just answered some questions for them and helpfully got them some markers.

Photo Credits: Marker Tray – massdistraction | Guy at Whiteboard – Bill Keaggy | Markers – Tim Green aka atoach

Sidenote: The guy at the Whiteboard is not Bob but a guy named Dave. Dave’s pretty much the anti-Bob