The Things We Think & Do Not Say

No, I am not about to have a Jerry Maguire moment. But the title of Jerry’s infamous “memo” has always stuck with me and it seems to fit here.

This is simply a call for constructive honesty.  And it absolutely applies in your personal as well as professional life… Why do we sometimes avoid saying what we’re really thinking?  Because many people don’t care for conflict… And… many times we believe that “saying what we’re thinking” will lead to conflict… So… we consciously or subconsciously avoid conflict by not speaking our mind

So then, why do we sometimes avoid conflict?  Perhaps we lack the skills to successfully navigate conflict (maybe we don’t know how to voice disagreement in a constructive manner… or maybe we’ve never seen positive conflict resolution role-modeled!).  Maybe we think we’ll “get in trouble” for speaking our minds… with a boss, with a spouse??  Or, perhaps we have just given up the fight … we’re too “worn out” to stand up for what we believe?

If we don’t constructively state what we’re thinking, we sub-optimize the decision at hand because we withhold a critical input that might change the result/decision.  Also, these unexpressed opinions we have bottled up tend to create cynicism that can lead to toxicity (oh by the way your Doctor will tell you the same is true in your personal life – tons of medical research backs this up).  And usually, we end up saying it later anyway… in the wrong place at the wrong time… as negative “water cooler talk” or as an unproductive explosions that add no value at all.

Are you ready to try a different way?  Have confidence that your voice is valued:  the people who depend on you absolutely want to know what’s on your mind.  Make a choice to speak up even if it leads to disagreement… that’s actually healthy.  And practice doing it “the right way…” for example:

  • Don’t just shoot down what you think is a “bad idea”… suggest a better idea instead.  (If you are consistently negative with no positive suggestions, you will wear people out!);
  • Don’t “go in hot”… when possible allow yourself a bit of time to decompress before trying to work through a really difficult topic with someone;
  • Ask yourself if you are presenting your ideas in a way that will improve your relationship with the other person!
  • Deliberately pick a time, place, & setting that make sense to have a thoughtful discussion.

By the end of the movie, Jerry Maguire has stumbled onto something bigger than he could have imagined… and it all started because he spoke his mind.  Being honest with himself and with others led him down an unexpected path but ultimately to a richer life: he found love, a family, a successful business he actually liked working in, and the admiration of an industry. Hmm, maybe there’s something here for each of us…

Bottom line: as leaders we have to learn how to speak the truth as we see it, in a manner that leaves our relationship with the other person even stronger than it was before.

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Are You A Know-It-All?

Somewhere back in grade school, each of us became conditioned that we should always know the right answer.   We were tested on our knowledge of the facts, and how well we could regurgitate them.  15X15 always equaled 225, and the symbol for water was always H2O (I think).  Those of us with excessive drive who were destined to become future leaders learned a lesson: we were rewarded for knowing the “right answer.”

Fast forward.  You have now been in the workforce for 20+ years.  You have an important title and lead a lot of employees.   Do you still think you have to know all the answers?   Think again.  The world you move in today is not a fact-based place… it is an arena of gray, where decisions are based on a combination of the best available info, plus a healthy dose of judgment.

If you are still acting like you have to know all the answers, here’s what you are telling your team:
> None of you are as smart as me.  I know more than all of you.  You could never do my job because I know everything…  Yes, I have all the answers.
> Don’t try too hard because I’m just going to shoot you down if you come up with an opinion I don’t agree with…  Because I have all the answers.
> If there’s a really difficult problem at hand, I will always be your fallback so don’t worry too much about it yourself.   Don’t stretch yourself to find new and different solutions… Because I have all the answers.

This is a silly game that your team doesn’t really believe anyway.   Why don’t you ask them to solve some really difficult problems, and then hold them accountable for the results?  This will polarize your team: the stars will embrace this accountability and rise to the top, while your lower-performing leaders will also become more obvious.

Bottom line: everyone knows you don’t have all the answers, so stop acting like it.  Let your team get in the game and you’ll optimize results while developing your people.

“All Star vs Average”… Applied To Top Leaders

A couple of recent HBR posts by Bill Taylor  (author of Practically Radical) caught my eye.  They were brought on by Zuckerberg’s justification of FB’s recent FriendFeed acquisition at a value of roughly $4M per acquired employee.  An energetic debate followed via blog comments about whether an “all star” worker can really deliver exponentially more than a “good” worker. 

In context, the original discussion was about technical people like engineers and developers… but I’m intrigued by the application in the leadership realm… In fact I think it may be truer of leadership roles than technical roles.  Let’s set aside the topic of executive comp; here’s a personal example of the actual business results that an “all star” leader can deliver v. just an “average” leader.

Early in my career I worked at two different financial software companies… and they were a perfect example of the difference that the leader’s capability makes. Consider:
    > Both were founded at roughly the same time, each by a really smart guy
    > Both thought “I bet I can write software that makes accounting & taxation stuff way easier.”
    > Both were classic B-school studies with founders growing businesses beyond themselves.
    > Both (arguably) had access to the same supply of labor, capital, etc.
    > And, it’s a fair generalization to say they had the same basic opportunity. You get the point.

The Results?
After ~20 years in business, Company A topped out at less than $40M in revenue.  It was ultimately acquired by Company B which had exceeded $1.5B in revenue over the same time horizon.

The Difference?
I had an inside view to both companies and I believe that the leadership capability of the top guy made all the difference. In Company A the founder couldn’t figure out how to distribute leadership authority in a way that left him confident about the company’s direction.  In Company B, the top guy figured out that letting go was the only viable path to growth.  But the way he let go is actually the key: He figured out how to develop a robust leadership factory, teaching a common set of leadership values & methods, which led to a robust leadership infrastructure: a broad group of unified, high-performing leaders all running the same direction.

Bottom line:
There is little doubt in my mind that an “all star” leader v. a “good” leader will drive exponentially better business results.