While I’ve always felt that The Best Idea should win, there was a time in my career when I really liked for it to be mine. I was quick to express it and passionate in its advocacy and unsurprisingly, we went with my idea more often than not. This happened enough to gather notice and that notice led to advancement which I took as confirmation that the world needed more of me.
I think I was a director before I realized that what felt like constructive energy actually stunted the development of my team and consistently ensured that we made good decisions instead of really great ones. Here are some hard-won lessons from that era.
Slow to speak
Because I’m pretty persuasive by nature, I found that when I spoke first, people tended to agree with me and we came to decisions quickly. This felt like progress. What we lost, however, was getting everybody else’s ideas on the table. What’s worse is that people actually became less vocal over time. It turns out that if one person seems to have all the ideas, everybody else figures that the idea stuff is covered and they can use their creativity on other things.
There’s a lot of writing on the importance of thought diversity (for example, this article) so I won’t try to recreate that in this post. What I will say is that in recognizing my ability to bias a thought process quickly, I have learned to stay quiet until all ideas are out on the table. Prior to this point, my only efforts are to solicit input and to clarify the problem or its constraints. Less of me means more of everybody else.
My job or yours?
As a young director, I found myself in a conversation with the architect of our server product about a design choice he wanted to make. Having been the architect of that exact product, I had a clear viewpoint and expressed it. Repeating that process a few times, he started coming to me before forming an opinion. Happy to help (and feeling important), I’d point out the different choices, the bear traps that would get him, and what the right approach would likely be. It was fun! Then it hit me.
As much as I loved architecture, that was no longer my job; it was his. The more I did in that arena, the less he would be able to develop and the less fun he would have. I asked myself if I trusted him in that role or not and I did. From that point forward, my role shifted from doing architecture to teaching architecture. I helped frame the problems for him to solve, asked the tough questions, and suggested research paths. What I never did again was tell him The Answer. Even when I felt like I knew it.
Big tent meetings are their turn to shine
I’ve spent a lot of time in meetings with people at different levels in the organization. Any more, I tend to speak more quickly in meetings with others at my same elevation. I’ve learned that because I have A Title, what I say in meetings that include the next layer down can have more of a quieting effect that I want (see Slow to Speak). More than that, though, it misses one of the best opportunities to develop my team and allow them to shine.
Instead, in those bigger tent meetings that include both the executive leadership team and their extended leaders, I spend a lot of time instant messaging members of my team. When I know they disagree with something that’s being spoken about, I prod them to speak up. When they have relevant data or context, I encourage them to take part. I help them frame the message they want to deliver. When they’re done, I give immediate feedback.
I’ve seen other executives go a different route in those meetings — landing a point or asking the right question themselves. That has value, to be sure. I’m also sure that seeing how little I land a killer point in these forums has given people opportunity to question my participation level. But putting my energy into coaching the next generation and ensuring their visibility across the organization provides my team with greater opportunity, visibility, and fun. It makes our organization stronger.
Ultimately, all three of these lessons come back to the same point. I am one person who, at best, can have an additive effect to an organization. What I’ve learned is that in reducing the amount of Me the public sees, we get more of the Team. That’s multiplicative.