Many of the senior executives I coach are promoted to their positions of leadership as a result of their expertise or technical knowledge. In fact, they attribute their success to being experts in their fields.
So when they come to leading others they are often frustrated and don’t understand that what they have regarded as their superior knowledge and what has been the source of their success can actually get in the way of how they lead their teams.
Believing that they “should know it all” means that they don’t engage effectively in conversations with their reports. They are sometimes reluctant to ask for clarity or assistance.
If they don’t have all the answers they fear exposing themselves as “weak” or “incompetent.”
Yet one of the key skills of leadership is the ability to have conversations that motivate team members. If you look at the etymology of the word “conversation” it means to change together. You cannot create the desired results on your own. You need to engage with others, to encourage them to collaborate and commit to your vision.
- The first step in is to ask questions.
- The second step is to listen deeply to the responses.
How you ask questions is important:
If you approach the question from the perspective of an expert the very way you ask may simply confirm what you already know or what you have already assumed.
This can be intimidating and can groom your team members to tell it to you like you want to hear it – that is, without challenge and to massage your status.
Adopting a mood of curiosity, like a beginner, is essential. It enables you to be open to new perspectives and it creates an atmosphere where others feel that they can step up to the plate to make a contribution.
Also have you noticed that often the so-called “dumb” questions even though simple are profound? This is one of the reasons for appointing an outsider on the board. Such questions open new possibilities rather than perpetuating “the way we do things around here.”
Questions asked from a mood of curiosity, rather than with a hidden agenda of showing how clever you are, also signal that you are open to creativity, experimentation and not getting it right all the time.
Great leaders recognise that they are role models and they foster cultures that encourage trial and error.
So if you’ve built your reputation on being the expert, on “knowing and doing it all” how can you reignite a mood of curiosity?
Some of my clients draw on experiences from their university days, sports or some other activity outside of work. They visualise that experience as if they were a “fly on the wall” observing, for example, how attentive they were, how they were breathing and moving their bodies. They might record these observations in their journals to become more adept at self-awareness and to track their progress.
Or they might gain inspiration from their kids at play noticing their energy and lack of inhibitions. Kids can be our greatest teachers, as they are not constrained by having to look good, demonstrate gravitas or be an expert.
The Quality of Listening:
Having asked the question you actually have to listen deeply to the response.
This means that you have to be fully present and focused on the speaker.
Consider these elements when you are having a conversation: are you distracted by the flashing light on your Smartphone, an unresolved issue from a previous meeting or are you thinking ahead to the next task on your to-do list?
If you find you are distracted, you can center yourself through breathing, shifting how you are sitting, consciously relaxing the tensions in your muscles, turning your phone off and actively choosing to park or devolve the other issues that are distracting you to someone else.
Really giving your full attention to someone is a gift. You will find that they feel valued and it will build trust and loyalty in your team.
If you pay attention to your language, your moods and your body and you practice the positive behaviors of the curious beginner you and your team will reap the rewards.