3 Leadership Lessons I’ve Learned From Making All The Mistakes: Lesson 1 – Complete Communication

Guest post in our leadership series. I met Paul Pickard, CTO for Korrus, a few months ago, and am so impressed by his appreciation of the human aspects of leading technical teams. Enjoy! – Kimberly

I’ve been meeting people on LunchClub for the past year or so, and it’s given me the opportunity to connect with people with diverse interests and backgrounds from different locations around the country and world.  I was recently speaking with an early career software engineer who was mulling over an opportunity to move into a position where she managed people.  She asked me for my “top of mind” things to I’ve learned about managing people in my career.  After explaining that anything I could relate would come from having made all the mistakes – some of them repeatedly – I came up with three core intentions that I’ve adopted over the years and passed them along.  I say intentions because I don’t always exhibit these behaviors, but it is certainly my aspiration to do so.  This post covers the first intention.  I’ll follow up with the other two in subsequent posts.

#1: Communicate Completely

I’ve found there are three elements to effective communication as a manager and leader.  I boil them down to this:
·      “Why” before “What”
·      Listen to understand
·      Actively collaborate

“Why Before “What”

Giving front-line colleagues the ability to internalize the desired outcomes, understand the intent, and offer feedback for improving or even completely changing the proposed solution offers them a rich understanding of the “why”, and likely results in a better outcome for the “what.”

As an example, in organizations it can be common for a select group of people to formulate a solution to a problem and then for that solution to be “passed down” without the benefit of communicating the intent or context.  This select group might be in leadership, a “tiger team”, or a discipline-specific group of specialists.  I don’t believe this is done callously but rather in the name of efficiency.  “This is critical, and we don’t have time to explain and debate the solution with everyone” the thinking goes.

The problem with this approach is that it can fail to utilize the insights and experience of those colleagues who are most involved in the work.  No matter how the subject matter experts are chosen to help formulate a solution, they are unlikely to capture every nuance of the problem or think of all the potential solutions.  This highlights the importance of context and intention.  By communicating the desired outcome of a proposed solution, as well as why the solution is imperative, it gives everyone a level playing field to judge the solution and help identify its potential flaws or to suggest improvements that would make it more effective.  Without communicating context and intention, those colleagues tasked with implementing the change are left to evaluate it based on their own experiences, biases, and perceptions of the solution’s value.  If the solution is arduous and doesn’t have readily apparent benefits to the individuals implementing the changes, it can appear to be a waste of time or even counterproductive.  How enthusiastic could anyone be about implementing a solution with that perspective?

Listen to Understand

A typical communication shortcoming in organizations is “listening to respond.”  I’m not talking about interrupting, talking over, or dismissing a colleague’s ideas – that’s just “not listening.”  Listening to respond has the appearance of active listening, but without the same positive intention.  If, as a colleague is speaking, you are already structuring your argument about why your idea is better, you’re listening to respond.  The purpose of listening is to understand a perspective outside of our own.  Some practical ways to listen actively include

·      Withhold judgement, taking notes on any questions.  It’s easy to assume that a perceived gap in the plan might be an oversight, but isn’t it just as likely that your colleague has thought about that gap and has reasoning behind why it wasn’t addressed?  And if not, won’t your colleague be pleased to have your insight to help improve their proposal?

·      Mirror back your colleague’s proposal in your own words.  This is a “check sum” test to ensure that you haven’t applied an internal bias or assumption to the information that was conveyed, and to correct that assumption if you have.

|·      Assume “yes” and only then begin offering suggestions for improvement.  “Yes and” is the classic improvisation technique used by comedy troops the world over.  If your fellow player has just said or done something to establish a storyline for an improv performance, it breaks the story to disagree.  The only way to make something successful is to fully accept what has been said and build from there.  This is a powerful construct for active listening as well as collaboration.

Actively Collaborate

Early in my career, I loudly advocated for my ideas in group settings and mostly got my way because I consumed all the oxygen in the room.

When it became apparent to me (after an embarrassingly long stretch of time) that the team would perform better if I could reign in my naturally enthusiastic/overbearing advocacy, I started soft selling my ideas.  I’d introduce any suggestion as “here’s a stupid idea” or “this isn’t a mandate, it’s a thought – and you all will have better ones.”  What I didn’t do (and only recognized the need for far later) was actively engage team members that wouldn’t speak up for themselves.  It took me seeing someone modeling my old behavior to see how damaging it was.  Not only was it driving a very narrow set of solutions to the fore, but it was making it practically impossible for thoughtful, introverted or less confident team members to ever have their ideas recognized.  Practical steps for active collaboration include

·      Note ideas and comments on a whiteboard or shared screen.  Seeing ideas immediately memorialized can be a motivator to encourage colleagues to participate and provide cognitive benefits for visual learners.

·      Keep track of who is contributing and solicit input from those who are staying quiet.  While this can be uncomfortable for colleagues who are used to letting others take the lead, it is critical to initiating a well-rounded discussion of the problem or solution. A corollary here – ask probing, specific questions directly to quiet participants rather than asking “Does anyone have other ideas?”

·      Model vulnerability by pointing out the deficiencies of your own suggestions up front.  While coming up with something brilliant is ideal, most often the “least bad” idea surfaced by conscientious and engaged team will get the job done.  Showing the team that their ideas don’t have to be perfect to get airtime can encourage deeper conversation and collaboration.

What are other approaches and practical suggestions for enabling Complete Communication?  Do you have examples of great communication in an organization and the results that skill engendered?  I’m looking forward to hearing from you!  Stay tuned for my second post in this series in the coming weeks.

Author: Paul Pickard, CTO of Korrus

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