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How to Develop the Rare Skill of Being Directive and Inclusive


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The 360° feedback Anthony received wasn’t pretty: “He believes he’s the smartest person in the room,” and “He says he wants to hear the opinions of others – but in meetings it’s clear who’s going to do all the thinking.”

With a pained looked, Anthony told me, “I’ve gotten this sort of feedback before.”

“What’s different this time?” I asked him.

Anthony shrugged, then said, “When the board determines who will be the next CEO, this sort of reputation isn’t going to help.”

I waited. I knew Anthony’s character. There was more.

“It’s a constant battle,” he continued. “I try to be more collaborative, but I also feel strongly about the decisions that need to be made.”

Anthony’s dilemma isn’t unusual and is well documented. Leaders are promoted because of the results their teams deliver. When they get to senior levels, their confidence in knowing what must be done to succeed is usually strong.

When you put a group of leaders in a meeting that have succeeded in knowing-it-all, however, the collisions can be disastrous.

Even though leaders like Anthony know that a team approach to executing plans is ideal, there’s a strong tendency to rationalize telling everyone what to do.

You Can Be Directive and Inclusive

Shortly after Anthony had reviewed the data and feedback from those around him, he ran what may have been the worst managed meeting in his career. As the team discussed how to respond to issues with suppliers, Anthony squirmed in his seat. At one point he even pursed his lips, doing everything he could to keep his mouth shut. Occasionally, when no one was saying anything, he’d quip, “What do all of you think?”

Once, a member of the finance team asked pointedly, “Anthony, what’s your call on this?” Anthony was about to spit out his response when he paused, his eyes got wide, and he asked, “I don’t know. What are your thoughts?”

When we debriefed after the meeting, Anthony appeared close to a breaking point. “I know what we need to do,” he told me. “And everyone else knows I know,” he said. “But…,” he stopped and shook his head again.

“You’ve trained the team well,” I said. “They know you’re going to insist on a certain answer. So, if you’re them, there’s no point in doing much thinking, because you’re going to do it for them.”

Anthony winced.

“But you don’t have to choose between being directive or inclusive,” I told him. “You can – and should be – both.”

Declare What’s Important, Say Why, Then Ask a Question

The leaders who have mastered the rare skill of being direct and inclusive essentially do three things:

  1. Declare what’s important or what must happen. This is the portion Anthony has proven he’s good at: Establishing direction. In this particular instance as they were dealing with supplier issues, his words could have sounded like this: “It’s critical that we immediately renegotiate contracts with those suppliers we’ve identified as part of our plan B.”
  2. Say why the direction or action is important to execute. Experience shows that leaders who assume that everyone understands the motivation behind the directive often miss this step. Without the ‘why,’ of course, there’s a lack of clarity and a good chance the action won’t be prioritized. Returning to the supplier issue, Anthony could finish his sentence above by adding, “…so that we’re prepared to shift quickly and avert any disruption in materials.”
  3. Ask a question that mobilizes the hearts and minds of others. This is the step of inclusion or collaboration – and it’s often poorly executed. When leaders do ask questions, they are almost always of the basic, execution variety: How do we do this? Who will do this? When?

While these questions are important, they are the types of questions asked of employees all day every day. (Is it a wonder why so many employees get numbed out?) The leaders who are most inclusive are asking questions that tap into and activate the emotions of employees, such as questions addressing vision, motivations and accountability.

After Anthony declared what the team should do and why, he could ask questions such as these:

  • Vision: “What does ultimate success look like in this area six months from now?” Or “How do you see our plan impacting our relationship with suppliers over the long term?”
  • Motivation: “From your perspective, why is it important that we prioritize this plan?” Or “What will success of this plan mean for our reputation in the industry?”
  • Accountability: “How will you know we’ve succeeded in eliminating our exposure with this plan?” Or “What do we agree will be our plan if we realize we’re still at risk in the weeks to come?”

It is noteworthy: Every leader knows the power and importance of asking questions that activate critical thinking and emotions in others. Yet very few leaders practice the discipline. Beyond not knowing what questions are best to ask, Anthony confessed that he’s been afraid to ask questions for fear that others will think he doesn’t know the answer.

By practicing the first two steps in the three-part communication process, of declaring what’s important and why it must be achieved, Anthony has been able to shed the concerns that he lacks clarity of direction. And by asking questions to which he’s genuinely interested in knowing the answers, he has joined the ranks of direct and inclusive leaders.

Written by Craig W. Ross, CEO of Verus Global.

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