I was meeting with a good friend and business associate over breakfast a few weeks ago when I asked him what I ask a lot of senior executives: “What’s the biggest, unintended mistake that CEOs and business owners make?”
“That’s easy,” he replied readily. “Too often in planning meetings, they frame up an issue, do a data dump, outline an approach, and even lay out the choices to the team — all in the interests of making sure time is not wasted. They think they are helping their team and being efficient, but as a result, their team does not grow.”
These are talented, earnest, well-intended senior executives, but they sometimes get caught in the notion that their job is to move things along briskly by bringing their business knowledge and expertise to bear at the onset of an effort. (One CEO I knew a while back used to say with pride, “That’s what a CEO is supposed to do – execute!”) But too many struggle with the idea of allowing their team to feel the yin yang of working an issue – weighing the risks and opportunities, feeling the burden of decision-making, even untangling themselves when group dynamic gets snarled up.
How to avoid this trap?
Take one step forward. Be clear on the intent of an effort, but not on process or approach. Describe success and what is at stake.
Take two steps back.
- Let the group figure out what information they need, how they will approach the issue. You might disagree, but I think it is also effective to let leadership emerge naturally out of the discussion rather than assign roles in the meeting based on level. Let someone else go to the whiteboard to capture everything; stay in your seat and pay attention to the team dynamic.
- Ask questions to help the team if they get stuck. Socrates understood that questions have a way of refreshing thinking and gently guiding discussions that keeps everyone engaged.
One of my most memorable business experiences was many years ago working with a CEO and his executive team on a looming financial crisis — the billion-dollar company was teetering on bankruptcy. We practically camped out together in a conference room for hours and days on end, eating mini chocolate chip cookies by the fistful, throwing ideas on the whiteboard, debating options. Tensions were high and the stakes were higher. I suspected most of the time the CEO knew what might be the best course, but he knew it was more important to executing the plan that we work it out first among ourselves. He kept us focused, asked good questions, and more than once diplomatically called one of the executives out in the hallway to offer some timely advice about behaviors under pressure. We all fell off our low-carb diet that week, but we saved the company.
Two of the executives in that room went on to be CEOs themselves.