You’re Not Really Leading Unless You’re Doing This

Imagine you’ve just been hired as the new sales director of a billion-dollar software company. It’s big and growing, but behind the flashy revenue numbers, the business is actually under-performing. You’re supposed to be part of the solution, so there’s considerable pressure on you to kick the sales department into high gear.

What you find when you look under the hood is that the allocation of account managers to accounts could be a lot smarter. You have deep experience with this from your last job, so you whip out a spreadsheet and get cracking on a new allocation system that matches managers with accounts in a much more logical way. Once it’s ready, you introduce the new system at a department-wide meeting, emphasizing that you’ve seen this approach work before and you’re confident it will make their jobs easier and their paychecks bigger.

But it doesn’t. Instead, it upsets everyone and even drives some of the top account managers to leave the company. What happened?

There was no dialogue, that’s what.

Your extensive knowledge of how to organize and run a sales team got you hired, and it’s valuable, but it’s not going to make you an effective leader. Only high-quality dialogue can do that. In fact, I would go so far as to say that dialogue is the medium through which all leadership work is done.

Dialogue trumps everything

Let’s rewind. Imagine that, instead of calling that department-wide meeting, you first gathered the lead account managers for an open conversation about how to produce better results. Maybe you started by sharing your hypothesis that the account management structure was a contributing factor. Perhaps you even shared some ideas about how to improve it, but made clear this was just a straw man to get ideas flowing.

Undoubtedly they would share some information that you weren’t aware of: about people, about accounts, about what has been tried in the past. Together, you would explore both the benefits and drawbacks of your approach, as well as what is good about the current approach. The group would eventually come up with a new solution — one that is better than the existing structure, and better than your straw man as well — and has full buy-in.

That is sales leadership.

Even in the early days of a startup, business problems are multi-faceted. They’re inevitably too complex for one person to know everything that might have bearing on the solution, especially if there are multiple stakeholders (and there always are). Dialogue is the only way to get all that information out on the table and use it to construct the best possible solution. Even when you’re the expert, dialogue has a funny way of revealing that your solution is never as smart as you think it is.

Then there’s the question of how people feel about a decision. If they think their voice was ignored and their interests not taken into consideration, it doesn’t matter how great the solution is — they won’t support it. Instead, they’ll drag their heels or even act to undermine it. That resistance will cost time and money, possibly so much that it defeats the value of the new idea in the first place.

Dialogue is more than a conversation

Both involve speaking and listening, of course, but a dialogue includes one more crucial element: thinking.

Thinking together in real time as the discussion unfolds is what breaks the unproductive ‘ping-pong’ of debating your idea versus my idea. Thinking lets us combine multiple ideas to come up with new solutions that are better than yours or mine. Without that, it’s just an argument that leaves people feeling defensive, frustrated, and resentful when their preferred ideas don’t win.

In fact, if all you’re going to do is debate existing ideas and options, you may as well just take a vote at the beginning of the meeting. Better yet, why have a meeting at all? Just ask everyone to email their proposal to the boss and let her decide.

Creating an environment in which everyone can actually think about the issue — in real time, as others are presenting their thoughts — — requires a different quality of speaking than what most people use by default. If a few people are dominating the discussion, it makes the others struggle to find their moment to get into the conversation, and they start thinking about that instead of what’s being said. If some people are speaking a mile a minute, there’s no space for reflection on the part of the listeners. If people are interrupting each other, you end up rushing your thoughts instead of really exploring them and uncovering new ideas. You’ve got to slow down, make way for some pauses, and make sure others do the same.

It also requires a deeper quality of listening. I’m sure you’re bored to tears of hearing about the importance of listening (I know I am). But the truth is that too many people go through the motions of good listening without actually listening at all. You know that feeling you get when someone makes eye contact and nods and says “that’s so interesting,” but you’re still left with the sense that they’re not really hearing you.

It always reminds me of when I was a 20-year-old intern at General Motors. It being Ohio, everyone felt it was their national duty to call me Bob, which I hated. So, I was thrilled when the most senior exec invited me into his office and started off by asking whether he should call me Robert or Bob. I jumped at it and said, “I’m so glad you asked me that — I actually go by Robert.” His reply? “Great, Bob, have a seat.”

Deep listening is more than just looking and sounding attentive. It means thinking about the substance of what someone is saying and considering how their ideas might influence your own. And it also means signalling that you are doing that, so the speaker understands that you are open to being influenced.

Let’s say you’re trying to choose a restaurant for a company event. One person suggests a vegetarian place because she’s vegetarian, and so are several other people who will be attending. The others aren’t very enthusiastic about the idea. Sushi, BBQ and Italian all get a more enthusiastic response. You can make the vegetarian feel heard just by saying, “You know, you make a good point about needing good vegetarian options. Italian sounds like a good choice because there are usually plenty of vegetarian dishes on the menu. Would that work for everyone?”

Start thinking together

If leadership means making great decisions and executing them well, dialogue is how you do it. It’s wishful thinking to imagine that expertise (or even expertise plus charisma) could ever achieve the same results.

That’s not to say that a leader’s expertise is irrelevant. Knowledge and experience are powerful starting points in a decision-making process…but they’re not enough by themselves. You can’t know everything, and even if you somehow could, you certainly can’t execute without the support of a lot of people. These people have their perspectives (surprise!) and will be much more committed when they know those perspectives have been considered.

So, how is the dialogue at your company? Are thoughtful, creative conversations happening on a daily basis, or are your people stuck in back-and-forth debates?

Rob is an expert sleuth and guide in the murky world of ‘leadership.’ Three-time CEO, and a strategy and leadership advisor to more than 50 CEOs globally.