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You don't have all the answers (and that's OK)

Cultures of involvement 21 Apr . min read

Leadership is no longer about the visionary guru leading the charge. That idea belongs to a time when businesses operated in a slower world. The goal was incremental change and increased efficiency.

The tools were systems, processes and a hierarchical structure. Command and control leadership was the norm.

Today we live in a more complex environment. The market is in a state of constant flux, customer expectations are increasing, and people at all levels of the business need the autonomy to respond rapidly to new challenges and opportunities.

The great business leaders of today are what Harvard Business School’s Linda Hill describes as “social architects” who know their primary role is “building the stage, not necessarily performing on it.” When the leader is able to realise the power of the many, they create what she calls “collective genius” – and that’s when businesses become truly innovative.

It’s time to embrace being an ‘incomplete leader’

Perhaps the most pervasive fallacy in business is what MIT leadership guru Deborah Ancona calls the “Myth of the Complete Leader”: The incredibly hopeful idea that there is a flawless person at the top of every successful organisation who’s got it all figured out.

In today’s world, the executive’s job is no longer command-and-control, but to cultivate and coordinate the actions of others at all levels of the organisation. Only when leaders come to see themselves as incomplete – as having both strengths and weaknesses – will they be able to make up for their missing skills by genuinely relying on others.

Right now we’re living through a great shift in organisational structure – a move away from hierarchical structures to more collaborative forms. That’s inevitable. Organisations are geographically dispersed, knowledge is more specialised and the incredible pace of change is only increasing. It’s utterly impossible for any one person to be across every place and everything. So as leaders, our greatest challenge is to embrace the fact that we are incomplete. To look for ways to emphasise our strengths at the same time as we embrace our weaknesses. To be genuinely committed to increasing the involvement of everyone in our teams.

Your profession is listening

Most great leadership thinkers in the world agree that this all starts with listening. Here’s what Richard Branson has to say about leadership:

“Any organisation’s best assets are its people. You move things along just by paying attention to what employees are saying”.

Management legend Tom Peters goes even further. He says that as a business leader, listening is your profession.

The single most significant strategic strength an organisation can have is not a good strategic plan. It’s a commitment to strategic listening on the part of every member of the organisation: Strategic listening to frontline employees, strategic listening to vendors and to customers.

It’s one of those points that’s so simple it almost sounds trite. Of course listening is important, but it can be surprisingly difficult - especially for the kind of people who tend to become leaders. They’re ambitious, they have high standards for themselves, and they expect to have all the answers to every question they encounter. The hardest thing for many leaders is to accept that their goal shouldn’t be to have all the answers. Their goal should be to ask more questions, and to learn how to really listen.  

The benefits of asking
Here’s what you gain when you start asking the right questions, and really listening to the answers:

  1. High-performing employees. People who are listened to feel ownership of the work and of the solutions they help to identify. They’re not just a cog in a machine; they’re an autonomous person with responsibility for their own excellence.
  2. An elimination of blind spots. There’s a tendency of some people in leadership teams to only tell you the good news. What you really need to hear about are the areas of concern that need your input and expertise. You won’t get that without a strategic approach to asking and listening.

  3. A nimble business. To stay agile and competitive in today’s hyper-dynamic business environment, you need ideas and solutions from all corners - not just one person at the top.
A new approach to strategic listening

A good CEO will take every opportunity possible to ask questions of people in all areas of their business. A lot can be gleaned from a casual chat by the coffee machine, and from more formal meetings. But unless you have a very small team, it’s impossible to get in front of all your people regularly. And even if you do, there’s no guarantee that everyone is going to be comfortable giving you their honest opinion.

AskYourTeam was born in response to the need to make listening systematic and scalable. We’ve developed a real-time, always-on system that allows leaders to get honest feedback about the things that drive business success.

If you’re ready to get strategic about listening, we’re ready to help. 

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Chris O’Reilly

Chris co-founded AskYourTeam as a way to make it easier for leaders to ask their teams the most important (and the least-asked) question in business: “How can I help you do your job better?”

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