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Great Leaders Speak Last

As a leader,  you regularly lead meetings. In leading, you feel compelled to open the discussion and share your thoughts. This gets the ball rolling and sets the tone for the meeting.

In some cases, this technique can backfire. I have usually been good about holding back and letting others speak first. One time, however, when I didn’t take this advice, I nearly made a multi-million dollar mistake. Today, I’ll share that story and why I think leaders should speak last in most situations.

The Multi-Million Dollar Mistake

I alluded to this mistake in a post a few weeks back. We were about to sign an agreement with a partner to modernize a key component of one of our products. We had examined potential partners for years, and for the first time, we found one that was viable.

My boss suggested we take one last look at the market to see if we missed any alternatives. We planned to go with the first vendor unless we found someone better and cheaper. In reviewing alternatives, we found another vendor worth a closer look.

I assembled a team of leaders and technical experts, and we spent a few hours getting a demonstration of the vendor’s solution. Afterward, I assembled the team for feedback. I opened the discussion by reminding everyone that the plan was to go with the first vendor unless we felt this second vendor was better and cheaper. The meeting went quickly. The decision was unanimous. Everyone thought we should stick with the first vendor. The decision was made, the “look at other vendors” box was checked, and we were ready to move forward.

As the day wore on, I began to have second thoughts. That second vendor had an excellent product, and in my gut, I felt like they were a better solution. So, I went back to each person individually. I opened our 1:1 conversations very differently. I shared that I was having second thoughts and wanted to hear more about their feelings. Framed this way, every single person told me they thought we should go with the second vendor. Some even had noticeable relief on their face, having voiced that opinion.

I was stunned to find the team had unanimously endorsed the alternative decision—including me. We moved forward with that second partner, and I am eternally grateful we did for many reasons.

What Went Wrong

Going into this situation, I already had a good deal of awareness about the importance of creating an environment of transparency and open conversation. I was so accustomed to that environment with my leaders that I had begun to take it for granted.

The challenge was we had recently combined with another company. Before that, my leaders had all known me for ten years or more. They had seen me grow from a developer to a Senior Vice President, and they felt comfortable speaking their mind with me, regardless of whether or not it matched my opinion.

This team, however, hadn’t known me long; they only knew me as a Senior Vice President. We didn’t have the trust established that I had with my other leaders. The way I opened our meeting, for any team member to suggest we go with the second vendor, could have been a career-limiting move. It was safer and easier to go with my opinion and choose the first vendor.

The experience reminded me of the importance of knowing my audience and going out of my way to create an environment that encouraged, rather than discouraged, open, transparent communication. I returned to my prior best practice of consciously withholding my thoughts until I’d heard from everyone else.

Let’s examine a few scenarios where you may be tempted to speak first.

The Efficient Leader

Many of us rose to the leadership ranks by being action-oriented and decisive. If you are familiar with the DiSC assessment, this is D-style behavior. At times, this can be a very effective trait. However, the further you rise in leadership, the more often this decisive style can backfire.

I talk with D-style leaders regularly who want to save their teams (and themselves) from a meeting full of debate when they have already decided. Why spend an hour hearing everyone’s perspective only to tell them the same decision at the end of the hour that you could tell them up front and save the hour?

The most obvious drawback to this approach is eliminating the opportunity to hear a perspective that changes your mind. By allowing for open discussion and being willing to listen actively to each perspective, you will likely come up with a better solution than the one you dreamed up on your own.

There’s another reason why you allow for the discussion. If your team doesn’t have the opportunity to be heard, you run the risk of them not buying into your decision. If you announce your decision without hearing other perspectives, you may have some leaders adopt passive-aggressive behavior. This could range from them questioning your decision as they pass it on to their teams, or worse, deciding their idea was better and just ignoring your decision.

If you allow for discussion, even if it doesn’t change your mind, you can close the conversation by explaining your rationale. You can also remind everyone that now that we’ve had a chance to discuss the options, we all need to walk out of this meeting supporting the decision.

The Idea Leader

Another scenario I see often is a leader who is full of ideas. This is a common i-style behavior from DiSC. These leaders love to brainstorm and think up new possibilities. Often, they love it so much that they are the first ones to speak and the loudest voice in the room. I’ve talked with some leaders who are afraid they will forget their brilliant idea and admit they talk over others because they want to get the idea out before they forget it.

An obvious issue with this style is we are likely to shut people down. You’ve probably been in meetings where one or two people dominated the conversation and a whole set of people couldn’t get a word in. Often, those people have some of the best ideas, but you need to create a space that allows them to be heard. One of my favorite techniques for brainstorming is to give everyone five minutes to generate ideas silently, then go around the room sharing one idea per person until all ideas have been heard.

As you get to higher levels of leadership, there is another way this style can wreak havoc. I’ve seen C-suite leaders who have this style and don’t realize that when they open their mouths and throw out an idea, their teams instinctively process it as an order. You’ve probably encountered this situation as well. Some poor team members start implementing an idea, only to find out later that the leader was brainstorming and never intended for them to run with it.

My go-to technique to head this behavior off is to declare right up front, “I am just thinking out loud. I’m generating ideas. Please don’t assume my ideas are good, and don’t assume I expect you to go implement any of them.” Declaring that you are thinking out loud can be very liberating, both for you and the team.

Putting It Into Practice

Here are some techniques to put these ideas into practice.

  • Before any critical meeting, remind yourself that great leaders speak last.
  • Think about the audience, the objective of the meeting, and the outcome you want, and be intentional about what you say and when you say it during the meeting.
  • If you are tempted to save everyone time and declare your decision without discussion, pause and consider whether this decision warrants discussion, either for buy-in or to strengthen it.
  • If you are an idea person, give others the space to have their ideas heard and make sure the team knows when you are “thinking out loud.”

I am an executive coach and life coach with software executive roots in higher education and EdTech. I coach because I love to help others accelerate their growth as leaders and humans. I frequently write about #management, #leadership, #coaching, #neuroscience, and #arete.

If you would like to learn more, schedule time with me.

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