Leadership At the Top

February 27, 2008

Q: I lead a small company, and I manage it very tightly. In meetings, I find I am the only one offering ideas, while others do not contribute. Although my ideas have really worked to grow the company, I feel I am doing it alone. What should I do?

A: If you think you are talking too much, so does everybody else.

Growing up with movies like “Patton” and watching world leaders on the news every night has led to the illusion that leadership means repeatedly giving your opinions. The old school of “command and control” management has been around for decades, passed from one generation to the next. Some leaders may lack self-esteem, and the notion of controlling others may seem an attractive alternative to being controlled.

Remember: If you are not asking questions, you are making assumptions.

Mike, a former CEO and Chairman of a Fortune 100 company, would lead a meeting by first asking a question. He would then listen to the answers from each person present. Mike did not believe it was his job to give his opinion, but to listen to and observe the problem solving of others. He would monitor the room for how people were contributing and, if he noticed someone was not speaking much, he would be overly encouraging and supportive toward that person. This was true even when the employee’s comments were not on track with Mike’s agenda. Mike found that, by providing heavy doses of support over a course of five or six meetings, he could usually draw the employee out to be a fully functioning part of the team. Mike was clear that, if the employee continued to be withdrawn, it was likely he or she would have to move on.

When he encountered an employee who was talking too much in meetings, Mike applied a different strategy. Careful to avoid belittling the person in front of others, Mike would make a sharp comment or a non-verbal gesture that emphasized his desire to hear from everybody.

As a coach, I have been intrigued by Mike’s technique of asking a single question. I have witnessed other leaders use similar techniques, but found them to be somewhat limiting. A team often needs leadership, rather than just consensus. Mike demonstrated that his technique still provided leadership. If certain employee comments began guiding the discussion away from the company’s visions, goals, objectives, and values, Mike would simply ask, “How does this help us meet our goal?” or, “Is this in alignment with our vision?” He had a motto, which he taught to everyone, including me: “E3: Earnings, Earnings, Earnings.”

Mike tells the story of an analyst who asked him about his goals for the company. Mike’s answer was simply, “Earnings.” When asked if he had other goals, Mike said, “Oh, yes. Our second goal is earnings, and our third goal is earnings.” There was no need to ask about additional goals!

As a true leader, Mike ensured understanding. He had a clear message and a clear focus. Printed on company shirts, hats, and posters, E3 became the symbol for driving the corporation forward. When an employee’s comments were not aligned with E3, Mike set the employee back on course and made it clear to others that this was not acceptable.

Mike understands the value of asking questions and doing what all great leaders do – LISTENING. If you want to see change in your company, follow Mike’s example: Ask the question, then be silent and listen. The books on leadership speak much about courage. It takes courage to trust your team. It takes courage to believe your employees will deliver ideas and execute them successfully. Facing the fear of giving up control is what I call “Leadership at the top.” You may be surprised how much your people know and want to contribute.

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