Simple side of complexity – Leadership in chaos – Interview

October 13, 2009

This interview originally appeared on Simplicity

Today it is my great pleasure to interview Gary B Cohen author of a great book that I’ve just read called “Just Ask Leadership – Why Great Managers Always Ask the Right Questions.”

Gary, as President and co-founder of ACI Telecentrics, grew that company from two people to 2,200 employees and reached $32 million in sales at the company’s peak. ACI was recognized as one of Venture Magazine’s Top 10 Best Performing Businesses and Business Journal’s 25 Fastest Growing small companies. Gary is partner and co-founder of CO2 Partners, LLC operating as an executive coach and consultant. His clients run a wide range of organizations – from small entrepreneurial companies to multi-billion dollar enterprises.

Trevor: First of all Gary – thanks for taking the time in your busy schedule to answer a few questions for my Simplicity Blog.

Gary: It is truly my pleasure, and thank you for being willing to share my ideas and the book, Just Ask Leadership, with your audience. As you can see from the title, it would be difficult not to respond to a fellow Asker. Don’t be surprised, though, if I take the opportunity to ask you a few questions as well.

Trevor: I really enjoyed reading your book and found many similarities in your philosophy to my own about business, management and leadership. Not least the need for Simplicity. Do you think some managers make things too complicated?

Gary: Yes and no. To me it really depends on the situation. If you are referring to leading others, yes. If you’re referring to leading an organization, I would say no. I believe many of today’s crises are a result of the complexity of our operating systems. Leaders are applying linear solutions to complex systems.

In a discussion the other day with Joseph Grano, who is currently Chairman and CEO of Centurion Holdings and formerly Chairman of UBS, Joseph stated that it’s not that CEO’s are unaware of the complexity of their organizations, but that they’re unaware of the complexity of the products their organizations offer. Leaders don’t and can’t understand every aspect of their organization, nor should they try. They put their organizations at risk when they do. Instead, they need to learn the right questions to ask and where to direct these questions. When leading people, both straight forward and more complex strategies are necessary.

The straight forward aspect of leading is really simple – Just Ask. If leaders did that more than Just Tell, they would see vast improvements in their organisations’ performance. What I don’t want people to believe is that any question, in any tone, will do. The types of questions – and they way they’re delivered – are equally important. Counter to popular opinion, there is such a thing as a Bad Question!

On the complex side of people leadership, leaders would benefit from understanding the brain and how it takes in and stores information. People favor certain types of information and disconnect from others, which has a huge impact on outcomes in organisational trade-offs.

By understanding the workings of the brain, leaders can ask questions that cut through thinking processes and create improved outcomes.

Trevor: The images of a leader telling people what to do rather than asking questions still persists in many organizations. Do you think this style is changing fast enough?

Gary: No, and this is what gets me going in the morning. To live in a free country and to work for a totalitarian company in which the leader always knows best is at worst repressive and at best controlling. In a day when information is more abundant than ever and we have more college graduates and post graduates in the work force, the smartest person in the room is rarely the leader, even though they would often have you believe they are.

The worker today wants to be engaged in decisions, making things happen and changing organizations to improve. This was also the case in colonial times: After 120 pilgrims died in Jamestown during the winter there were only 60 survivors left. The deaths resulted largely from failure to take care of the land and common ownership of the colony. With ownership divided so that the 60 people who were left each had their own plots and individual rights, crop production tripled.

When people feel they have a stake in what they do, performance increases. At CO2 Partners, we see this with organizations that change from telling to asking. Our entire educational system was built on knowing the answer. The teacher is the leader and you do what she tells you to do even if you know it is wrong. That was translated to the repetitive processes in our factories, where many thought that questions were unnecessary.

But we’ve seen today how the bad practices of just one or two employees can bring a company to its knees.

Trevor: My good friend Dave Wheeler from Arkansas has great practical experience as well as knowledge of the subject of leadership. Dave says the four most important words a leader can say are ‘What do you think?” – I assume you would agree with that, Gary. Why do so many managers find it hard to ask questions?

Gary: I’m not sure I would say those would be my four most important words, but I would agree that questioning is one of the best disciplines a leader can learn today to be resilient in the face of uncertainty. Great leaders aren’t afraid to make decisions, too, but they rarely do so without asking great questions first.

Trevor: I have a passion for giving much more responsibility and power to people working at the front line. I would be interested to hear your ideas about how managers can be persuaded to let go of the power to their front line folks.

Gary: We seem to be in alignment on this idea. One of the first questions I suggest leaders ask is, “Whose decision is it?” It is a way to get them to understand at the beginning of each conversation that it does not have to be their decision. And before they can ask any questions at all the leader must trust the people on the team. If they don’t, why bother asking them anything in the first place? The issue of trust does not revolve around getting rid of team members the leader doesn’t trust, but more often the issue is that the leader does not know how to trust.

At CO2 Partners, this is one of the first places we go to help a leader and her company. Most leadership practitioners speak of Trust in terms of making the leader appear trustworthy. It is our belief that this is quite backwards.

Those who have the power must first give trust, which involves a certain amount of risk. There are some very deliberate ways to create this trust and it has nothing to do with time. It is only then that the idea of moving decisions downstream–to the front line– can be accomplished.

Trevor: Do you have any Leadership heroes and if so, who are they and what is it that makes them stand out from the crowd?

Gary: One of my favorite leaders is Bill McLaughlin. I admit we are friends, and I am sure that has much to do with my rose colored glasses. He was one of the few leaders I interviewed for the book Just Ask Leadership who was consciously competent about using questions as a leader.

Most of the exceptional leaders I interviewed used Just Asking about 70-80 % of the time and were not really conscious of doing this until we discussed it in the interview. Bill knew he did it and was very deliberate about the questions he would ask. Another aspect of Bill that I have grown to admire is his authenticity – not the kind you learn at a seminar but the kind that only comes from deep contemplation and self awareness.

Humility is another aspect that comes to mind – again, not the kind you pick up trying to imitate the Dali Lama, but the kind that comes from seeing people outside of a hierarchy. He seems to see potential in people and help promote them through the questions he asks. He is the lesser part of the equation and the other person is the focus. He has experienced amazing successes and challenges in his career and yet still projects these admirable qualities.

A fictional leader I love is Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz. Next time you watch the movie, pay close attention to how she engages and aligns her team to follow the yellow brick road.

Trevor: Having a style that is all about asking questions might be construed by cynics as a manager being weak. I need to stress that is certainly not my own view. How do you answer those cynics Gary?

Gary: Yes, this is often a first thought shared by many, such as those who see water as weak, although it played a major part in forming the Grand Canyon.

If you ask weak questions (and there is such a thing as a weak question), you may be considered a “Weak Leader.” But there are tough questions that require real action from the listener.

Some examples of tough questions from a boss to his team member might be: “Trevor, what is preventing you from blogging twice as much per week?” or “How might you remove those obstacles in order to meet our overall goal that we agreed to earlier in the year?” Often it takes way more courage to ask and trust than to tell and blame.

Trevor: What one piece of advice would you give to a young manager just setting out on his career path given your own experience?

Gary: Understand that in our society there is a time to provide answers and a time to ask questions. You’ve most likely learned how to answer for the first 20+ years of life, so learn this difference and practice the art of asking. Pick up my book Just Ask Leadership or go to our website and take the Gold Assessment. It is a 360-degree feedback tool that polls 5 people who work with you on your leadership performance in general and Just Ask Leader style specifically. It will provide specific advice on how to improve. We have been studying leaders with this tool globally and have found that trusting others by using questions can have a 20% positive effect on the team’s engagement, alignment and motivation.

Few assessments provide that level of feedback. Buckminster Fuller was a wonderful thinker, and a friend recently reminded me of Bucky’s view on procession. This is the notion of just starting – just put your foot in a direction, even if it is not the right direction.

Most Nobel Prize winners never set out to win. They just started on their path, one thing lead to another, and before long they really became the change in the world that they wanted to see. This is true for anyone starting down any path – the first place to start is starting. Many people get stalled out and this often leads to paralysis.

Trevor: Finally Gary, have you visited the UK and if not do you have any plans to come to this side of the pond? I have a number of US friends who regularly visit my Simplicity Blog and it seems there are many similarities in both our cultures. I’m sure your Just Ask Leadership concept is equally applicable on this side of the water.

Gary: Several fantastic leaders have asked whether CO2 Partners would like to start a practice in England, and those discussions are still active. The book has only been out for a couple of weeks and the interest from the UK has been fabulous. When I was younger, I was an intern at the British Parliament for the Fulham member Martin Stephens who passed away many years ago. I lived off of Queens Gate right off Hyde Park and my memories often draw me back there.

If you or any of your readers know of opportunities to speak in England or Europe, I would more than welcome the opportunity. I gave a speech in June in Hanover, Germany to a company that does business around the world. The audience represented over 20 countries and each took to the Just Ask idea no matter how different their culture was from ours. Similarly, I spoke to the Intel global treasury department last year and there were over a 100 leaders from all over the globe.

The message of Just Ask seems to have resonance all over the world. Thank you for your willingness to help spread the idea.

Trevor: The pleasure is mine Gary – thank you again. I hope some Simplicity readers take you up on that offer of speaking engagements in the UK – you will be very welcome on this side of the pond – your message to Just Ask is so important.

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