To Build a Leadership Team, Shut Up and Listen

Contributed by Joyce Lasecke, the president of Fredrickson Communications, Inc., which is located in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Building a leadership team had been the most rewarding and frustrating challenge I’ve taken on in my business. It’s rewarding to hear my own words coming from the mouth of a director, and it’s frustrating to watch a director slowly work through an issue for which I can so clearly see a resolution. To get to the rewarding moments, I have had to experience a lot of frustrating ones. Fortunately, the rewards have lately outpaced the frustrations. How did this happen? I figured out that I need to shut up and listen.

As an entrepreneur, I love having the right answers. In school, I was always raising my hand in class. I liked to be seen as knowledgeable and smart. Still do. As a result, six years ago when I started building the leadership team in my company, I would run meetings as if I was the person with most of the answers. And I wondered why the directors kept bringing issues to me to solve instead of thinking for themselves.

One day, I realized that I might not be the only person with the right answer or best solution to an issue. I decided to hold back my comments so that I could hear how other people viewed the situation.  By listening instead of speaking right away, I learned that the instincts of my directors were very good, but that most of them still needed guidance on thinking through issues because of their limited perspective. That realization led me to change my behavior and figure out a way to help the directors gain perspective and confidence so that they could solve more issues without me.

Changing my behavior has not been easy.  To ensure that I do more listening than speaking, I have created a method for my one-on-one meetings with directors:

  1. Prepare a list of topics I want to hear.
  2. Ask about the topic. If I need to clarify with a statement, I start with “I understand that…” or “I’m getting the sense that…” I avoid—as best I can—stating what I think should be done.
  3. Listen for clear thinking, consideration of options and action steps. I’m assessing the person’s judgment, and whether he or she seems to know what to do and is comfortable following through.
  4. Give feedback based on my assessment. Usually, I’m able to compliment the director’s thinking and proposed action steps.  Sometimes, though, I need to say something like, “What’s stopping you from taking action?”
  5. Ask another layer of questions to get at the person’s feelings.
  6. Ask the person to tell me the next action step. It’s important that I hear how he or she understands what we’ve agreed to.
  7. Ask how the person would like me to be involved. Usually, the person is confident enough to handle the issue without me.

Now, some days go by when I don’t hear from any of the directors. The issues didn’t go away—we still have plenty of those—but because I was able to keep my mouth shut and listen, I have cultivated self-sufficiency among my directors, which has freed me from being involved in daily operations. Freedom is much more rewarding for me than being the person with all the answers.

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