Many CEOs I work with struggle with this same issue, and some don’t even know that they have a challenge. They present an idea to their team, hoping that their team will come up with ideas and take it from a brown box to a beautifully wrapped package, bows and all, then shipped to their customer, but instead it goes out in the same brown box that the CEO presented. How do you empower your team to share ideas, but still command the room without taking up too much space?
At a client’s recent product strategy meeting, Jack, the CEO, was working with his team to generate ideas. I often use “Jack” to protect the guilty or the innocent. After waiting for a long time, with no one sharing, Jack went ahead and started sharing his thoughts on the future product and what needed to be done. After further discussion and elaboration, they came to a good conclusion and decided to go out and execute the plan. Jack felt that his team did not have many creative ideas to contribute. He asked me how to improve the creativity of his team, or how to get them to speak up and share their ideas. After the meeting, he asked me for feedback. “Are they scared of me? I don’t think I do anything to intimidate them. I often encourage their ideas and emphasize that I want to listen to their ideas.” This was the CEO’s perspective.
On the other hand, the team heard their CEO ask a question, and before they had the chance to think about it, he took control of the room and told them what he thought needed to be done. The team couldn’t keep up. He continued asking questions, and before they had a chance to answer, he was already sharing his solution. The team brought up additional ideas as well as challenges and obstacles that they needed to overcome, but the CEO downplayed them, which caused the team to feel like the decision was already made and not bother to explain their reasoning. After the meeting, an executive team member asked me for help. “I love Jack and he does make an effort to listen, which I really appreciate. I have worked for so many guys that don’t seem to even want to listen. I think Jack really wants to hear us out. But in these sessions, when the stakes are high, it feels like he already has his way of doing things and is not open to other ideas. I wonder if he does not trust us to come up with solutions when it is critically important?"
How did the same conversation happen in the same room, but the CEO and the team saw it so differently? Jack thought he had as much feedback as he was going to get, that his team was just not participating, and he needed to push them forward. The team felt that Jack did not really want their feedback. They felt that he was telling them what to do and did not really trust them to handle big mission critical projects. So what happened? I have seen this movie many times, just with different actors! Here’s what happened:
- What felt to Jack like a long time, was only about 5 seconds. Five seconds is just not enough time for his team to digest the idea and respond intelligently.
- The ideation process: When the team brought up obstacles and challenges with positive intent to solve, Jack perceived it as negative and lack of appreciation for his idea. He was thinking, “Where the heck are your ideas?”
So, as CEOs, what should we do to avoid taking up too much space?
Pause and repeat.
I know, I know. You’ve heard this a million times, but you need to make a conscious effort to take longer pauses and wait for feedback after questions. What feels like an eternity to you, may only be a few seconds. Try singing the chorus to your favorite song in your head. Once you’ve finished the chorus, the pause is over. (And, try not to dance.) As the CEO, you’ve heard your own idea in your head over a 1,000 times. You’ve had the time to really dig deep and refine it. Your team is hearing this idea for the first time. They need time to think and process it. And, they are only getting a few seconds to do so, whereas you have most likely had days, or even weeks! Consider asking if there are clarifying questions and waiting 20-30 seconds for discussion. You can even announce that you are giving the team some time to think about it, then wait 20-30 seconds and ask the question again.
Have a process for brainstorming ideas.
Try partitioning your meeting time. I like the 6 Thinking Hats by Edward De Bono. This method encourages brainstorming without interrupting the flow of ideas.
- Start with your objective.
- Share why this is important.
- Invite the team to share facts.
- Brainstorm ideas (with no objections or challenges).
- Share obstacles and challenges.
- Share your intuition.
- Discuss, organize and conclude on the top ideas.
Ask questions. Challenge your own opinions in order to get your team involved. In the end, it’s ultimately the CEO’s decision, but if your team believes they can make an impact on the decision, they are more likely to speak up. And challenge their ideas, too. It may spark a conversation that turns into to a solution that will make your idea better or the execution faster.
Be mindful of your space.
Finally, literally consider how much space you should take in the room. Figure out how much time you need to convey your ideas. Then, don’t take any more or any less. Having an idea of this before going into the meeting will help you to be more conscious of time and how much you are using.
After this meeting, Jack the CEO and I had our regular coaching call. I gave him these tips for his next meeting, and at the next product strategy meeting, they were able to improve. After a few more “turns of this flywhee” (as Jim Collins would say), they are much better at sharing and receiving ideas today. I’m happy I don’t have to watch this movie anymore when I visit them during their quarterly 13-Week Race™ planning sessions.