I would like to share with you a real life leadership story.
Today, I had a 3-way coaching session with a newly promoted Global Director of LEAN implementation and with her boss, the Global Supply Chain VP. This is the usual “second step” in many Executive Coaching programs, first we clarify and define the Client’s coaching goal, then the Client invites the Line Manager to share the chosen leadership shift, to gain insights and support.
The Client (who recently moved from directly running a production plant to engaging other plants into a common program), was sharing not only her goal to be more globally influential across categories, but also her desire to overcome anxieties about “having to convince others who do not report to me, when I do not know the details of their operations”. Her boss was very reassuring, he had not noticed her anxiety, but understood her inner struggles: he volunteered that he also has to fight his own Inner Saboteurs at times, when he instinctively expects of himself to have all the answers and to direct/convince; he said he often needs to remind himself that the job is not about having all the answers, it is about inviting others to create the answers together.
What was especially interesting was that, through the exchange, they both had an “ah-ha” moment when they realised that they had never had this type of conversation before; but they should have. They had been talking about influencing others, about finding a good balance between telling and asking, but they had never gone under the surface. What emerged from this conversation was the need to challenge some inner assumptions:
Both were unconsciously thinking that there is a need to somehow “push”, albeit gently, to get the plants to accept to buy into the global agenda; they started to realise their biases. They were using the word “influence” instead of “push to convince”, but in their head they were still unconsciously dealing with children who needed to be told by the senior experts.
By becoming aware of their own inner biases, they started to use different words; they will have adult-to adult conversations, they will share their views and ask the plants about their perspectives; they will trust that other adults will respond with trust and openly share their challenges; together they will co-create a path for each plant, because every situation is different.
They realised that people in the plants most likely have different perceptions; when they hear about central coordination’s support, some may welcome the help, some not, some may expect to be told, some may get ready to fight. The same clarification of intent needs to take place with each of them, to create an alliance on how to work together (rather than assuming that one-size-fits-all)
They finally re-defined their measures of success: “co-create progress and shared ownership for advancing, with each plant owning their specific learning path”, as opposed to “every plant will have these numbers by that date”.
This was a great conversation, not all Line Managers are as immediately open as this one, but in my experience it is always useful to invest time in clarifying what you mean when you set goals or share intentions, because we are all biased and using the same words does not necessarily mean that we hear it in the same way; and of course it is more unpleasant to find out the potential misalignment later, rather than taking the time to clarify things first.
This brings me to my preferred subject: true leadership starts with Courageous Conversations.
Courageous Conversations are those when we dare to speak up, not with criticism or judgment or fear, but confidently sharing a view and then asking others for their own views. Courageous Conversations are those where we dare to be ourselves and forcefully share our passion, ideas and concerns, yet still manage to stay open to hear other peoples’ points of view, ready to challenge our inner biases.
Yet this is not easy. Why? First of all, because when we form an opinion and feel strongly about it, we instinctively see a different idea as an attack and go on the defensive; then because sharing a passion makes us feel vulnerable, it feels safer to hide behind “the data say this” or “the meaning of this word is universal” rather than to admit that “my interpretation is this, but there might be other interpretations”.
The toughest thing in the process is to accept the fact that we are all biased, we all make assumptions and each one of us makes a slightly different assumption about the same facts or same words.
This is how our brain works. As Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahnenam discovered and reported in his papers, our brain takes short cuts to quickly approximate answers, making assumptions; then rationalises to make sense of the initial intuition; and then believes it to be the only logical truth. This is a very useful ability of our brain, it allows us to take quick actions and most of the times it serves us really well. But in interpersonal relationships, when a clear alliance and crystal clear understanding are key, we may forget that others have different intuitions, make different assumptions, find some logical support to make sense of them and then believe them; only to later discover that we may have said the same words, but meant different concepts. We are all biased.
It is very hard to identify our own biases, but sharing our interpretations with others can help us challenge our fixed unconscious beliefs. It might feel very scary initially to open up to getting our assumptions challenged, but the awareness that we are all biased and need the help of each other to move forward together can help us gain a more complete perspective and be truly influential.
The upcoming free online program “Courageous Conversations” offers some simple no-nonsense guidance in this area; the format is interactive, so you can ask your questions. We also record it all, in case you miss a session or want to go through it again. If you have not yet registered, you can find the link to the registration below. I am very passionate about this subject (if you follow my newsletters you probably know that this is a reoccurring subject) so to further encourage you to register I also offer a free ebook about another key subject, dealing with change.
I look forward to welcoming you to my next Courageous Conversations Course (three parts of two hours each)
Sept. 11: Intro and Module 1, Clear Presence of Mind
Sept 18: Module 2, Lead with the Heart and Module 3, Engage and Enquire
Sept 25: Module 4, Align in Ambiguity and Module 5, Resourceful in Innovation
Free ebook to all registered participants:
“How managers often cause, and how they can minimise, RESISTANCE TO CHANGE”
LEAD WITH A SMILE!