Developing the language of a leader

Emergn - developing the language of a leader - board meeting in office

How things are said matters. A lot of work we do in Emergn is in helping large enterprises transform the way people work. Changes are related to driving more innovation, improving agility or developing digital business models. Change is usually at the request of senior leaders.

One area that has a disproportionately large impact on success is related to the leaders who instigate change. How leaders talk, behave, and role-model improvements they’re looking for can make or break a lasting change. It’s important that the language of a leader is consistent with the direction.

Are you sure?

David Marquet shares lots of good leadership advice in his book ‘Turn The Ship Around’. Recently, he posted a video to talk about how easy it is to shut down input and insight, and stop you learning more about a situation by asking a wrong question. When you are encouraging teams to collaborate more, the last thing you want is to shut people down. You need more empowered people to step up and lead.

When people are presenting ideas or solutions that they want to move forward to implement and need decisions, it’s important that you try to gather more insight if you are doubtful about the approach. Instead of asking someone ‘are you sure?’ try asking ‘how sure are you?’. The first approach is a way of putting someone into a defensive state and immediately makes someone think twice about bringing ideas in the future. It also stops you, as a leader, learning more about the context. ‘Are you sure?’ creates a yes, no situation. The second approach guarantees you will learn more about the topic. Complex work is often unclear, obscure and needs collaboration. Asking probing, but open questions is a better way for everyone to learn and collaborate, and ensuring that your teams remain engaged and collaborative.

On-time and on-budget obsession

One question I talk a lot about with leaders is ‘When will it be finished?’. It’s a simple question and one that needs asking. But, many organizations today are too focused on questioning different stakeholder groups about time and budget. This actually leads to poorer performance. If you are leading an organization and are trying to encourage more customer-focus, agility, innovation or collaboration with business partners you should be careful focusing heavily on time and budget.

Even if you don’t feel like you ask the question a lot, it might be more systemic. If you’ve created (or work in) an environment that bonuses or praises on-time and on-budget performance more than anything else, don’t be surprised if teams spend a lot of time answering a lot of questions about plans. Typically PMOs, Finance teams, Senior Managers, Line Managers, Business Partners and many other stakeholder groups spend a lot of time engaging with delivery teams trying to get to answers about when things will complete and how much things might cost. It can lead to an organizational obsession and unintended consequences.

The problem? It’s not a simple question to answer. It takes time and effort to come up with new answers (which are still full of assumptions, best-case scenarios and news that leaders typically want to hear). What ‘finished’ is can be highly subjective. An over-use of the question can lead teams to spend the majority of the time trying to answer the question rather than spending the time trying to achieve the outcome. Similarly, constant replanning of costs can also lead to the same result. When it comes to on-time and on-budget, a healthy dose of balance is required.

Focus on getting early feedback on valuable and risky features

Instead of consistently focusing on the finish date or the final cost, turn your attention to helping teams identify the most valuable and risky items, and helping them figure out the best ways to get meaningful feedback to either maximize value or close the gap on the risks. In this way, your initiatives will have the best chance of delivering the return that’s promised, and you still have a strong governance process in place that ensures fiscal responsibility.

Try to learn the probabilities

The advice from Marquet is an attempt to learn something about risks and likelihoods. When asking probing questions, figure out how you can improve the words to help both parties highlight the probabilities of an outcome – it will lead to much more productive conversations.