Short-sighted problem solving

During a conversation with a CEO client, he broke into a rant about the small mindedness of his leaders. “The world is rapidly changing,” he said. “If we don’t evolve, we’ll fail. We need a plan that is actionable to continually redefine excellence and be the example for the world.”

I asked him if his leaders weren’t’ acting because they didn’t know how to think strategically or they were resisting, thinking their jobs were to remain effective, efficient and excellent within the world they worked in today.

He said it was probably both, but if they didn’t know what to do, they could ask him.

There were two serious flaws in my client’s thinking. One, the belief that if people don’t understand something, they will ask for input and guidance. Two, telling people to think bigger works.

Leadership Myth #1:  If they need information from me or they don’t understand something, they will ask.

No matter what your title is, people might not feel comfortable letting you know they can’t figure something out. They might have a history of other bosses or people in authority positions belittling them for not knowing everything. Or they just haven’t tested the waters with you to know it is safe to tell you they can’t figure something out on their own. People appreciate you asking, “What challenges are you facing?” and “What support would help you free up some time to plan?” Then you can ask if they need some ideas to get started on drafting a strategic plan. The questions below will help. Initiating a private conversation could reveal an opportunity to expand their thinking.

Leadership Myth #2 Telling people to think bigger motivates them to look into the future.

Telling people to do something different from what they normally do is the most inefficient way to change behavior. If they don’t typically see the bigger picture, they might react with fear, which shuts down their creative capability, or resistance, creatively finding ways to avoid your request. You have to get people to think for themselves if you want them to commit to taking action. Ask them if they would be willing to look at a few things with you to see if you can discover some new possibilities together. Once they agree, ask them questions that will broaden their thinking. Here are a few examples:

  • If you were to steer the ship instead of maintain it, what uncharted waters would you like to explore?
  • If you knew our technology would either peak or become in five years, what would you focus on to take the next step?
  • Could you describe the difference between championing your best people for the work they do now and leading them into the challenging future?
  • Would you be willing to brainstorm what we could look like in 10 years? Can we build on and not judge each other’s crazy ideas? (This last question is good to use with your entire team.)

Expecting people to see the world like you do will lead to frustration and disappointment. If instead, you ask questions to help them think more broadly for themselves, they might see the value in your request. You can find more tips for having conversations with your leaders, especially when they are resistant, in the book, The Discomfort Zone: How leaders turn difficult conversations into breakthroughs.


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