You’ve been to this meeting. You and a bunch of peers are gathered to do some planning or training. Over lunch, a senior leader of the organization has been asked to come spend time with the gang. It’s a great opportunity for both the leadership group and this senior leader to have exposure to each other.
More than likely, the leader emailed the meeting organizer, “What do you want me to say?” Leaders almost always do that when they’re asked to join a meeting with middle management or a customer or a key partner. They know that others expect a leader to say something.
So that’s what the leaders do. They say… something. They come armed with talking points. Sometimes they say something good. Occasionally it’s memorable – especially if they use hand-drawn pictures. More often, it’s forgettable, benign, and sanitized. You and your colleagues parse and interpret. You read the tea leaves.
Then you go back to work.
It’s not tragic, but it’s a wasted opportunity.
Now flip this scenario around. Say you’re the leader in this situation. There’s another way to handle this interaction, one that has a better chance of building trust and credibility with a key group. The strategy is to create listening points. Here’s how you do it.
- Listening Point step 1: Think of an issue that is of mutual interest. It could be a strategy that this group is trying to implement. It could be a trend you’re sensing in the environment.
- Listening Point step 2: Ask a few real, provocative questions about the issue. Here are a few questions you could try on for size (I got several of these from Tom Paterson, a master strategic facilitator):
- What might I be missing about what it’s really like to do your job right now?
- Where do you see opportunities we might not be taking advantage of?
- Where do you see dangers to which we are apparently blind?
- Where are we wasting resources?
- What excites you about our direction?
- What concerns you about our direction?
- Listening Point step 3: Listen for anything – and I mean anything – that you can commit to act upon or bring to your own peer group for further consideration.
- Listening Point step 4: Commit to take that action and communicate when they will hear back from you.
- Listening Point step 5: Follow up as promised.
This approach has several benefits over the usual way executives make appearances.
- You can direct your comments to the real felt needs of people in the group rather than shooting in the dark with pre-prepared comments.
- You have the opportunity to make a real contribution to something of shared interest. This is much better than playing a figurehead role where people are left wondering what you really do all day.
- You can build credibility with a key constituency through actions plus words instead of just doing happy talk.
I understand why leaders fall back on talking points. It’s a safety net. Leaders often feel like they’re safer if they take the initiative and fill the air time with scripted comments, much like politicians do on talk shows. Interactions like the one I describe above are largely unscripted. And unscripted can feel out of control.
But the control you get by hiding behind talking points is shallow. You get momentary control but you lose the influence you only get by surfing through an improvised conversation. That’s when people learn what they really want to know about you.
How does she really think?
How open is he to influence? How humble is he?
What excites her? What makes her crazy?
Like anyone, they’re really trying to figure out whether you’re someone they want to follow and listen to and deal with. They know that talking points can be an elaborate screen. Listening points – and especially your response to the conversation – provide a window into who you really are.
And that’s what people really want to know.
Who are you really?
Will you listen?
Is there a chance that you’ll be open to their influence?
If you answer those questions convincingly – in how you act more than what you say – you’ll develop an environment of optimism and innovation.