It felt like the only thing we could agree on, is that we couldn’t agree on anything. Have you been there before?
We had been discussing our 10-year vision for 45 minutes with the board of directors, and the conversation was going in circles between two opposing views. I felt stuck. I was championing one of these views, I knew that my point of view was right, and I also knew that my emotions were clouding my judgment – I couldn’t see a way out of this deadlock. Why was the other side so stubborn? As the leader of the organization should I simply impose my point of view and be done with this?
Arguing is not persuading
As this experience illustrates, arguing to prove a point is not the best way to change the minds of other team members. “If anything, arguing makes people more intransigent,” explains this Harvard Business Review article on persuasion. “The consequence of you arguing for your point of view is the exact opposite of what you want: people shut down and stop listening,” says BCG partner Julia Dahr, who won the World Schools Debate Championships three times and delivered this and this TED talks on the topic of productive disagreements.
Counterintuitively, listening is more persuasive than speaking. The issue is: when we are blinded by our own emotions in the heat of a debate, listening becomes very challenging – and when we listen, we often do so with the intent to prove our point and to reply; we are not listening to learn. As a result we make sub-optimal strategic decisions – which is frustrating for our leadership team, but which also prevents our business from growing to its full potential.
How can you intently listen when disagreeing with your senior leaders, so that as the CEO you can make better decisions that will help you grow faster and with less pain? This is the topic of this article.
In a debate, choose curiosity over fight
Curiosity makes magic happen. As soon as people sense that you are truly and nonjudgmentally listening to them, they open up – and share their goals and intentions behind their logic. Additionally it also makes people curious about your own point of view – which creates a much more meaningful and impactful conversation. Finally, the insights you learn in this conversation enable you to improve your point of view.
When you switch on your curiosity mindset, your goal has to be to genuinely understand the other person’s perspective. Stephen Covey rated this skill so highly that he called out “Seek first to understand, then to be understood” as one of his 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Here is how to listen more intently:
1. Start with a question like: “I never thought about it exactly that way before. What can you share that would help me see what you see?” as suggested by Julia Dahr.
2. Listen and ask clarifying questions (eg “Can you tell me more;” “What do you mean?“) with the sole intent to understand the other person within his or her frame of reference. You need to be genuinely curious and willing to learn about the other person’s point of view. You can’t fake it or be judgmental.
3. Ensure that you have understood the other person’s point of view by “rephrasing what the other person is saying as well as reflecting their emotions on the topic. Don’t try to solve their problem or convince them,” Covey explains.
4. “Offer your perspective only once others feel seen and viewed,” Covey continues.
Keep in mind:
- Focus on intent more than content. You haven’t been curious enough as long as you haven’t understood the goal and purpose behind the other person’s perspective (ie why their proposal matters to them, which impact it would have on the company/themselves). Understanding your sr leader’s goal and purpose will enable you to brainstorm multiple options to reach that goal – instead of debating the single option that they put on the table.
- Find common ground between your opposing views to help move the conversation forward.
- Assume that people on your leadership team have good intentions. Without this assumption, whatever they say will be tainted in your mind. If you can’t make this assumption because you have the wrong people on the bus, take care of that problem first.
- Listen as if you were wrong. You know that you have had a good conversation if you have changed your mind about something. If not, you probably have not listened enough. “Being influenceable is the key to influencing others,” as Covey put it.
Based on this, what is one thing that you will do differently starting this week to improve your persuasion skills? If you don’t put newly acquired insights to practical use, it remains theoretical knowledge.
How did my story end?
The next day I realized that this deadlock was entirely my fault: I was so emotionally entrenched behind my point of view that I lost track of the big picture. I couldn’t even explain the other side’s logic (except that it was wrong): I had listened with the intent to prove my point, not with the intent to understand.
A few days later, I sat down with my “opponent” and asked him to explain his point of view “like he would to a 5-year-old.” Listening to him was uncomfortable: several times I felt the urge to interrupt him because he was crossing strategic red lines. Miraculously I didn’t, and I focused on asking clarifying questions.
As a result in less than 15 minutes, I understood what he wanted to achieve and, much more importantly, why this mattered so much to him. I still don’t agree with everything he proposed, but I fundamentally agree with his intentions, and I am very confident that together we will be able to develop a stronger plan to reach our common goals.
I work with growth-minded CEOs who are frustrated by the way their business is growing. Often they spend their days fighting fires – typically a sign that their company has outgrown their management approach – and don’t exploit disagreements with their leadership team at their full potential, leading to suboptimal decisions. In short, they feel stuck. I know the feeling: I have been in their shoes when I was running a business that we turned around from sales decline to double-digit business growth.
As a business coach my passion is to help leadership teams define their actionable business growth strategy, create a culture of accountability and effective strategy execution, and become better leaders – so they can grow faster and with less pain.
If you too want to grow faster and with less pain, contact me now: Xavier@AmbroseGrowth.com.
“My company has lots of potential, but I just feel my employees are not engaged. If I don’t push, nothing seems to happen. I’m working night and day and we’re still missing 40% of our targets. I once dreamed of being a firefighter, I guess that dream has come true. All I do is put out fires, I have no time to focus on my business.”
Sound familiar? CEOs and leadership teams can change this picture, it’s all about accountability. Creating a fierce culture of accountability starts with the CEO and leadership team.
Why is accountability important?
Accountability is about owning a problem. You want employees to behave as if they own the piece of business that they are running. When you are accountable for a specific result, you will do whatever it takes to achieve it – and you would like your team to perform this way as well.
Carlos Brito, the CEO of brewing company AB Inbev, summarizes his views on accountability in these words: “We always compare that to a rental car: you drive a rental car in a different way than your own car. With a rental car someone else will live with the consequences of your driving. With your car, you know that it will be yours the next days, months, and years, and you know that you will be living with the consequences of your driving. Employees who behave like owners are here for the long term, and they will live with the consequences of their decisions – good or bad – and that builds a great company.”
Why am I having accountability issues?
Accountability issues are very common among growing companies. When you founded your company, you were personally accountable for everything. As your company grew you started delegating the responsibilities for some results – e.g. production, customer service, or sales. However, you may not have created the communication channels required to hold your teams accountable. Why would you? You didn’t need any of this yourself, and yet you grew your business successfully. Why would these smart managers need anything different?
For one, your employees are not you. If they were, they would not be working for you: they would start their own business. Second, your company is now more complex than we you started: it has more people involved, and all these people now need to be on the same page. Third, when you started your company with a few employees, you could be on top of each of them and had short communication lines: you knew what everybody was doing, all the time. Now that your company has more employees it is impossible for you to manage them the same way: this would soak up all your time. This is exactly why you need to put a system in place that will achieve what you want (ie create accountability), without you spending all your time on it.
1. Lead by example
Like many aspects related to company culture, accountability starts with you and your leadership team. In order to create a culture of accountability you have to model the behaviors that you want to see in your organization. When it comes to accountability the rule is simple: when you make a commitment as a leader, you have to keep it. If you don’t, why should anyone else be interested in doing so? You can’t complain that employees miss their deadlines if you are occasionally late as well. As a CEO “all eyes and ears within your business are focused on you. What you say and what you do are invisibly and constantly observed, scrutinized and evaluated as your managers and employees are looking for clues as to how they should behave,” explains Mark Green.
Leading by example is not only about you sticking to your commitments, but also about your expectations from your team – and your behavior when your managers don’t meet your expectations. If your team members notice that there are no consequences for missing targets, why would they try their best? Similarly, if you tolerate one of your team members to produce poor results, why would other team members feel pressured to produce quality? When you hold your team to a higher standards, you are sending a strong signal across the organization.
2. Have the right people on the right seat
Without the right people on the right seat, nothing of what you can do will significantly increase accountability. The key question is: would you enthusiastically rehire everybody on your team? I advise my clients to assess employees on two dimensions; performance and adherence to company values. You will find more information on how to use this tool in this article.
Once you have the right people on your team you need to clarify their area of accountability. This is less obvious than it looks. The key question is: Who is accountable for each of the key functions in your company? As Mark Green explains “the exercise often reveals that there isn’t a single individual accountable for each function. When more than one person is “accountable”, nobody is accountable. It is easy to make assumptions that things will get done, but when there is not a designated person to account for a particular result, chances are, it is not going to happen. In this kind of environment, it is also easy to point fingers – Bob thought Mary would handle it, and vice versa. Other times, you’ll discover that a particular role hasn’t been filled by anyone at all; it is just implied that it will somehow be handled. Spoiler alert: it doesn’t!”
3. Clarify priorities
“The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing,” wrote best-selling author Stephen Covey. “Individuals or organizations with too many priorities have no priorities and risk spinning their wheels and accomplishing nothing of significance,” says Verne Harnish in his book “Scaling Up.” Focus on a small number of priorities that will have the biggest impact on your goals, make sure that everyone on your leadership team is aligned on them – and communicate them broadly.
When employees understand where your organization is going and which role they play in it, they work less selfishly and they tend to make better business decisions on behalf of the company – simply because they can see the impact of their decisions and how they impact overall results.
4. Define clear action plans and metrics
Once you have identified who on the leadership team is accountable for each function and what your top priorities are, the next step is for each of your leaders to answer Mark Green’s key question: “What are the 3 most important results the company expects you deliver in exchange for paying your salary – and how should these results be measured? This step determines the results and metrics for each of your leadership functions. As we all know, you can’t manage what you don’t measure. If you want to increase the speed and quality of a particular service you offer, you should establish specific metrics to gauge those factors and identify metrics and targets for them. You may determine if you reach or surpass a target for three months in a row, you have achieved that objective.” Pick specific metrics, make sure that your leadership team is on the same page and that everybody aims for the clearly defined results – so that the rest of your organization can follow your lead.
Similarly, once you have defined top quarterly priorities, the question becomes: what do you and your team need to do in each of the next 13 weeks in order to achieve priorities? There are only 13 weeks in a quarter – if you do NOT view your quarter as a 13-week race, you will lose weeks and time which you will NOT get back. A weekly plan clarifies what can be expected every week, in order to meet expectations at the end of the quarter. It also makes it much easier for your leadership team to hold people accountable to their own 13-week plan.
5. Establish a metronome-like meeting rhythm
Just as a metronome calls time and sets tempo in a musical performance, so do a small set of consistently executed meetings to hold you and your team accountable, and keep everyone on the same page. The essential regular meetings are:
- Daily huddles (no more than 10 to 15 minutes) to evaluate progress on the very short-term priorities and identify any blocking issues.
- Weekly huddles (no more than 90 minutes) to review the status of the 13-week plan and course-correct if needed.
- Monthly and quarterly meetings to review progress on the priorities, take corrective actions when needed, and identify new priorities for the upcoming quarter.
I often notice that the most impactful meetings to drive accountability are the daily and weekly huddles: they create peer pressure and hence take the heat off your shoulders as the leader. They also improve communication: You won’t need to have the same water-cooler conversation three of four times, as is the case when you rely on chance hallway meetings for communication. And finally they enable collective intelligence to solve problems.
In the end, how much difference do these tools make on accountability? Pretty big, as this example from another Gravitas Impact business coach, Glen Dall, demonstrates in Mark Green’s book “Creating a Culture of Accountability”: “I worked with the CEO of a multi-location dental practice. The CEO had started with one practice that they grew very successfully – and then began expanding. At one point employee turnover rates increased to 200%. The leadership team would plan and set goals, but frequently failed to achieve them. The growth rate was declining. The CEO felt over-extended, frustrated and stressed.”
With the leadership team Glen Dall leveraged these tools to have the right people on the right seat, set priorities and targets, as well as establish a proven system to follow up on them. The result? “After our first 6 months of working together, the CEO told me, “You should be proud of how far you’ve brought the team. I feel that we have accomplished more in the past 6 months than we were able in the last 7 years.” That is the power of accountability.”
As a business growth coach, I work with founders of mid-market companies who are frustrated because their business is not growing the way they want; my passion is to help them identify and remove the growth roadblocks they have been hitting so they can grow faster and with less pain. Often their roadblocks include a lack of accountability: they have no system in place to regularly follow up on their team’s many commitments, or their teams don’t have clear priorities and metrics. I would like to learn about your growth roadblocks; contact me to discuss at Xavier@AmbroseGrowth.com.
What about you? How accountable is your team? How has Covid impacted accountability? Over the past couple of years, how many quarters has your company reached and missed their targets? What were the consequences of hitting targets, and what were the consequences of missing them? Do you have clear metrics and regular meetings in place to follow up on each of your priorities?
Let me know your thoughts in the comments section.