I have been reflecting on our last Executive Roundtable discussion with Kevin Hancock, the 6th generation CEO of Hancock Lumber Company, one of the oldest companies in the US. He almost completely lost his ability to speak and had to find a new way of leading without being able to solve people’s problems and directing the way they had become accustomed to. By transforming himself from a ‘speaker’ to a ‘listener’ he discovered that people actually knew what was needed, had solutions to the problems that arouse, knew how to drive efficiencies, optimise processes and even grow the business. In the space of 10 years focusing on listening and making sure people found meaning at work, the company thrived and quadrupled in size and profits.
Like Kevin, many other leaders found themselves removed from their habitual way of running their businesses during the pandemic lockdowns. The unusual circumstances and the disruption in work practices left many leaders without answers and feeling removed from where they ‘needed’ to be. However, not long after reports started coming back of teams spontaneously forming to develop new solutions and work practices, customers and suppliers/service providers developing new partnerships to respond to new needs and transformations that had been debated at senior levels for years suddenly taking place and being implemented in months.
Reflecting on these experiences caused me to ask the headline question – are you leading or are you interfering? Most leaders have reached senior positions as a result of their extensive experience and knowledge accumulated over many years. In addition, most are adept at dealing with people, handling complex environments and making decisions. There is no doubt that most leaders are qualified for the position they hold. However, too often professional credibility is confused with the ability to provide solutions or ‘knowing what to do’. If we fall into the trap of becoming solution providers and helping people by directing their actions, we might get quick and targeted action, but at the cost of what else is possible.
By too easily directing action and providing solutions from above, we undermine the potential of the organisation. We will not get access to the wealth of ideas and unmapped expertise that exist in any organisation. We stop making people responsible for their own actions and results as they can always point upwards as an excuse when things don’t turn out. And most importantly, we risk losing the best people as they will often seek more potent environments what people are interested in what they can fully contribute.
Learning from Kevin and the wider experience during the pandemic, one of the key shifts to consider as a leader is to become a ‘listener’. Someone who creates a space for ideas to flourish, people to express themselves and where people take responsibility for their own decisions and actions. Of course, leaders still need to direct when needed, intervene when necessary and make tough choices on behalf of the business, but this is by exception, rather than by habit. Some of the most powerful and effective leaders I have ever met ask a lot more open and insightful questions than they express opinions or even offer advice.
As a final thought I would assert that one of the best measures of one’s leadership is found in the quality of the questions you ask rather than the quality of the advice you give.