CXO

Most managers die with their mouths open


Great leaders ask lots of questions. They've figured out that their success depends on it. 

For a while it seemed that this was widely accepted; however lately I seem to be running into more execs who are concerned they will look dumb if they let their subordinates, peers or bosses see that they don't know "everything".  They tell me that they may lose some amount of power if others realize they aren't all-knowing about everything.  This is unfortunate.  Their actions will actually speed up their demise.

The evidence on this issue is very clear: the best leaders recognize that asking questions - all the time - is the single best way to keep in touch with what they most need to know.  Great managers ask customers if they have any ideas to improve service levels or products; they ask subordinates for ideas to make the company more efficient; and they ask competitors what they do that is great.  The best leaders know that they can never know everything. 

They also recognize that asking someone for their ideas makes that person more likely to take their direction.  We work harder for a boss we think cares about us and our opinions.

After 30 years as a former leader of billion dollar organizations and executive coach, I've had the chance to see many companies from the inside and out.  I am convinced that the majority of North American businesses are filled with employees who are cranky about never having an opportunity to provide ideas to senior management. Because of that, they are performing at fairly low levels.  They've concluded that nobody values their contributions anyway. So why work hard?

When you're at the top of a department or organization or company, it's easy to start to believe that you have a certain something which most others don't.  This can lead to the mistaken opinion that others can't give you new ideas or tactics not already considered.  You may start to believe that you have a very unique ability to see things from all sides without anyone else's help.  Worse, your ego may start taking over.  At that point, the only times anyone hears from you are when you are telling them your opinions.   Don't think it can happen?  Watch for this in the actions of others in your organization - there will be many "tellers" but only a few "listeners". 

This happens to people at all ages. Ken Lay, former Chairman of Enron was a known "teller".  And when one of his accounting VP's tried to alert him to impending disaster, he regarded her advice as being incorrect and not worthy of follow-up.  Carly Fiorina, formerly of HP, grew into a "teller"  although she was once considered an excellent listener.  In her case, even when all the trade magazines were announcing her imminent departure; she disregarded what was being said because she thought she was invaluable.  They died (career wise) with their mouths open.

On the other hand, people like the founder of Amazon, Jeff Bozos, and the founder of DIRECTV, Eddy Hartenstein, were famous for asking everyone for their thoughts and opinions.  Bozos is still there despite many forecasts that he'd fail. Hartenstein retired while still very successful as Rupert Murdoch bought that company.

So - listen up!  And be a better executive.

And don't just take my word for this.  (As a matter of fact, never take any coach's or consultant's word without checking it out further…)  Monitor those who you consider to be great leaders in action.  Then take your lead from them.    

john

SuccessCoach                                                                                                     

About

John M. McKee is the founder and CEO of BusinessSuccessCoach.net, an international consulting and coaching practice with subscribers in 43 countries. One of the founding senior executives of DIRECTV, his hands-on experience includes leading billion d...

17 comments
Dr_Zinj
Dr_Zinj

Have to agree with you on this one. Communications upchannel within an organization should aways be of a form of consolidation and summarization from the workers to the managers; with the managers actively soliciting summations from their employees. Things like: "What is the problem?", "What do you think is causing it?", "What do you suggest we do about it to fix it?" Communications downchannel should consist of directives to employees to implement their solutions, with minimal guidance. Active public praise for successful accomplishments (at each milestone, not just completion) is a must. "Refocusing" sessions should be only with those people who are having problems, and not to be broadcast to everyone. The best managers are those whose TEAMS get the job done fastest, completely, with the fewest resources, and who provide far more than the customer expected. They concentrate on developing their people, not just themselves.

marcelo_aimeta
marcelo_aimeta

In spain, there is a say that goes like this, badly translated: "the fish dies by the mouth" Ill leave it to you to interpret the deeper meanings, but one could be that keeping your mouth shut, wont get you hooked and it will keep u out of trouble. But then again, many porn star make carriers of keeping their mouths open ;) so what do I know....

dean.owen
dean.owen

Remember - there are no dumb questions! As a manager I view myself as a decision maker - not an expert in everyting within view. As a result I ask lots of questions of my technical staff. After all they are the experts, I'm just a manager. I then used the feedback to make my decisions. It always worked for me. And I was able to learn a lot about what was going on around me. Dean

IT Generalist
IT Generalist

I think it is vital to any manager's success to ask and listen to their staff; after all they are the one that are more hands-on with the IT stuff. Being a manager, your job is to guide your department, align IT to the business needs of your company and listen to your staff?s ideas and needs with full attention . By getting together at least once a month, if not twice, to discuss on-going issues, ideas and knowledge, no matter if there is anything to discuss or not, gives you the opportunity to stay in touch with your staff and make them feel important and you gain the insight upon which you can easily construct an IT success roadmap which will ultimately contribute to the overall success of your organization.

Sumjay
Sumjay

It was way back in 1985 when our company had a consultant conduct a Brain Storming exercise. This was a part of the "Leadership through Quality" program which all employees, irrespective of their job positions, had to participate at their locations across the world. Being part of junior management staff and young, we always thought we had all the answers to problems and issues within the corporation (this attitude still exists today). I forget the problem we were supposed to solve for the exercise but the surprising thing is, that the best solution for the problem came from a janitor. This was a humbling moment and my attitude changed forever. Sort of reminds me of the story of a Passenger bus stuck under a bridge and the bus driver and mechanics around stood there scratching their heads how to get the bus out. That's when a schoolboy was passing by and suggested that why don't they let the air out of the tires so the bus can be driven out from the bridge. I use this philosophy now as part of my own "Best Practices" and let the people I supervise help me to arrive at an optimum solution. I visualise the big picture but they can provide far better insight in the details. This strategy obviously works, because at one assignment where I was the acting IT Director, the CFO of a company said that I was the best IT Manager my company had ever sent to manage his site. It also reflects HP's MBWA (Management by wandering around) strategy in the 80's.

david.shane
david.shane

Both are customers because they require your service. The subordinate needs more direct service from you than THIER client.

mameenuddin.aisc
mameenuddin.aisc

I agree in totality with the way managers parry suggestions from their team members. But their is also another angle to this manager-ness/boss-ness and this particular category is usually found in people who rose from being technical resource to manager. At heart they acknowledge their sub-ordinate opinion but thrash at team meetings in most sarcastic terms, only to resurrect the same as "brillant idea to accomplish a customer requirement or task" their brain child after a few days. They copy & paste with their own cheese toping....as often seen for the past 9 years of in the IT industry. These type of people survive and make good bucks too. With these type of managers either you suck and continue to allow your initiatives to be taken away (atleast they see the light!!) or just walk on to another organization. No way you can take grudges with them!!

red8397
red8397

This article is so true. Having worked in IT for just the last 10 years, I've seen moral take a dive simply because managers didn't ask their subordinates what they thought. Instead, thinking they know 1) the what the real issue is and 2) what the best solution is -- or not wanting to look like they don't know either -- they make hasty decisions and pass the solution down for implementation....THEN they get educated by their subordinates of the ramifications of their "proposed" (more like decided) resolution. And because managers don't want to look like the fool, they force their subordinates to do the work anyway...making the subordinates look like fools in the eyes of the end-users. What fun that is. Can we say demoralized? I hope managers are listening.... Again, great article.

Why Me Worry??
Why Me Worry??

What you describe sounds like the 4 years of hell I endured when dealing with the IT managers of a large law firm, who would sign off on some widget project and then blame us engineers when we couldn't deliver on some off the wall technology that simply did not exist or would require significant development time. I'm glad I am out of that drakonion hellhole.

TheGooch1
TheGooch1

They cut corners on everything. If I ask for requirements, I get the "I need something that tells me how things are working" response. When the project is in development, they ask for access to it to use in production. Um, what else? Oh yeah, spending tons of money on something that gets orphaned and then canceled because the person who asked for it left the company. What vision...

TheGooch1
TheGooch1

At the technical level, I get asked everything, so this matches the sentiments of the article. However, the tech workers also get asked to provide a roadmap of things they wish to accomplish. Usually, you would take the "vision" or "Mission Statement" of your department, look at what projects are coming, and then decided what you need to do in order to support those goals/projects. Instead, the low-level people are asked to provide the vision, and the managers work from that to make their own plans. This bottom-up approach means that people who have a low-level view of the company wind up guiding the company, and the chance for inefficiencies and redundancies abound. If they'd just hook me up with a nice salary and a corner office, I'd guide the company all day long, but otherwise, I'd rather just design and code my applications, thank you very much.

IT Generalist
IT Generalist

I think it is vital to any manager's success to ask and listen to their staff; after all they are the one that are more hands-on with the IT stuff. Being a manager, your job is to guide your department, align IT to the business needs of your company and listen to your staff?s ideas and needs with full attention . By getting together at least once a month, if not twice, to discuss on-going issues, ideas and knowledge, no matter if there is anything to discuss or not, gives you the opportunity to stay in touch with your staff and make them feel important and you gain the insight upon which you can easily construct an IT success roadmap which will ultimately contribute to the overall success of your organization.

minda
minda

It sounds like the management of this company has wisely decided to incude IT in its strategic planning, but abdicated from the need to make any decisions about IT. We advocate both. Because of the growing importance of technology throughout every organiztion, decisions must include the IT viewpoint and IT ideas about what can and should be done, balanced with a business viewpoint about what's really most important, given the big-picture view you rightly complain you are lacking. So I agree that your company isn't doing things correctly, but, to play devil's advocate for a moment, here are two things to consider: 1. By far, most IT people complain about having too *little* decision-making power, rather than too much. 2. If you're concerned about having your job replaced by an outsourced supplier overseas, then being directly involved in helping determining the company's direction is great because strategic planning can't be outsourced. (I realize not everyone is worried about losing their job to outsourcing, so this may or may not apply to you, but it's a concern for many people.) Minda Zetlin The Geek Gap www.geekgap.com

chasbrey
chasbrey

...and thought a fool than to open one's mouth and remove all doubt." I've heard this truism early on as a child. That's not necessarily as true as it seems. My observations have led me to believe that asking questions can lead to unexpected resolutions. From my early days on the helpdesk I learned that users lie. Not intentionally, they just don't know how to express what's really happening. Leading questions help in the troubleshooting process. This same technique helps determine what the customer really wants in the new service implementation for which they are paying huge sums of money. "No, the company really doesn't need to blow the entire budget to accomplish this because we already have that functionality over here." I fully support the query method of knowledge acquisition. The most stupid question is the one not asked.

Why Me Worry??
Why Me Worry??

No user wants to admit to being that ID-Ten-T or PEBCAC user that did something so stupid that it destroyed his/her workstation or caused disruption of work to the department or the entire organization. Users will seldom be truthful because they feel ashamed of the error they have made or are arrogant and conceited in thinking that they are allowed to make stupid mistakes because helpdesk will always be there to fix it. The latter holds true in most of the cases.

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