“I don’t trust you!” And, “I certainly don’t value your opinion!”
Would you communicate that message to one of your vital team members, who you rely upon to make your organization succeed? Of course not, neither would I. At least, that is what I thought, until Jim came storming into my office, red in the face, pounding his fist on my desk and demanding “why do you always do that to Tom?”
My confrontation with Jim ultimately changed my leadership approach with regard to how I conduct meetings, though it took weeks for his lesson to become clear. While I attended one of the best business schools and ultimately, with my team, built one of the ten largest companies in our industry, it took me years (and a figurative “gut punch” from Jim) to learn how to conduct a truly effective meeting.
Darrell Cavens, co-founder and CEO of Zulily, the disruptive, highly successful on-line retailer recently acquired by QVC, shared a similar journey, recanting a performance review during his early career when his boss said “you’re clearly one of the smartest guys in the room, but you’d be able to get so much more done if you’d just shut up from time to time and listen to what other people have to say.” This challenged Cavens to check his early career approach toward conducting meetings at the door, ultimately learning to foster the types of meetings that best advanced the needs his organization.
“Hugh, do what” I replied to Jim, stunned that my COO was so enraged and glaring at me from across my desk.
“You always do that, cut him off in mid-sentence. If you keep this up we are going to lose Tom and we need him. He is vital to our success.” Jim went on, “When you interrupt him like that, he feels like his opinions don’t matter, like he is a second-class member of our team. Do you want to drive him out of here? Because that is exactly where your interruptions will drive Tom- out the door!”
I was in shock. However, I did not lack confidence. After all, we had just raised $211 million in expansion capital, described by The Oregonian newspaper as the largest private financing in Oregon history. This capital raise landed several prominent, nationally recognized investors on my board. I was laser focused on retaining their confidence and, up to that point Tom’s behavior in these board meetings worried me.
Tom tended to answer questions from our investors with highly technical, long-winded, engineered answers. He was incredibly smart and had the confidence of the entire executive team. Yet, I often squirmed in my seat as I watched the eyes of my board members glaze over. “Come on Tom,” I thought to myself- “these are finance people, just explain that we have addressed their concern and why their capital is not at risk.”
As the CEO I set the board agenda and it was my job to manage the flow, insuring we covered the topics I felt were most important. I felt I could not afford one of Tom’s long, technical detours. Besides, I have a technical background and, after cutting Tom short, I provided our investors with perfectly acceptable answers.
So what’s the problem and why would someone so critical as Tom be looking to leave? We had a winning strategy, we were growing rapidly, we had just completed the largest private financing in Oregon history and we were the envy of our competitors. Who would walk away from that career opportunity?
Tom would, and he was one of our most critical officers.
Thanks to Jim’s figurative gut punch, I eventually realized that interrupting Tom fed my need to be the smartest guy in the room. Once I learned to shut up and encourage Tom, he grew into an effective leader and drove constructive dialogue throughout the company, and in those board meetings.
Darrell Cavens describes this type of high-functioning meeting culture- “there’s a respect for ideas that’s hard to get if you run over the conversation,” he said. “I think … folks have been extremely loyal because I truly care about their thoughts. People open up so much more when you sometimes sit on your hands and keep your mouth shut.”
My ego need to be the smartest person in the room conflicted with my desire to create an organizational culture that fostered candid debate, where every participant felt welcome, knowing that their perspective was valued. The meetings later in my career, when debates raged and innovative opinions flourished often became fun, providing opportunities to discover the best in each other, while fostering personal growth.
This notion of rewarding our selfish ego needs at the expense of the goals of the organization is the core tenant of Fusion Leadership. Fusion Leaders obsess over how to “fuse” their teams together in service of a shared Mission or Cause. They understand that behaving in ways that evidence their commitment to the Mission allows others on their team to connect to the Mission. Conversely, if the leader evidences behavior that rewards their selfish interests (like needing to be the smartest person in the room) they communicate the deflating message that they are more committed to themselves than they are the organization’s Mission. That message will drive people away from the organization.
Become an active listener. Ask probing questions. Assign an agenda topic to one of the quieter members on your team. As Darrel Cavens would say “learn to shut up”, giving others permission to debate and innovate. And, most importantly, evidence your commitment to the Mission. These meeting behaviors helped catapult Zulily and my company toward great success and they will serve your organization as well.