Breaking an Annoying Leadership Habit

Max (not his real name) was my new client, a CEO of a mid-sized infrastructure service provider (industry changed for privacy).

He had asked me to help him improve his leadership skills.

I agreed because he had the ‘learner’s attitude’, despite his solid experience as a respected senior leader.  He believed in continuous improvement and walked his talk.

Like all of us, Max had some habits he wanted to change.

He especially wanted to change his communication style.

Max would too often ramble on and on, expressing all his thoughts on whatever topic he was speaking about.

His people, partly out of respect for him and partly because they felt it inappropriate to ask him to stop, or to interrupt him, would let him continue to the end of his flow of thought.

This enabled Max to develop the annoying rambling habit.

Max eventually took the habit home.

It was Max’s wife who brought it to his attention, very bluntly, he told me.

“Why do you speak like that, without giving anyone a chance to contribute?” I asked.

“Because I want to make sure I cover everything.  I want the people I’m with to fully understand my reasoning,” Max said.

“Do you think they can retain all that information in one go?” I asked.

Max thought for a moment then began to answer me. After a moment I could see he had gone into a talking trance, letting his flow of thought go directly from his mind to his mouth.

I deliberately coughed and politely raised my hand to my mouth.  Max stopped.

Doing the cough and hand to mouth ‘pattern interrupt’ is politer than putting my hand up to halt him.

“OK,” I said, “What just happened?”

Max thought for a moment then gave a sheepish grin, “Yes, I see.”

“Max, when you are talking, what are you learning in that moment?” I asked.

Silence. Then, “Nothing, I’m talking about what I already know.”

I asked, “What’s more important – that you remind yourself of what you already know or discover what your people think and know?”

Max nodded, “Obviously the latter.”

I asked, “So what’s the best way of discovering that?”

“Asking and listening,” Max replied.

“Yes, there’s power in asking, wisdom in listening and only force in telling, don’t you think?” I offered.

Max nodded again, “Yes, I get it.”

Over the next three months Max made a deep change in his habit of communicating.

He observed, asked, listened and asked again.

He reserved his telling only for when it really mattered, urgencies, which weren’t that frequent.

Max noticed a higher level of engagement and greater input from staff and higher productivity.

So much depends on the leader’s style of communication.

What are your thoughts and experiences about this topic?

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