Leaders Are…Challengers

“Sometimes we need a little push”

In our “Leaders Are…” series, we’ve covered trusting, curious, coaches, and are self-aware. It’s also important to challenge. Leaders that challenge their team often report better business results.
I believe in the importance of having challengers in our lives.

In my book, Pivot Point, I talk about having a Career Game Plan team. The idea is that we have a team around us to celebrate with, mentor us, and advise and coach us to success. A distinct role is the challenger. They actively listen, give feedback, and challenge assumptions.

Actively listen

A critical first step to effectively challenging, is listening. People love to be heard. A leadership great, Stephen Covey, coined the phrase, “seek first to understand, then to be understood”. When we first listen, we are far more capable of an effective challenge. That’s because we leverage the facts and perceptions of the person to help support the challenge. Leaders that do this well, ask the powerful “what” and “how” questions, while pausing to really listen to what is being said. Then, they playback a few key tidbits to ensure understanding, before laying out a challenge that builds off of what was said.

The most important skill in active listening is being quiet. Yes, actually listen. Good open-ended questions elicit deep thought, and waiting the seven seconds for people to really think about what they want to say is pivotal. I count to myself; I look directly at the person, and patiently wait for them to answer. If I have asked a challenging question, they will need time to think about the response. Following a discussion, reflect back on the discussion and estimate the time we spent talking versus the other person. If the team member spoke more than 50% of the time, we’re listening well. I often am complimented on my speaking ability. What’s interesting to me is that I usually speak less than 50% of the time. I listen and ask challenging follow-up questions based on what I heard. I find that leaders resist doing this because we believe our job is to provide direction and know the answers, and active listening feels like we are not doing our job. Flip that expectation to “my job is to listen,” and it gets a lot easier. Think of one of your favorite leaders. How well did they listen? That’s likely one of the reasons you value them as a leader.

Give feedback

I wrote a blog earlier this year called, “Feedback IS a Gift.” It outlines the recipe for good feedback. Feedback done well cites specific, tangible details, is done immediately following an event, and leads to development. Since then, I have gotten feedback from leaders that this must be modeled for the team. Good leaders ask for feedback by saying something as simple as, “What feedback do you have for me about X?” in their one-on-ones or immediately following an event. It promotes a culture of feedback where others do the same. It’s contagious.

The best feedback is done constantly, not just at performance review time. If we are part of a larger team with hectic schedules, make it a norm to schedule time to talk about what went well, and what could have gone better, but make it as close as possible to the event. Once leaders begin doing this with their teams, they often notice the more frequent this happens, the more normal it becomes, and the less emotional the reactions are.

Challenge assumptions

Often, challenges are best done through questions. One of my favorites is the simple, “what else?” It makes people think. What happens when we ask, “Anything else?” Very few responses. “What else?” generates a much richer discussion.

Active listening, paired with feedback, earns us the ability to challenge. We’ve paid attention, provided some perspective through feedback, and gotten our team member to a deeper level of thinking. So, when we hear excuses like “I have never done that”, or false assumptions like “I do not have the skills to succeed in that role,” we challenge. First, we playback the evidence from the team member themselves that challenges their excuse or assumptions. Then, we ask thought-provoking questions like “what have you done that is similar?” or “based on what?” or a real zinger, “what is the worst that can happen?” People’s eyes widen when they realize how their own self-created excuses and assumptions have prevented them from being successful. Self-discovery will motivate them to overcome the excuse or let go of the assumption, and move forward.

Great leaders actively listen, give feedback, and challenge assumptions. How will you challenge?

Next time, we will explore “Leaders Are…Influential”. The series will continue with “Leaders Are…” celebrators, developers, accountable, and visionaries.