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The Executive Coaching Corner:  Now in Session

May 22, 2012: Let Your Team Make Decisions

When Alex and I were debriefing his 360 feedback report, a common theme emerged around decision making.  Several members of his executive team were quite vocal about his tendency to take away their authority to make decisions. They claimed that if a team member couldn't make a decision fast enough Alex would make it for them so the project could move forward.  Or, if their decisions were not in line with his thinking, Alex  would override their decisions.  Needless to say, team members felt thwarted and were frustrated.

When Alex and I discussed this, Alex plead "mea culpa."  He agreed that his lack of patience and sense of urgency interfered with his ability to allow them to formulate and carry out their own decisions. I thought there might be more going on.  The following conversation took place during our coaching session:

Alex I've been thinking about the whole "taking over the team's decision" thing that showed up in my 360.  While I recognize that they should be making the decisions, we are under so much pressure here.  We've experienced a tough quarter last quarter and we needed to make some critical decisions.  They weren't coming through quickly enough, so I had to make some of those decisions for them.
Elizabeth How did your making the decision affect the company?
Alex We got back on track.
Elizabeth Will this impact be short-term or long term?
Alex Short term
Elizabeth What would you like to happen the next time critical decisions have to be made?
Alex I'd like to rely on the team.  It seems that half my team members  have no problem with this. Others are less skilled.
Elizabeth Many executives, when they are promoted to the head of a company have a hard time letting go of the reins.  The fact is, as president of the company, your job now is primarily strategic--mainly to steer the company in the right direction.  You also have a responsibility to insure the development of  your team, so they can keep on course and execute.  How are you working toward that end? 
Alex I guess a great deal of the time I am trying to  steer and crew at that the same time to take up the slack for my less skilled members.  Frankly it's exhausting.  I'm not sure how to develop them so they can be more effective.  Truthfully, I'm disappointed in myself and wondering if I really can lead this company.
Elizabeth Your feelings are not uncommon. This transition requires a change in your approach.  Change can be challenging. What do you think is your biggest roadblock.
Alex My own mind. After reading assignment you gave me from  Quiet Leadership,  I realized that I don't really listen.  A team member will come in here and start talking and I get two or three data points and my "mind map" immediately goes to another place and I'm in solution mode. I simply stop listening. Instead of helping them think through the issue,  I shut them down and decide that my solution is the best.  I realize now that I've been very selfish with this approach. 
Elizabeth Selfish is a bit drastic--what's happening to you is a natural brain function. Everyone has their own mind maps and what's going on in your brain happens automatically because the brain likes to make connections to things it already knows.  This can be good and bad.  Good because it helps you relate things, bad because it can keep you from shifting your paradigm.  You, however, have the ability to control this and decide that you aren't going to go there.  Instead, you can direct yourself to set your thoughts aside and fully listen before making an assessment.  What is often surprising is that a team member may offer you a fresh perspective you haven't considered if you simply allow it.
Alex I see your point, but as they are talking and I make a connection, I'm afraid I'll lose the thought, so I go there.
Elizabeth What can you do to store the thought and remain listening?
Alex I guess I could jot down a brief note to jog me if I feel a need to bring it up.
Elizabeth You can.  It is important to stay as present as possible with the person.
Alex The problem is that they often come up with a solution that we've tried before or I know won't work.  My tendency is to stop them because I am impatient and want to move toward something that will work.
Elizabeth How would like it if someone cut you off like that?
Alex I wouldn't.
Elizabeth And if you were continually shut down, how likely would you offer new ideas in the future?
Alex Not very.  I'd be pissed.
Elizabeth Are you open to a suggestion about how to move them in the right direction and still preserve their motivation?
Alex Yes, of course
Elizabeth When they come up with something you have tried before or you think won't work, say, "That's an interesting approach.  Walk me through the process from start to finish as to how that would work." 
Alex So, that helps them think through their solution and identify if there are flaws in their thinking.
Elizabeth Yes, and you can continue to ask questions to guide them.
Alex So they can feel as though they've been heard without being punished
Elizabeth Correct...and you are helping them understand what you are looking for by the types of questions you ask.  Each time they will improve before they come to you with solutions because they will start to go through this process on their own.  Subconsciously they will say, "Now what would Alex ask me?" and be better prepared to respond.
Alex Which will ultimately save me time and aggravation because they will become better thinkers. 
Elizabeth Bingo!  That is your job.  To help them become better thinkers.  Which now begs the question... what will you do with the extra time you have on your hands once you help them become better thinkers.

Key Points: 

Mind mapping is a double edged sword.  While Alex's rich source of mind maps allows him to make quick connections, it is mapped differently than his team members, which prevented him from  fully listening to their ideas.  Once Alex became aware of what was going on in his brain, he was able to see how he was doing a disservice to himself and his team members.  He now  realizes his real job is to help THEM become better thinkers.

For additional one to two-minute sessions on other topics,  go to the Executive Coaching Corner Archive.