This series is a conversation between two people — Angela Blanchard, whose decades of leadership experience has created a deep knowledge and wisdom about the world, and Mila Buckley who is learning what leadership is. Angela and Mila talk about leadership from each of their perspectives.
How many times have you been put into the position when your boss says “Hey, _____, tell me what you really think?”
Are you stunned? Are you at a loss for words? Are you thinking, “They don’t really want to know what I think…?”
I’ve always had a knee-jerk response to that question because of past experiences. In my first job out of college. My first boss ever asked me to tell her what I really thought about a project we were working on together.
“Well, I don’t think it’s effective. We haven’t done any research, we have no data to back it up, and we don’t plan to measure anything — it seems like we should approach it differently if we want to understand our outcomes.” I said.
Turns out she didn’t really want to know. “What do you think?” really meant “Say yes and carry on.”
In my current position, though, the culture is different. “What do you think?” actually means “Give me your most wild, crazy and impossible ideas.” It means “I want your brain power.” It means “I see your value, and I would love to explore it with you.”
It means you have influence.
Influence is shaping ideas, and proving that you can give life to them. It means you’re adept at collaboration. You want others to respond to you authentically, and you want them to challenge you to think deeply and honestly.
But how do you get there? How do you become influential?
To me, it’s time, and permission.
It takes time to feel like you are capable. It takes time to build your expertise. It takes time to build trust, and a rapport with the people you work with. It takes time to earn respect and share your knowledge.
But It takes someone tell you it’s okay to speak your mind. It takes someone recognizing your strengths and allowing you to harness them. It takes permission from within to say “I’m not going to hold back,” but it also takes those on a different level to say “your ideas are worth it. You should come to the table with them.”
So, when you ask your teammate to tell you what they really think, do you want their influence, or do you want someone to affirm what you’re already doing?
When I think of my first boss — well it was so long ago that I can’t remember much except how scared I was that I would be fired. Being fired was the grownup version of being sent to the principal’s office and it seemed like something you might never recover from. Since then I’ve come to understand how much fear damages performance and seek to lower fear levels whenever possible. And it’s telling for me that my thoughts about sharing ideas in the workplace start with fear. Just inviting people to share ideas is not enough. Just asking is not enough. Even appreciating is not enough.
We need more honest conversations and clarity about resources and power, creativity and teamwork. We all have roles in the organization — formal roles with assigned duties and responsibilities, allocations of resources under our control, with legal and professional authority to match. And then we have our own talents, abilities, perspectives, insights. When I am at the team table two people are there — one the CEO with all the decision making authority and power that belongs to that role and two — Angela with all my curiosity, insights and ideas. I am both “in charge” and “just another team member”.
This is challenging. I need — really need — ideas, expertise and insights from other people on my team. But I have to be clear myself and clear with my team when I am brainstorming right along with them and when what I am saying represents a decision. I feel frustration when people don’t speak up — but I also know that they aren’t sure what’s going to happen if they challenge my ‘great idea’. It’s awkward. And real. And this contributes to leadership loneliness.
There are, however, those brave team members that do speak up, toss out ideas and ‘what if’s’. They are brave enough to share and challenge ideas, and mature enough to be on board if the final decision doesn’t go their way. For me, their openness means I owe these team members information if I didn’t go the direction they pointed. I need to tell them what I saw and thought that caused me to set aside their idea or input. Because I want them there in the future. Right alongside me.
That clarity helps — understanding completely what is needed from you. It has to be authentic and not rhetorical. Ideas from the ground help to drive decisions, but also to challenge our curiosities. That’s why I love contributing now. I get that clarity, I understand the parameters.
What also helps is learning to work up the courage to be honest and embrace the challenge. There is something scary, almost like dangling your legs from the edge of a cliff, when someone in a position of power asks you for your brainpower. What if your ideas seem shallow? What if you’re not the type of person who is good on the spot? I find myself thinking these things all of the time.
Once you get past the internal voice holding you back, it’s then that you are able to contribute freely and openly. I sometimes force myself to do this. There could be awkwardness when you can’t agree, but it’s a welcome challenge. It may lead to less leadership loneliness because someone else is there with you whether you agree, or not. The end result may not be what you had anticipated, but the openness is what matters. It means that you can come back together again and re-work the process when a new idea comes up.
My bosses (I have a lot of them) are largely people I respect and admire. I go to them for counsel and advice — some of them are real heroes in my world. They’ve helped me lead for years and advocated and raised money for low-income families across the region. So I give what they say great weight.
Last year I shared very important information with one of my volunteer “bosses”. He was driving us toward action that I felt was ill-advised and one that would have a bad boomerang effect on the agency and on our team. I voiced my objections. I wrote my concerns. Right up until the arrow flew, I said, “Not going to work. Not a good time.” I was right. But, that’s no big deal. I’ve been right and I’ve been wrong. What really undid me wasn’t the fallout from the decision, wasn’t the failure of our effort — that’s business. It happens.
What undid me was the realization that this man whom I admired and respected, whose respect I believed I had earned, didn’t believe me when I told him what happened. I don’t mean he thought I lied. I mean he just didn’t believe I knew what I was talking about. He thought it was my actions that caused the decision to fail. (He now knows better.) Punched a huge hole in my confidence. For months. It caused me to reexamine all my relationships with my “bosses”. And to look more closely at assumptions I had made about their willingness to hear me when I disagreed with them. And I agonized about how I could have done things differently.
It woke me up to my own tendency to put certain people on pedestals of my own making. I began to see that when I make heroes of people, it changes how I engage with them. So, even when I am offering my advice and advocating for a course of action, when I am looking way “up” to do it, my voice may not carry as far as their ears :).