Stop depriving me of your insight!

“When I was at McKinsey”

My first two projects at McKinsey (studies as we called them) were with the same partner, Jon. Jon is a solid guy and a very skilled advisor. This post isn’t about Jon.

(During my time at McKinsey, I learned a lot. Ask anyone who’s worked with me and they’ve probably heard me ramble on about a tool or framework that was introduced to me while I was there. In fact, I often say that there are probably about 5 frameworks that I apply to almost everything that I do. These frameworks generally deal with trust, influence, problem solving… Ok this post isn’t about that either. But it’s about one lesson I learned on my second real study.)

For whatever reason, I remember quite distinctly the first piece of feedback or coaching I received from Jon on each of these efforts.

The first was on the first day of my first study where I was listening to what seemed to me like a bunch of gibberish about the ethanol markets. He turned to me and rather rudely made the sign of a pencil writing in the air. I was a bit embarrassed. But I learned very quickly that you have your pen and notebook with you at all times and you take notes. At a place like McKinsey this is critically important… Especially given my role as the most junior member of the team. Still today I rarely travel anywhere without these things. While the interaction was awkward, I learned a lot. And I also learned that Jon wasn’t trying to be mean. It was urgency he was displaying. :)

The second piece of feedback was about a week into our next study where we were helping a struggling automaker strip costs out of its operation — top to bottom.

Baseball analogy FTW

In our first regular feedback session (these were part of how we worked, constant feedback) Jon said to me, “Alex, this isn’t about hitting homers. You need to hit for average. Take some swings because we need you on base, not looking for the best pitch.”

What Jon had been observing, as he explained, was that I was saying very little in client meetings. What I said was groundbreaking (ok, he didn’t say that, but let’s just say it was) but it wasn’t enough. The effect it had on these demanding clients was that they worried that I wasn’t delivering the amount of value they’d expect.

At first blush this seems ridiculous: measuring my contribution by soundbites in meetings? But as I reflected and put myself in my client’s shoes, it was fair. It wasn’t on them to find my value — they had enough going on — it was on me to provide some signals that I was, at minimum, worth the high fees McKinsey charged its clients.

This participation could take many forms:

  • presenting facts that I’d gathered
  • participating in the friendly banter
  • restating what I heard to ensure understanding
  • sharing hypotheses
  • providing feedback on their work
  • stepping up to the whiteboard to collaboratively probelm-solve
  • … the list can go on without much thought

Jon and I discussed what might be resulting in me holding back as I wasn’t a shy person. And as we chatted it came clear to me that I was self-censoring. My bar for my own comments was too high… and was resulting in building a perception that was the opposite of what I had intended.

This happens. All. The. Time.

I’ve coached countless colleagues on this same thing. Far too often it’s falls along gender lines. (I’ll let you form your own hypothesis and perhaps this is for another post for another time).

Stop depriving ME of your insight!

Let’s make this about me. My biggest issue with you holding back is that I’m missing out on something great! I suspect your “bar” is too high. You’re waiting to say something that is clearly lacking from the conversation and isn’t repetitive.

Your comment could fall into the following categories without even being amazingly insightful and still add value:

  • emphasizing something specific that someone else brushed over
  • repeating something important that many didn’t seem to hear
  • illustrating that you’re tracking with the conversation by tying conversation threads together
  • … (see my list above)

More often than not, the following is true after you’ve chimed in:

  • you’ve added more facts to bolster the argument
  • you’ve reframed the point so that it makes more sense
  • you’ve actually tweaked an idea that changes it fundamentally or at least in the minds of your colleagues, inadvertently opening up meaningful opportunities

And the benefits are easy to see:

  • you’re in the mix, and seen as a contributor
  • you’re supporting your colleagues
  • you’re adding ideas
  • you’re getting better at speaking up (ok, I realize this may not drive you)
I will always maintain that the biggest risk is not saying something that is a unique idea that perhaps with some discussion with your colleagues even meets your high bar.

Why are you so freakin’ quiet?

We can opine endlessly about why people don’t speak up. Some theories:

  • you’re judging others useless commentary and don’t want to be grouped similarly (you won’t)
  • your idea doesn’t appear very good (that’s fine we can all build on it)
  • you’re not senior enough (it’s 2016 and if that’s a legitimate reason where you work then you should probably find a new job, seriously)

A practical tip

Take that pen and paper that you’re using to take feverish notes (thanks, Jon) and write down what you have decided not to say. Assess it quickly and unless it 1. will offend someone, 2. is clearly not a topic for that meeting or 3. will cause you to be thrown out of the building, say it. Release it to the world.

You’re here for a reason and it’s not just to sit there silently.

Worst case you’ve prattled on and added nothing new. But best case you’ve gotten on base… And now you’ll have a higher likelihood of scoring a run for the team.

So what happened after I spoke up?

I spoke up more. Bonded with the clients. Became a “go-to” team member. And eventually they duct-taped me to a chair. We’re all still in touch and I the statute of limitations passed a long time ago.

A little hygiene

Please note, I’m not advocating talking endlessly. But if you’re one of those who tends to self censor — STOP! We need you and your bad idea.

I am not a baseball expert despite my undying love for the 2004 Red Sox. Please excuse any misstated claims about on-base-percentage and PEDs.

Another post written on the train. Please forgive any grammar errors.