Be a Leader Who Fosters New Ideas

September 18, 2006
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Early in my career I had the good fortune to report to a leader who inspired great ideas from everyone in our department. When someone presented an idea to Dan, his ready response was, "My green light is on." And, we all knew he meant it.

He would lean forward. His eyes would twinkle. He'd tilt his head, look you in the eye, and, in a tone bordering on glee, he'd say, "So, tell me more about this idea you have." It was downright exciting to present your ideas to Dan.

He'd ask interesting questions and explore possibilities right along with you. Then, he would connect you with those who would support your developing idea, and he'd steer you away from those who were known idea killers.

Abraham Lincoln is noted to have quipped, "Forty percent of the people don't like your idea before you have it." Thank goodness Lincoln found and focused on the 60 percent that had an open mind. And, so should you.

We should be like Dan, a true leader who fostered new ideas.

DEALING WITH KNOW-IT-ALLS

In a recent column (June 19, 2006, NEWS), I made the case that personal problems may well be manifesting in your business disguised as business issues - yours and theirs. These personal and/or business issues may be infecting your business from within and without. Let's take a look at one of the business issues from my most recent column:

"My teenagers are like this. Why can't they just accept that my answer is ‘No' and move on? Our salespeople do the very same thing. They keep coming back with the same question just stated a little different way - and my answer is still ‘No'. They're just like my kids!"

It's been my experience that people who make such statements don't see themselves as idea killers at all. Instead, they often explain they have lots of experience in this area, and this idea is beyond the realm of reason and possibility, and it's a waste of everyone's valuable time to discuss it any further. Every time I hear statements such as this, I'm reminded of a leader who, with his team present, said to me, "I realize people don't like a know-it-all, but my people need to appreciate that I really do know it all."

Needless to say, I didn't witness a whole lot of appreciation at that point.

Often, the so-called know-it-alls do have a great deal of expertise and are highly competent. There is another popular point of view: know-it-alls are very unhappy and deeply insecure people. This causes them to project an air of arrogance. Either way, it's a thorny issue to be sure.

The person who presented their "good" idea often sincerely believes it is possible to overcome the challenges with creative problem solving, and is worthy of the effort because it will meet an important client's need. So what to do?

I'm often asked, "Do you use a different approach for a man versus a woman, and are the worst know-it-alls women or men?" I haven't found scientific research to document the facts one way or the other. Both exact a heavy toll on dialogue and creative problem solving in any organization.

STEPS TO TAKE

Since the know-it-all, man or woman, isn't likely to recuse himself (or herself) from judging your idea, the goal for you is to open their mind to new ideas. Here are five critical action steps:

1. Prepare your case. Know your idea inside and out. Be prepared to explain every point. Go over your plan with a colleague to discover areas that could be targets for disqualification. Plan, prepare, and practice what you will say. Be clear and to the point.

2. Attack the problem, not the person. Be very respectful as you review the points that take a hit. Swallow your pride. It's critical for him/her to hear that you grasp how intelligent and experienced they are, and you are picking up on every point that he/she makes. Everything about your body language, tone of voice, and your words must convey deep respect. They believe they are right and highly value that you fully appreciate their intelligence.

3. Anticipate the idea killers. Right up front, before you present your idea, let them know you have taken their doubts, concerns, and ambitions into your planning. If you're unsure of their specific concerns, almost all know-it-alls have these idea killers at the ready: "We don't have time" and "We can't make the changes now." So, preface your idea with, "Since we don't have time for unnecessary changes ..."

4. Consider alternate approaches. Slide your ideas in through the side door if necessary. The goal is to sound hypothetical, not challenging, such as: "I was just wondering...", "Maybe...," "What do you suppose might happen if ...?"

5. Respect their views and ego. Make them your mentor. Sincerely ask questions and learn. Remember they really do have lots of expertise. Take notes and learn everything you can from them. Be willing to tell them how much you learned, how helpful, and insightful they have been. Recognize them as the expert that they are, and you become less of a threat.

In the end, know-it-alls require lots of patience and self-control. Reflect before you speak. Blend with their ideas, doubts, and concerns. Be willing to slide new ideas in through the side door when the front door is locked or slammed in your face. Be patient and consistent in your approach and the know-it-all will start to see you in a friendly way, and will "allow" your ideas to live and even flourish.

And now, with knowledge comes responsibility. In the words of the poet Maya Angelou, "You did what you knew to do, and when you knew better, you did better." That's a good idea if ever there was one!

Publication date:09/18/2006

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