I keep this little card on my desk as a reminder. It was a gift from a former employee of mine who, I hope, intended it as a bit of a joke. The rumor is that I can be a bit of a curmudgeon and it was intended to inform people approaching my desk of that fact and alert them to my preference for silence. The card represents a fond memory of a great team, but is also a good reminder of an important leadership characteristic that we all need to be reminded of from time to time. As leaders, we need to stop talking.
Early in my career as a professional services consultant, I learned the hard way about the benefit of practicing active listening. Like many young professional service consultants, I made the mistake of making up for my own insecurity by talking more. In my earnestness to impress clients, and to make up for my lack of experience and feelings of being an imposter, I jumped in to answer questions before they were fully asked. I over explained simple concepts and generally just talked too much. After a long meeting, I would sometimes ask myself, what was I even talking about? It was an awkward phase of my career because I am normally reserved, and talking too much didn’t suit me. I needed to stop talking.
After many years as a professional services consultant and customer success manger, and after much “constructive” feedback from clients and leaders, I learned the hard lesson that many successful consultants come to learn, and made the shift to listening more than I talked. Not just listening but active listening, building on other people’s ideas and engaging them in a way that gets them talking and owning the conversation. It has taken years of practice, and a little card on my desk as a reminder, to stop talking.
There are a lot of things that we need to learn, or re-learn, when we make the shift from individual contributor to manager and eventually to leaders. I think one of the ways to start making the shift from manager to leader is to simply stop talking. Like a consultant to your team, it is important to practice active listening, to engage in the art of leading a constructive conversation without dominating it. It is important to inspire and challenge your team without personally controlling the conversations that translate your vision to action. The difference between a manager and a leader might just be that leaders know when to stop talking.
Experienced consultants and leaders know that great things happen when they stop talking. The awkward silences, the gaps in the conversation, the vacuum that is created when a meeting room goes silent is not something to be feared; it is an opportunity. It is not a problem to be solved with your own ideas, opinions or noise, but an opportunity for others to emerge. Individuals will be challenged to step up, speak up and contribute their ideas. Individuals who are typically more reserved, the introverts, the marginalized, will feel the pressure to engage. They will feel the space to engage and, if the leader is doing their job right, the support and genuine encouragement to contribute. Out of the silence new leaders can emerge, out of the silence innovative ideas can emerge, out of the silence we can all learn something. But first, leaders need to stop talking.