Why Leaders Should De-Brief
There is a lot of evidence available to support the wisdom and value of investing necessary time, effort and energy in the pre-planning of any worthwhile task or activity. Pausing long enough to consciously and thoroughly think through the process, including the anticipation of required steps, phases and alternatives, can ultimately mean the difference between success and failure in any endeavor.
In fact, it has been suggested by time management gurus that for every unit of time (i.e., minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, etc.) spent in planning a particular activity, upwards of four times that amount of time can be expected to be saved during the implementation phase of those plans. In other words, if we spend a measly fifteen minutes poring over atlases and maps, carefully predetermining our vacation driving route through unfamiliar terrain, we can reasonably expect to save an hour or more that might otherwise have been lost due to road construction and congestion, wrong turns, dead ends and having to stop to ask for directions. For those of us who, so far, have refused to surrender our pioneer spirit by becoming GPS-dependent (is it just me and my Kentucky/Daniel Boone roots or what?), such focused pre-planning serves as a key ingredient in a more enjoyable journey.
I was in the midst of developing and presenting a months-long, comprehensive leadership and customer service training initiative for the management team of the Ocala (FL) Police Department, when I received an unsolicited call from Captain Jack Suess (pronounced “cease”). The call went something like this:
Capt. Suess: “Phil, I’ve been talking with the Chief about the training you’re leading for our agency. We were thinking that since you’ve never worked as a cop that you might be interested in seeing how law enforcement really works from the inside out. Understanding what we really do might be helpful to you in offering unique perspectives and even additional applications for the training concepts you’re sharing with us.”
Van Hooser: “I certainly would be interested. What do you have in mind?”
Capt. Suess: “We’re in the final stages of an investigation that has been underway for several weeks. Our undercover people have surveillance information concerning two juveniles and a known convicted felon who we know to be actively selling crack cocaine out of one of the public housing complexes. These guys are known to be armed and dangerous. They are also street smart and unpredictable. It’s critical that we get them off the streets before they hurt someone. We’re in the final planning stages of a S.W.A.T. operation that is scheduled to take place tomorrow night. Would you like to ride along with me as an observer?”
My pulse quickened at Capt. Suess’ suggestion. Was it fear, trepidation, uncertainty? I didn’t really know and there wasn’t much time to figure it all out. Having to real idea of what I was getting myself into, I heard myself ask meekly…
Van Hooser: “Are you sure I won’t be in the way?”
Capt. Suess: “Absolutely not! We will be glad to have you along. And don’t worry, you will be perfectly safe.”
Van Hooser: “Worried? Do I seem worried?” I asked, as I laughed nervously.
As scheduled, the following day at noon I arrived at the Ocala Police Department headquarters where I found Capt. Suess waiting. I was quickly ushered into a briefing that was already underway. In the room were a dozen or more uniformed officers, two plain clothes officers–a policeman and policewoman, a representative from the State Attorney’s office and the Chief of Police himself.
For the next 45 minutes or so, I listened as the group discussed detailed plans for apprehending the suspects. They carefully evaluated the intelligence they had and matched that intelligence with the best time, place and manner to make the arrests. Significant time and attention was spent considering the safest and most efficient approach for all concerned–the officers, the local residents, potential bystanders, even the suspects themselves.
As I watched and listened intently to the goings-on in front of me, I had to remind myself that this was not some sort of reality show. It was no show at all. It was reality! In front of me were professionals of the highest order, in the midst of planning and strategizing how to do a difficult job assigned them in the most judicious manner.
Once the meeting adjourned, I headed out to the driving range with my host where I watched the group practice rolling stops and vehicle evacuations. Every stop was timed and rated. No detail was too minor for consideration.
The balance of that afternoon and evening was spent in equally impressive practice and careful preparation for the planned activities of the evening ahead. It was an amazing experience to be a part of.
Finally, by 10:00 p.m.–a full 10 hours after I had joined the planning process–everyone and everything was in place. I won’t attempt to provide a blow-by-blow description of the events of the evening. Once the action started there were screeching tires, screaming sirens, shouts and arrests–luckily, there were no shots fired. Simply put, the plan was initiated and the intended arrests were made. From an organizational standpoint, the plan worked and the bad guys were soon behind bars.
I must admit, it was an exhilarating experience, one I won’t soon forget. However, I must also admit that as we drove back into the police department parking lot at about 11:30 p.m., I was more than ready to call it a day. As I exited the patrol car, I stepped around and extended my hand to Capt. Suess. He just looked at me.
“Thank you for including me in all this. It’s been a very valuable day for me. I’ve learned a lot,” I said.
“You’re not free to go just yet,” Capt. Suess said matter-of-factly, without accepting my hand. “We still have the operation de-brief to attend to. Follow me,” he said, as he turned and headed for the administration building. My options being limited, I did as I was told.
I followed Capt. Suess back into the briefing room where the day had started for me almost 12 hours earlier. There we found most of the officers who had been engaged in the operation of the evening, already assembled. For the next 20 minutes or so, I listened to the roundtable conversation as it centered on specific answers to a handful of questions.
As I listened intently to the discussion around me, a professional reality soon settled over me. I realized that I had worked as a manager in corporate America for the better part of 10 years. I had been engaged in the planning and implementation of innumerable plans and projects during that period of time. However, in that briefing room on that evening I realized for the first time that I had never before been involved in any sort of de-briefing AFTER the operation had been concluded. As interesting as the previous 11+ hours had been, those last few minutes provided me the tidbit that would allow me to be a better leader and communicator from that point forward.
That night I learned the power of the de-brief. Since that night I have been sharing the lessons I learned there with my management audiences by way of 6 questions. Consider these 6 questions carefully. First, ask yourself how often you have used each in the past. Second, ask yourself how valuable they might be should you start using them now. Of course, to yield positive benefit each question needs to be asked openly, answered honestly and acted upon accordingly.
The 6 questions are:
- What did we do well?
- What did we do poorly?
- Who should be acknowledged publicly for their superior performance?
- Who should be redirected privately for their sub-par performance?
- What have we learned from this operation?
- What should we change before the next one?
We all recognize the power that resides in proper planning. But, as has been said before by others, feedback is the breakfast of champions.
Back in 2005, I read an article in FORTUNE (June 25, 2005) by Geoffrey Colvin. It was entitled, “The Wisdom of Dumb Questions.” The title caught my attention. In the article, Mr. Colvin surmised that “dumb questions lead to smart decisions…” and that a dumb question can “…cut to the heart of the matter, posing a blunt challenge to someone or something–an authority, a policy, the established order. It can make people uncomfortable.”
That made sense to me and I started thinking: What dumb questions should I be asking that might lead me to smarter leadership decisions? I thought you might be interested in some of the “dumb” questions I now suggest proactive leaders consider asking with great regularity.
Dumb Questions Smart Leaders Ask
Dumb Question #1: How am I doing?
This question was made popular by former Mayor Ed Koch. During his term of service to the City of New York, Koch was renowned for stopping average New Yorkers on the street and asking them this, his favorite dumb question. Why would he do such a thing? I think he realized how easy it is for leaders to become isolated, even insulated from the very people they are entrusted to lead. If he didn’t ask the regular “Joes” and “Janes,” his only other alternative would be to trust the opinions of his advisors–most of whom were even farther removed from the man and woman on the street than he.
Dumb Question #2: What have we screwed up lately?
All of us enjoy having rose petals strewn before us. In other words, we like to hear people bragging and commenting on all the great things we have done and are doing. But what do those kinds of accolades really teach us? Not much, I’m afraid. Praise is great for ego boosting, but rather worthless when it comes to building a foundation for continual improvement. Mistakes, errors, miscalculations, screw ups–those are the things that can really teach us something. Admit it; haven’t you learned more from your mistakes over the years than you have from your successes? Well then, why not spend some focused time seeking out areas where we seem to be chronically screwing up, in order to shine a bright light on those areas as we begin to repair them.
Dumb Question #3: What should we be doing better?
Maybe you really are doing a great job and people are honestly struggling to find concrete answers to your Dumb Question #2. Congratulations! You must be doing something right as a leader. Keep it up. But never forget that some wise person once said that “good is the enemy of great.” And it is. There’s always room for improvement and improvement should be our never-ending quest–to be great at what we do and how we lead. Therefore go out and ask your constituencies — the employees, customers, colleagues, partners that make up your professional existence — what they would like to see done at a better, higher, more sophisticated level. Their answers may prove to shake the comfort zones you have allowed to form around you. But their answers may also serve as the catalysts and motivation to jumpstart heightened levels of performance.
Dumb Question #4: What would you like for me to do about that?
This may be the dumbest question of all and yet the smartest one you can ask. Everyone has an opinion. And even the lowliest of employee is known to openly and freely share opinions with fellow workers, family members, neighbors, even innocent bystanders waiting patiently in the grocery store checkout line–everyone, that is, but you, their leader. Possibly the smartest thing a leader can do is to actively seek out the personal, specific opinions of others. Don’t be afraid to ask them Dumb Question #4, then shut up and listen. It’s nothing short of amazing what they might tell you–in startling detail. The chances are stacked in your favor that you will learn something from the conversation. And don’t worry; I know you’re thinking–what about the worst case scenario? What if they share suggestions that are unrealistic, unworkable and impossible? What then? My advice is to tell them so. In an honest, open manner, tell them what won’t work AND why. Most of the people we work with are reasonable people. If it truly is unworkable, based on your complete explanation, they will understand. And for those who just refuse to understand, at least they can never say you didn’t make the effort to explain things to them.
Here’s How It’s Done
Now that we’ve covered four dumb questions any leader can ask, maybe I should tell you how it’s done best.
1. Don’t label your question as a dumb one before you ask it. The fact that you have the courage to ask the obvious questions may actually make you look brilliant in the eyes of others. It worked for Socrates: after all “What is virtue?”
2. Don’t apologize for asking the question. Don’t dilly-dally. Don’t tip-toe around the question until it has lost its power, its uumph. Just step up and ask it. And ask it with sincerity and an open mind.
3. Don’t worry about what the answer to the question might be. You can’t predict nor control the future–the answer will be what it is. You can begin to deal with it once it has shown itself.
4. Don’t be intimidated if people don’t immediately offer a response to your question. Be patient. Let them process the question appropriately. After all, this may be the very first time their leader ever asked a dumb question–on purpose, at least.
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How many times in your role as leader have you experienced a clashing of attitudes or ideas with one of your followers or even another employee? How often are you called in to mediate or resolve situations where people just don’t see eye to eye on an issue? It happens frequently, doesn’t it? And if you’re like most people, you find these situations uncomfortable and full of emotional minefields.
As leaders, we recognize that problems like these need to be addressed, but so many of us hate and therefore avoid the confrontation we know needs to take place. We say things like, “this will only make matters worse.” “I’m not sure I can control my emotions.” “Maybe if I give it some time, the issue will resolve itself.” Do any of these sound familiar? Probably so. Unfortunately, it is at best, wishful thinking.
Knowing how to successfully manage a confrontation is a skill that all leaders need in their toolkit. If you’ve been avoiding confrontation for fear of doing more harm than good, consider equipping yourself with these techniques for managing the situation effectively.
How to Manage a Confrontation
1. Prepare yourself in advance. Clearly determine the cause for the confrontation. Are you addressing a performance issue, an unacceptable attitude or perhaps a safety issue? Also determine the purpose or the goal for the confrontation. What do you want the confrontation to achieve? How do you want to be perceived after the confrontation? With these answers in mind, it will be easier to stay on target during the confrontation.
2. Do not procrastinate if a confrontation is necessary. Many leaders try to convince themselves that the problem with work itself out or dissipate if left alone. Putting off what needs to be addressed allows more time for emotions to grow and frustrations to fester. The reality is that bad news does not get better with time.
3. Avoid extreme emotional involvement. Never initiate a confrontation when you are emotionally charged. This is difficult, but that is why preparing yourself in advance is so important.
4. Choose carefully the time and place for the confrontation. Go behind closed doors if possible. Confrontation in front of an audience invites embarrassment and offers undue opportunities for “emotional performances.” Consider timing the confrontation at the end of the work day. This gives the other person an easy exit for cooling off and considering the issue.
5. Work to determine the other person’s driving needs. Try to evaluate the issue from their vantage point.
6. Willing accept some measure of responsibility for the situation – admit fault if you are to blame in part or in total.
7. Allow the other person time to vent. Remember, you have had the advantage of sorting through your emotions before initiating this confrontation. Give the other person the same opportunity.
8. Zero in on the problem, not the person. Positive confrontation focuses on the problem. Negative confrontation focuses on the person. Frame the conversation in terms of specific expectations for future performance. Encourage feedback regarding alternative solutions or approaches for managing the issue.
You may not find a solution immediately. You may never completely agree on the issue. But a leader’s responsibility is to address difficult issues and ensure steps are taken to work toward a mutually agreeable solution. It’s hard work – and something that leaders ought to know.
In a recent conversation with Mike McCarty, President & CEO of Helena Chemical Company, I asked Mike what skills leaders must possess to be effective today.
Phil: Tell me, from your perspective in developing leaders, what are the key elements, one, two, three, top one, top two, top three things that you think a leader, regardless of the industry, but a leader needs to be able to do today that may have been different five or ten years ago and may be different five years from now?
Mike: Yes, again, good question. Obviously, when you look at that of a leader, you need to be qualified to move into a position form a technical standpoint or a knowledgeable standpoint. I think the key, the higher up you move into the management role of the organization, the greater your people skills need to be. Again, I’m a little biased because as I’ve said many times, I think the agricultural industry is so relationship-oriented, but again, you cannot lose sight of the people side of the business and to be an effective leader today, you have to have superior people skills. If you could manage people…because the earlier question, you said what was the bigger challenge and I said it was people.
People drive our industry. People drive any industry in business, so I try to encourage people to…and that’s one of the questions I ask when you move into a role – how have you been at managing people? How do you communicate to people? We’re going to have a lot of people up underneath these managers that have the technical expertise, the knowledge base, to do the daily job, but when you become a senior level, whether it’s a Vice President, Division Manager or Senior Manager, it’s people skills. So that would be the number one trait. Obviously, there’s many other things that go into the qualifications to move into a job, but it’s people skills.
Phil: Well, let me take that broad based question and ask it in a more direct and more personal standpoint. You mentioned to the group earlier that you’d been with the company – I think you said – thirty-two years?
Mike: Thirty-two years.
Phil: Thirty-two years, same company, young man, started early in your career and here you are in the middle part of your career. Maybe even approaching the latter stages of your career or getting closer there, what do you going from a salesman in the business to now the CEO suite, what did you attribute, again, the top one, two, three things for you personally? What is it that you learned that brought you from where you were to where you are today?
Mike: Okay, let me sum this up and I’ll kind of worked backwards. You have to trust other people in the company and let me say what I mean by that. When you’re first promoted into a management position and you’re usually coming out of a field, you tend to be much more hands-on because that’s how you’re successful being a sales rep or a branch manager is you move into manager roles. You have many, now, different people working for you. Initially, most people take the same approach of being very hands-on because that’s the way they’ve been successful when in many times you have to back away.
You have to learn how to delegate and you have to learn how to communicate. That gets back a little bit to what I said earlier about the people skills. How do you communicate with people? How do you delegate with people and not be where, I’ve always said, where people feel that you’re looking over their shoulder. If you can do that and create that team concept and support people rather than being the doer, then it works well. I had to learn that the hard way. I mean I was very young when I got the opportunity to become President. I was forty years old.
Phil: Forty years old, wow.
Mike: I was forty years old, was offered the opportunity to be Helena, very grateful, but I was inheriting, at that time, about a billion dollar company and I was forty years old. Many people asked me, “What did you do to prepare?” Well, there was no preparation.
I told them I would do it because I had enough confidence, when you’re younger. I said, “Look, I’m going to try this and I think I can do it.” Did you have formal training? No. I told people I came out of the field. I was a salesman at heart. I loved dealing with people and I had a desire to succeed. I wanted to succeed. There were a lot of things that drive you and you just say, “Okay, I’m going to do that.” Then you learn, so I kind of learned on the job, so to speak, and I’ve been in the job now for sixteen years. So when I first took it, I said, “Well, we’ll see how long this will last,” because you don’t really know when you’re a forty year old and you take over a company. How long are you going to be able to get along with your shareholders and your stakeholders in the company, but you learn by that and I’ve learned a lot.
Now, what I want to try to do is share what I’ve learned for the generation, so the next guy that sits in my seat doesn’t have to do it the way I did it. Not saying it can’t be done, but we’re a much more complex company today. We’re not a billion dollar company anymore. We’re almost a $4 billion dollar company. We’re so much more diverse. We have so many more employees, so the transition should be different.
Phil: Well, then let me ask you one final question and this question will be on the heels of the comment you just made. You said, “I’m trying to help the next person to know how to do it a little bit differently.” For the people that may be watching and who may have the desires to grow their own career past where they are right now, maybe not to a CEO suite at some point, but to somewhere beyond where they are, what would you suggest to them that they need to do almost immediately that would move them toward whatever that goal or level in their career might be?
Mike: I think it’s making it known what you would like to do because when you have a lot of people in the company. If I know, as the CEO of Helena, people have a desire to want to do more, to move into a management role, I encourage them to tell me that. Believe or not, you remember these things. You remember these individuals because when you’re part of a mass group, there’s so many talented people. Obviously, working hard and achieving success and being one of the top people in the company, certainly, that’s an advantage, but also making it known because don’t take it for granted that people know what you want to do and I think that’s what I’ve always encouraged people.
If someone wants to have an opportunity to work in California, as an example, let us know that or if you have an opportunity to work in a certain segment a bit, let us know that or if you have a desire to be one the senior executives, let us know that. We need to know because, again, we have to identify. Again, when you have a lot of people like that, you have as many individuals as we have, it makes it more difficult. I’ve asked that and people have told me that. In my mind, I know there’s certain individuals now that have that desire to be the next Vice President or the next President of Helena and we’ll do everything we can, I’ll do everything I can to give those opportunities.
All the best,
Phillip Van Hooser
Were you taught the “leadership lie”? The one that says leaders shouldn’t get close to their people.
In this brief video, I debunk the leadership lie and explain what “getting close to” followers should really mean for leaders.
Leaders, we’re busy people. We have lots of responsibilities and objectives to accomplish every day. Here’s one thing we can do that will exponentially improve our relationships with employees and provide us with valuable information and insights for doing our jobs.
Learn to listen. Actively listen. Stop what you’re doing when people start to communicate with you and look at them, look them right in the eye. I know the challenges, many of us pride ourselves on being multi-taskers, we can use electronic equipment, we can walk, we can talk, we can fill out paperwork, we can do any number of things all while supposedly listening to the people speaking to us. I’m not even going to challenge the fact that you might be able to do that well, because there are good multi-taskers out there. But it really makes very little difference if you’re good at it or not. The message that we send to the person speaking to us—that we’re hopefully listening to, as we go about these multi-tasking activities—the message that we send to them is that they don’t have our attention and we’re not fully focused on them and from a leader/follower relationship that can be. . .well, that can be very bad.
What I’m encouraging you to do is that the next person that walks up to you and starts talking to you, you stop. You stop whatever you’re doing. You square yourself up and you look right at the person and you continue to look at them for the duration of whatever they’re communicating. You listen to them for the next twenty seconds, the next two minutes, the next twenty minutes, as the case might be, by looking squarely at them.
When you do this, people are going to respond to you differently because they know you’re now listening and listening with effectiveness. And from a leader/follower relationship that can be. . .well, that can be very, very good!
Just one more thing that Leaders Ought to Know.
Phillip Van Hooser
For more tips on communicating for leaders, check out this video segment.