I became a manager at a fairly young age. I had been working for EJ Footwear (now owned by Rocky) for a little more than a year when I was called in to the office of the CEO and told that: (a) My boss had been let go that morning after 20+ years with the company, (b) I was being promoted to take over his job and his direct reports, (c) I needed to immediately begin the search for my replacement, and (d) I should move in to his office at my earliest convenience. I had turned 23 about a month earlier.
After I overcame the initial shock of the situation I met with my new boss and starting thinking about what I was going to do next. It was a few short months later when I was having my first quarterly operating review with the CEO and CFO when I learned a very valuable lesson.
EJ ran a small retail store in Franklin that sold factory seconds and closeouts at steep discounts that was run by a team of two long-term employees. The goal of the store was never to make much money but neither was it acceptable for it to lose large amounts of money. The CEO asked me how quickly I though operations could be shut down if we were given the go-ahead. I thought about it for a couple of seconds and then told him that I thought we could shut the store down in about 90 days. Without hesitating he told me, â€œDo it.â€
My bossâ€”the VP of Marketing for the companyâ€”was also in the room and if she could have, she would have kicked me under the table to keep me from committing to something like that. I thought I knew what to say but what I really needed to understand was what NOT to say.
I did not have the experience to understand that my comment was heard as a commitment. Nor did I fully understand that within a few weeks I would have to let to middle-aged men know that their jobs were being eliminated and that they would only be employed by the company for about 60 more days. Two 50+ year-old men cried in my office that Friday morning. I will never forget that experience and I hope that letting employees go is never a comfortable activity.
All of us need to learn the value of silence, but this is especially true for leaders. As leaders, we should never:
- Talk before we understand the consequences of what we are about to say. It is appealing to be the person with the quickest answer but until you understand what it will mean if what you are about to suggest or agree to is implemented, it is better to keep thoughts to yourself. At least until you have had an opportunity to think through any down-stream consequences.
- Talk to the point where we dominate a meeting. Some leaders simply like to hear themselves talk. Good leaders, however, understand that it is more valuable to observe first, let others lead the meetings, and only calls the play after all of the options have been vetted.
- Express our opinions first when a problem or issue is raised. Leaders understand that, even when someone comes to them asking for a solution to a problem, it is better to ask questions first rather than simply offering up an answer. Why is that? Because no one knows everything and if the leader speaks first the other person in the meeting with an even better idea may be hesitant to contradict the leader and simply supports the less-than-ideal solution.
As a leader that understands why it is important to know when not to speak, we should:
- Talk less and listen more. The best leaders that I have worked for are those that understand that they do not have all of the answers but build a team of really smart, dedicated individuals that can collaboratively solve problems. They then listen to their team of subject matter experts and have a keen sense of howâ€”and whenâ€”to interject their opinion and when to let the team function on their own.
- Ask more questions than giving answers. The leader that acts as a sounding board, motivator, and obstacle mover for their team is more productive and will attract and retain the best talent than the leader that wants to be the one with all of the ideas. People want to be trusted to do their jobs and need to have a safety net and escalation point when they need higher-level assistance.
- Mentor others to help them understand the value of not speaking. A leader that is not mentoring their team and identifying and cultivating potential successors is doing both the organization and themselves a great disservice. After my experience with the CEO, my boss spent time with me helping me understand what happened and how to handle similar situations in the future. It continues to be a very valuable lesson that she taught me.
Mandy has always said that I have a problem with silence, which is true. Regardless of if I am the teacher or the student, I do not like to have a question asked that goes unanswered. I have learned, however, that there are times when I simply cannot break the silence, that I need to let someone else fill the silence, that I need to know what not to say and that I need to lead without talking.