I recently observed two executive teams.
On the first, the team leader was working with his team to analyze and land on a critical outsourcing decision. He identified the issue and asked pointed questions of his key lieutenants. He provided his perspectives regarding the pros and cons of the option and challenged his team members to add important information. He was highly engaged in the conversation, eager to debate each member’s ideas, and passionate about getting it right for the organization. After numerous pressure-testing one-to-one dialogues, he made a decisive choice and empowered his team to execute the outsourcing decision.
On the second executive team, the team leader took a different approach to a critical business issue regarding a large head-count reduction. She opened the agenda item by framing the issue and speaking about what she felt was at stake for both the short and long terms. She articulated her goals for the discussion and the values she believed most important to the consideration. She then opened the floor to her team.
As the conversation evolved, she watched and listened, sometimes calling for the opinion of quieter members. At other times, she asked the group to consider the issue from the perspective of different stakeholders. Near the end of the discussion, she asked the team to articulate a recommendation. When one was offered, she challenged the group to speak individually about their commitment to the proposed solution and the key risks to be managed if implemented. Finally, she asked if anyone felt they could not live with the approach before landing on next steps and the key messages to the broader organization.
Two drastically different leadership styles
While both of these stories feature team leaders with the intention to lead their teams in addressing a critical business issue, they illustrate radically different approaches to team leadership. The first leader's style placed him at the center of problem-solving, with a supporting cast providing critical information to inform his decision. The second leader's style was that of a facilitator — with the team as the central actors in the problem-solving process.
While some critical business issues require the leader to take firm control of the tiller, many team conversations benefit from the second, leader-as-facilitator approach. Ask yourself, as a team member, which team would you rather be part of? On which team are you most likely to learn and grow?
As leaders, most of us are used to leading the conversation. And, for many, stepping out of our teams’ way won’t come naturally. But, with conscious effort, leaders can become more capable facilitators and harness the collective power of their teams. Here are five steps in the right direction:
1. Set your intentions
What do you believe about your role and the role of your team in discussing this business issue? What might be possible if you choose to facilitate and lead from behind? Your answers to these questions will guide how you approach team discussions and how you can add the most value.
2. Frame the issue
The best facilitator leaders clearly articulate the issue and the context of why it matters. Helping your people understand the context and the compelling "why" activates emotions and the feeling-centered aspects of the brain. People are more likely to invest in solving a problem if they truly feel it matters.
3. Establish the finish line
Clearly articulate where the finish line is for this conversation. Is the purpose for today to establish the process for making the decision, to brainstorm possible solutions, to analyze options, or to land on a decision? Whatever your goal for the conversation, let your team know where you want to get to by the end of the discussion. Most important business decisions cannot be made in a single meeting. What is your goal for today?
4. Ask powerful and open-ended questions
The best facilitator leaders focus more on asking powerful questions than providing answers. What questions can you ask that will help stimulate your team’s creative thinking, broaden the pool of options, and explore potential benefits and limitations? What questions will help your team consider the potential impacts on various stakeholders? What questions help the team examine the issue against your strategic priorities and team values? In asking powerful questions, you train your team to think critically and develop as leaders.
5. Clarify next steps
Many team discussions end without sufficient clarity and alignment. Before moving on, it’s important to finish every team conversation by agreeing on what has been decided, what the next steps are, who is accountable, and what you are communicating about the issue to the broader organization.
The bottom line
As a team leader, shifting your role to a facilitator-leader allows you to add value by doing less problem-solving. Not only do you harness the collective knowledge and decision-making skills of your team, but you also help team members develop and take ownership as strategic leaders. What role will you take at your next team meeting?