Sometimes it’s important to remind ourselves that effective leadership really is all about people.
I occasionally look back through my archive of communication materials to remind myself of important ideas and interesting observations. I rediscovered this interview with Gary Smith, President and CEO of Ciena, next-gen software and telecomunications company from October 4, 2015 (New York Times).
Look for how he draws leadership inspiration from his personal life. Experts (like DLM Communications, as a totally random example) can share with you great techniques for effective leadership, but learning them through your personal experience is often the best way to drive them home, to make them meaningful to you.
In this interview, you can see Smith’s leadership approach evolve from analytical observation to personal connection.
Here is an edited version of that interview…
Tell me more about your parents. How have they influenced your leadership style?
My father was particularly influential. He never said a bad word about anybody, and I’ve taken some lessons from that. He was always very positive, and he did it naturally. He’s not confrontational at all and will do anything to avoid a confrontation.
My mother was a little more confrontational and very direct when she needed to be. I’ve taken a little bit of both of them, and part of the skill is to know when to pull on the different levers. It’s very situational.
What are some other leadership lessons you’ve learned over the years?
Early on in my career, I was told, “It’s all about people.” I got it intellectually, but it took me quite a while to really get it. It really is all about people, and if you get that right, the other stuff will get addressed. But you have to work at it all the time.
Culture takes an awful lot of time and effort, and it can be destroyed very quickly, because it’s built on trust and respect. You’re respecting the individual and what they do, and you’re trusting them, and they’re doing the same for you. That doesn’t happen overnight. It’s like personal relationships.
How do you hire?
I tend to focus more on whether the person is the right fit for the company. So I’ll ask questions like What do you truly enjoy doing? How can I tell if you’re having a bad day, and how does that manifest itself? What are the things that really irritate you, and what do you do about it? What’s it like to work for you? How do you interact with your peers? What do you do if you don’t agree with the direction of the company?
If you are a leader in a new role, or veteran manager, take a look at role models in your life – what you respect about them, how they deal with people, what they think of you. The lessons you need to elevate your approach to communication leadership are all around us.
We throw around the phrase “active listening” a lot in the business world. It's short hand for concentrating, understanding, responding meaningfully, and then remembering the conversation. That can be a challenge, but for the most part we get it right. But what happens if there is more than one voice? How do you manage the different ideas and unique lines of thought?
I sometimes lead an exercise creatively called “story.” Half a dozen participants stand in a line. I point at each of them one at a time and they make up a story, picking up where their colleague left off. Everyone shares the role of the narrator.
It’s collective storytelling, which means in order to tell a coherent story there needs to be collective listening. (For some reason the stories almost always involve dogs. I don’t know why. Someone look into that.)
There are challenges to this practice though. For example, it can be really tempting to throw in your own twist – or as we call it in the business world, "Hey, look at me!"
Once upon a time there was a dog…
…that loved running through the forest…
…and chasing squirrels…
…and then he blew up!
That non-sequitur is the equivalent of jumping to a new agenda item during a meeting, or skipping to the exciting reveal of a client pitch. "Story" quickly demonstrates the need for collective active listening, or, “honoring the intention" of who came before you.
Where was my colleague going with this? What’s the next obvious thing that needs to be addressed? How can I support that idea. It’s sharing the narrative. It’s sharing the story.
Actively tracking each piece of the conversation and being inspired by your team will lead you to a better place. You are literally moving the agenda…pitch…meeting…brainstorming session, in the same direction, with the same intention.