The Benefits of Declaring Your Intent
I wrote “Management Mess to Success: 30 Challenges to Become the Leader You Would Follow” for those who feel they weren’t perfectly groomed for leadership—those with a bit of a “mess” in them, whether that comes from being an outsider, a lack of experience, a lack of training, or all of the above.
This book is a reflection of my experiences, both messes and successes, run through the crucible of the real world—shaped, validated, and often corrected by the deep expertise and thought leadership of many colleagues, friends, and mentors at FranklinCovey. I was lucky to have landed at FranklinCovey—a company that provides industrial-strength management and leadership advice to the Fortune 5000 and beyond throughout the world. So even as I careened and sometimes crashed through the ranks, I couldn’t help but pick up on the principles and practices that the most successful leaders get right. These proven insights (many of which are included in this book) helped an admittedly imperfect leader rise to the C-suite.
I’ll be one of the first to admit leadership isn’t always rewarding. It can feel like a bottomless pit of problem solving and adult-sitting. Leadership is exhausting, repetitive, and requires a constant stretch of your emotional and intellectual skills. It demands an “always-on” mentality, as you’re expected to have all the right answers and make all the right decisions, often on the fly. Most days, candidly, I really don’t enjoy it. But it doesn’t mean leadership isn’t important; on the contrary, often the things we struggle with yield the biggest return (nobody drinks a kale smoothie because it tastes good).
It’s okay if you admit leadership can be hard and unenjoyable. We’re travelers on this road together. But the benefits of being successful at it can be life-changing.
Of course, no single person is a complete “management mess,” nor has anyone I’ve known been a total “leadership success.” We are a bundle of varying talents and fears, expressed through the daily decisions we make. I wrote this book to broaden those talents, set aside limiting fears, and promote better leadership decisions.
In the book are 30 challenges, honed by FranklinCovey through years of research and development, tens of thousands of client implementations, and countless coaching engagements. These challenges will make you a better leader.
Exploring Challenge 4: Declare Your Intent
If you’d asked me about declaring my intent during my early, rough-and-tumble, push-my-way-to-the-top leadership years, I would have told you you were nuts. If you think of leadership as a war of political gamesmanship and cutthroat advancement, then you’ll likely resonate with this Victorian military advice: “Conceal your purpose and hide your progress; do not disclose the extent of your designs until they cannot be opposed, until the combat is over.”
This adversarial mindset used to be commonplace in almost every organization—part of an “eat-or-be-eaten” culture. It may still be the prevailing wisdom while driving in New York City (where signaling your intention to change lanes only invites other drivers to mash the accelerator and close the space), but that’s another story. In the corporate world, due in no small part to the work of FranklinCovey and some of our well-respected competitors, Machiavellian attitudes have evolved into the desire to build cultures of high transparency, collaboration, and trust. Today few people want to work in environments of concealment and one-upmanship.
If this outdated belief describes your leadership style and work culture, let me save you some time and heartache. In the long run, you will lose—and lose badly. Once you gain the reputation for deception and concealing your true intentions, no one (and I mean no one) will trust you. And without trust, you’re doomed.
Stephen M. R. Covey in his bestselling book, “The Speed of Trust,” writes, “We judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their observable behavior.” So even if you actively try to conceal what you’re up to, people will judge you based on what they see. If you want to succeed, don’t withhold information—openly share. State your intent so others can’t misinterpret your actions.
A few months ago, “Peter,” a junior colleague, scheduled a meeting with me in Outlook. Although there wasn’t an agenda, or even a subject line, I agreed to meet out of respect for him. I didn’t know this person very well, so a meeting was unusual but not out of line. As a result, we sat somewhat uncomfortably in a conference room where the conversation, primarily led by Peter, meandered for about 15 minutes. It touched on a variety of loosely linked topics with questions, comments, and even judgments on nearly every project I was leading. Peter seemed to want to give me feedback, but because the topics were so far-ranging and scattered, I couldn’t discern what to focus on.
Finally, as I was losing my patience, I asked matter-of-factly about the purpose of the meeting. Peter stammered and attempted to clarify, but continued to meander for a few more increasingly irritating minutes. Eventually, I said, “I’m sorry, I’m still not clear on the purpose of our conversation. We’re touching on a broad range of topics, but I don’t understand how I can help you.”
Let me add that I think Peter is a fine person, high in character, hardworking, well educated, and dedicated. We might not see all things eye to eye, but he reminds me of a younger version of myself (that’s both a compliment and a critique). However, because I was listening with increasing suspicion, I wondered if this was worth my time. Truly, people matter—but so did the two major projects I needed to land that day.
I labored once again to gain clarification. This time, Peter declared what had been on his mind all along. It was a topic completely different from any of the “ground softeners” up to that point. Peter had a very clear point of view on something that needed my support. He now spoke with convincing language, and I leaned in and listened intently. That’s one benefit of declaring your intent—as human beings, thoughts and emotions are swirling around inside our head as someone is talking. In fact, we spend much of our attention and energy discerning people’s intent and working through how we’ll respond. But declaring one’s intent cuts through much of the noise and mental static that impedes true listening. And that’s what I found had happened to me. Suddenly, all the irritation and negative stories percolating in my head vanished and I could focus on the real issue. Unfortunately, it had taken nearly 55 minutes of a 60-minute meeting to get there!
After the meeting was over and we were walking out of the conference room, Peter said to me, “That went better than I thought.”
I replied, “What do you mean?”
“You’re quite intimidating, Scott,” he continued, “and I thought this would be a very difficult conversation.”
Wow! I had been frustrated, even angry, at Peter’s lack of organization and clarity. Turns out that his inability to talk straight and declare up front his intent was partially based in fear. I’m guessing he’d been clear on his intent in his mind, but my previous behaviors and reputation had likely led him to believe my “brand” was one of arrogance and intimidation. Now, let’s be clear, I’m not taking responsibility for his share of the meeting. I’m just more mindful now of how I can contribute positively or negatively to others living this principle.
The next time you’re in a conversation where something could be left open to misinterpretation, remember this thought from Dr. Blaine Lee, author of “The Power Principle: Influence With Honor”: “Nearly all, if not all, conflict arises from mismatched or unfulfilled expectations.” Make sure that what you intend people to hear and see is what they actually hear and see. The less clear you are, the more you are responsible for their lack of clarity.Declare Your Intent Takeaways
- Take stock of how often you begin conversations by declaring your intent—are you clear about your goals, or are youleaving people to guess?
- Early on, ask others to confirm they are clear on your intent.
- Consider how you make it safe (or unsafe) for others to declare their intent. What should you stop doing, do more of, or do differently?
- Think of a cordial relationship where you have mutual respect but suspect the other person has read you wrong or doesn’t fully understand where you’re coming from. Try meeting them informally (like for coffee), and see if youcan work a declaration of intent into the conversation.
- Ensure when you declare your intent that it’s truthful and congruent with your actions.
- Expressing your intent may well take a level of courage that might not be natural to you. Better to summon that skill than face the consequences that follow from not doing so.
Excerpted with permission from Mango Publishing from “Management Mess to Leadership Success: 30 Challenges to Become the Leader You Would Follow” by Scott Miller (Mango Publishing).
Scott Miller is the executive vice president of thought leader FranklinCovey, and author of the bestseller, “Management Mess to Leadership Success: 30 Challenges to Become the Leader You Would Follow” (www.managementmess.com).