No More Nods—Say What You Think

Excerpt from “Eyes Wide Open: Overcoming Obstacles and Recognizing Opportunities in a World That Can’t See Clearly” by Isaac Lidsky (Penguin Random House, March 14, 2017).

I don’t hear any better because I’m blind, but going blind made me a better listener and a better leader. I’ll explain how by describing my leadership team meetings at ODC Construction.

As ODC grew from less than a dozen corporate employees working together informally in a strip mall storefront to more than 100 working in multiple facilities around Florida, amateur micromanagement had to evolve into professional leadership if we were to succeed. Fortunately, from day one the company was blessed with a core team of talented and dedicated managers who were up to the task, and we’ve been able to add team members of similar caliber over the years.

My job as CEO is to inspire and to coordinate that team. In the former capacity, I must tend and effectively express our vision of excellence and ensure that our team embraces it. In the latter, I must help the company’s leaders work together to realize that vision.

As I see it, the leaders of an organization (or division, etc.) must take collective responsibility for its success. Each might have day-to-day responsibility for particular aspects of the business—e.g., operations, finance, sales—but at the same time, the team together bears ultimate responsibility for the company’s performance as a whole. If the leadership team is to successfully dispatch this responsibility—and if it is to be held accountable for it—then its members must be fully informed in all spheres and empowered to contribute in all spheres. Everyone has the obligation to understand all the issues, to weigh in, and to work cooperatively to help each other succeed. That’s how I see it, at least.

At the core of this approach to management is a weekly leadership team meeting. In this meeting, new issues or opportunities are presented and discussed, action items are developed and assigned, and updates are presented on pending matters. The goals are to keep everyone informed, to solicit everyone’s perspective, to make new decisions (sometimes by consensus, more often not), and to assess previous decisions.

I’m convinced these meetings are essential, and I’m passionate about their effectiveness in enabling a team to succeed. But I don’t think I would have seen any of this if I could see. That’s what I want to explain.

Absolutely nothing.

It happened a lot in the early days. In a leadership team meeting, someone would propose a course of action, I would ask if the team agreed with the approach, and then . . . absolutely nothing.

“Folks,” I say, “remember that I cannot see you. Are you nodding your heads again?”

Nervous chuckles, then someone mumbles, “Oh, yeah, we were nodding our heads.”

In the early days, this was frustrating. Because I felt my blindness was an impediment to my leadership, it was disheartening. I thought I was missing out on information from my team, and I wondered what they thought I was missing. There was a simple solution, however. They’d just have to tell me what they thought. No more nods. We’d all have to get used to it.

“That simply doesn’t work. I need to hear you, please. Do you agree? Let’s go around the table and answer one by one.”

After a long pause, the team member to my right says, “I agree.” We go around the table and everyone follows suit. I collect auditory nods and we move on to another topic. That’s what I would expect, at least.

It rarely happened that way.

“Uh, yeah, I guess I mainly agree.”

That kind of unconvincing response, the kind that begs a further question, came up time and time again.

“Mainly?”

The dam breaks.

“Well, I’m not sure how this or that part might work. And we also have to think about this other thing.”

A long, heated discussion ensues. The team did not agree after all. The proverbial devil was lurking in myriad details yet to be contemplated. There’s more work to be done on the plan. We’ll need to revisit the issue at a later meeting with more information. We’ll make a far better decision then.

And to think: Everyone nodded. How could that be?

It is easy to nod. There’s ambiguity in a nod. There’s safety in it. There’s opportunity for clarification, even deniability. A nod means little because it later can be distinguished from what was “really” meant, rationalized with elaboration ex post. Nods can be embellished with other gestures and with facial expressions, watered down even further, qualified. They’re too amorphous to pin down.

Reduced to words with meaning, ideas take form, stances are clarified, positions are exposed to examination and discussion. When you tell someone what you think, you become accountable for your thoughts, and there is vulnerability in this accountability. In our tendency to communicate with facial expressions and gestures, we often seek refuge from this vulnerability.

Picture the little kid caught red-handed and told to admit his indiscretion. He lowers his head and glances at the floor, his eyes tear up, his lip quivers, and slowly he nods. He simply can’t bear to confess aloud. It’s somehow better if he doesn’t have to say it.

In the early days I lamented my blindness to my team’s facial expressions and gestures. I thought I was missing out on information, and I regretted the awkwardness I seemed to inflict upon them by forcing them to speak up. With time, I realized the awkwardness was a byproduct of meaningful communication, not my blindness. It was born of our vulnerability. If we were truly to work together to accomplish our goals, we had to be willing to speak up, vulnerable or not. My problem was our solution.

A beautiful thing happened. The more we shared with each other, the easier it became. There is no trust without vulnerability, there is no team without trust, there is no success without a team. We became a team and found great success together. We learned to avoid ambiguities, to communicate at a deeper level, and to harness everyone’s perspectives and ideas. Most important, my team knows that what they think truly matters.

I don’t think I would have seen this if I could see. I would have seen a lot of nods instead. Through my blindness we learned to speak to each other, and to listen.

You’ve guessed it: You can, too. As it turns out, blindness is easily simulated. Close your eyes, don a blindfold, turn the lights off, or do all of the above. In your next management meeting, your next conversation with your spouse or child, your next tough conversation with a friend, try it. You might feel awkward and vulnerable. But that’s a small price to pay to learn to truly listen to one another, isn’t it? That’s what I hear.

During his keynote on January 31 at the Training 2017 Conference & Expo in San Diego, Isaac Lidsky will discuss additional principles applicable to leading and living from his forthcoming book, “Eyes Wide Open: Overcoming Obstacles and Recognizing Opportunities in a World that Can’t See Clearly.” For register for the conference, visit: http://www.trainingconference.com.

Excerpt from “Eyes Wide Open: Overcoming Obstacles and Recognizing Opportunities in a World That Can’t See Clearly” by Isaac Lidsky (Penguin Random House, March 14, 2017).

Click here to purchase Eyes Wide Open.

As Inc. reported, “Isaac Lidsky may possess the most eclectic resume in business.” Series regular “Weasel” on Saved by the Bell: The New Class, he graduated from Harvard College at 19 (cum laude) and from Harvard Law School (magna cum laude); served as a Supreme Court law Clerk (to two Justices); was a Justice Department litigator (undefeated); founded a tech startup (sold for $230 million); turned a failing construction subcontractor into a highly profitable construction services company (10 times larger); and founded Hope for Vision, a nonprofit that funds the development of treatments and cures for blinding diseases. His main stage TED Talk was viewed more than a million times in its first three weeks, and his book, “Eyes Wide Open” (Penguin Random House, March 14, 2017), was named one of the Washington Post’s Top 10 leadership books to read in 2017. 

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