Marge, the head of engineering for a large software company, sat at her desk, fiddling her thumbs. “Some things are best described by what they are. Some things, however, are best described by what can be,” she had just finished reading. (From The Science of Can and Can’t, by Chiara Marletto.) “That sounds like my current woes wrapped up in a gift box,” Marge muttered. “I have this great vision of what can be, and my managers all insist on focusing on what is. How do I make them see?”
After starting at her keyboard for a while longer, Marge decided a change of scenery was in order. She went to the “Observation Deck,” as everyone called the kitchen, because its wall-to-wall windows overlooking the park were a great place to people- and storm-watch.
There, Marge ran into Terry. Literally. “Whoops! Sorry about that,” Marge said to Terry, the consultant the company’s chief executive officer (CEO) had brought in to “help the senior leadership work better together.” Whatever that meant.
“No worries,” Terry replied. Terry spent a lot of time in the Observation Deck. Where most people came here to watch the goings on in the park, Terry found the goings on in the room itself were much more fascinating.
“My mind is elsewhere,” Marge continued her apology. “I guess I forgot to have it direct my body.”
“That can happen,” Terry said. “If running into me helped you bring your mind and body back together, I’m glad I could be of service.”
Marge wasn’t sure whether Terry was joking or judging. “Consultants. Always in the way,” she thought.
“Anything else I can do to help?” Terry asked.
The problem you believe you have may not be the problem you have
“You’re here to help us all work together better, right?” Marge half-asked, half-accused.
“That’s right,” Terry answered neutrally.
“Great. You can help me, then. How do I make my managers see things my way? They keep ignoring what I’m trying to show them and instead yammer on about their trials and tribulations. The solutions to which are exactly what I’m trying to explain!”
“Hmmm, that does seem rather bothersome,” Terry said consolingly. “I’d love to hear more.”
Half an hour later, Marge started winding down. “I guess I’m pretty worked up about this,” she told Terry. “I don’t have anyone I can talk with about these things.”
“That’s one of the hardest parts of leadership,” Terry agreed. “Finding someone to talk things over with. We don’t feel comfortable talking with our team, because we’re supposed to be in charge. We don’t feel comfortable talking with our boss, either, because we have to show that we’re capable. And we don’t feel comfortable talking with our peers, because we don’t want to give them a leg up over us.”
Marge nodded her head. “Yes, exactly. You summed up my feelings perfectly.”
How is what you’re trying working out for you?
“How is that working out for you?”
“How is what working out for me?”
“Feeling uncomfortable talking with everyone around you.”
“Not very well. I’d love to be open with everyone about what I’m considering without them thinking I’m handing out marching orders or opening myself up to attack. But that’s the way things are. I don’t have any way to change any of it.”
“You’re talking with me. That’s a start.”
“Well, you’re safe. You’ll be gone soon and won’t have any power over anything after that.” Even as she said that, Marge wondered why she thought Terry was safe. Wasn’t Terry reporting everything to the CEO, who would soon make sweeping changes based on that information?
“I am safe,” Terry agreed. “Nothing anyone says to me gets repeated to anyone else.”
“Really?” Marge blurted. “Everything I tell you is confidential?”
“Everything,” Terry said with finality.
Another half hour later, Marge felt drained. She had told Terry things Marge had barely let herself know, let alone ever tell anyone else. It felt so good to have all that off her chest.
Shift to a new approach by listing what you want to know
“I hear how alone and unsupported you feel, Marge,” Terry said. “I assure you, you are not alone. Most of the leaders I work with start out feeling this way. We’re not often taught how to lead with vulnerability and honesty.”
“How do I start?” Marge asked, almost plaintively.
“Make a list of everything you would like to learn. And when I say ‘everything,’ I mean everything. If you want to learn a certain programming language or software development methodology, list that. If you want to learn everyone’s favorite flavor of ice cream, list that. If you want to learn what people appreciate about what you do and what they wish you would stop doing, list that.”
Marge’s lip quirked up in just the barest hint of a smile. “Way to bury the lead.”
Terry noticed Marge’s uptick in mood and smiled back. “I see I can’t slip anything past you.”
“Okay, so start with a list of what I want to learn. Great. That’s easy enough. How do I then go about learning it?”
“You may not find making the list is so easy,” Terry warned. “Once you get going, you may start putting down things that scare you. That’s a sign you’re being honest with yourself.”
“Feel the fear and do it anyway?” Marge predicted, not nearly as sarcastically as she would have done an hour ago.
“Allow the fear and let it go, I prefer to say.”
“Okay. Thanks for the heads up.”
Learn what you want to know by asking with honest curiosity
“And, I still want to know: how do I learn all these things on my list?” Marge continued.
“Ask?” Marge asked doubtfully.
“Ask,” Terry confirmed. “With as much honest curiosity as you can muster. Remember, people aren’t used to you asking. So, you have to prove to them you’re honestly curious and not just doing this as a ploy to get them under your thumb.”
“Curiosity. Right. O-kay.” Marge paused momentarily, as if she wasn’t certain curiosity was possible. Terry gave her space.
You’re on your way to achieving your every desire with ease
“Okay,” Marge said with noticeably more confidence. “This is pretty far outside my comfort zone. But, I can do this.”
“You can do this,” Terry agreed with conviction. “I’m eager to hear what you learn.“
“I’ve already learned quite a lot. Most of the problems I thought I have aren’t the problems I have. Honestly acknowledging how my current approach is working—not well—helps me find alternatives. One alternative I can always employ is listing what I want to know and then asking questions with honest curiosity.”
Marge paused, then asked, “Can we meet again in a week or so?”
“Absolutely. Tuesday at four?”
“That should work.”
“Would you rather meet here, in your office, or in my office? Or somewhere else completely.”
“Let’s meet here. I suspect I’ll have many observations to share with you.”
“Perfect.” Terry left quietly, leaving Marge to reflect on the observations Terry knew were already flooding in.