Every business leader has blind spots which limit their effectiveness and success, but due to ego, over-confidence, or deferential subordinates, many live totally in the dark. Some are smart and humble enough to assume that they don't know what they don't know, but lack an effective process for shining a light on their blind spots. Both are equally surprised by their every setback.
I recently found some real insight on this subject in a new book by Robert Bruce Shaw, aptly named "Leadership Blindspots." Shaw specializes in organizational performance and has helped a wealth of business leaders identify and overcome their weaknesses. He provides a detailed analysis of the blind spots of many well-known business powerhouses, including Steve Jobs of Apple, Ron Johnson at JCPenney, and Jamie Dimon at JPMorgan Chase.
Shaw argues that every successful leader balances two conflicting needs. The first is to act with a confidence in their abilities and faith in their vision for their organization: The second is to be aware of their own limitations and avoid the hazards that come with overconfidence and excessive optimism. That means that they have to see themselves and situations accurately.
I agree with him that the best way to do this is to continually ask the right questions, in the right way, to identify blind spots. Here are some key guidelines that he offers to drive this process:
- Avoid yes-or-no questions. Closed-end questions (yes-no) are efficient, but don't surface data that may be critical to a leader's understanding. Questions are called open-ended when they allow for a variety of responses and provoke a richer discussion. These allow a leader to know what he doesn't know, and ultimately make a better decision.
- Don't lead the witness. Hard-charging leaders often push to confirm their own assumptions about what is occurring in a given situation and what is needed moving forward. This can result in questions that are really disguised statements, like "doesn't this mean that we really don't have a quality problem?" These usually prevent contrary points of view and further data from surfacing.
- Beware of evasive answers. All too often, people will avoid giving direct answers to direct questions. They may not know the answers or not want to provide the answers, to appear smart, or not want to offer incriminating data. Leaders need to keep coming back with directed questions until they get a straightforward answer or "We don't know."
- Ask for supporting data or examples. Leaders need to ask questions that surface points of view and, at the appropriate time, also clarify which answers are based on fact and which are based on speculation. They should encourage people to say what they know from data and what they think they know, and make sure they clarify the difference.
- Paraphrase to surface next-level details. One technique to push people to provide more information is to paraphrase what you are hearing. While this may result in a yes or no response, proceeding to next-level questions opens up the dialogue. Smart leaders sometimes mis-paraphrase what they are hearing in order to provoke a richer dialogue.
- Ask for alternatives. Another approach to surfacing non-confirming data is to overtly ask for an opposing point of view. A related line of questioning is to ask the respondent to alter his or her fundamental position, like "You are asking for $10 million to grow this brand. What more could you do if we gave you $25 million?"
- Give an opening for additional input. Leaders also need to provide an opportunity for others to offer additional input and, in particular, dissenting views. Often, the final moments of discussions are the richest, as people will wait until that time to surface what is really important to them. Ask if there is anything left unsaid that should be heard.
In today's global business world, you should assume that all your peers are smart and experienced, but have blind spots just like you. These are automatic behaviors that are not flaws, but they do need to be identified and mitigated by continually asking the right questions as outlined here. Otherwise they will undermine your organizational performance and may well destroy your legacy when you least expect it. Early learning is a lot easier than a later recovery.