The setting: the spectacular office of one of the most respected names in entertainment, a senior executive in the motion picture industry. The players: the executive, accompanied by his bevy of direct reports and support staff, plus a CEO friend of mine and his chairman (we'll call him Mr. Chairman).
The meeting was unusual in its purpose. Mr. Chairman, who does not come from the entertainment industry, wanted to share his epiphany on how movie-makers should rethink the categorization of movie genres. His hypothesis was that movies should not be called romantic, horror, thriller, etc., but instead use a schema inspired by psychologist Abraham Maslow's famous "hierarchy of needs" that might better explain and predict which movies are likely to succeed.
After the regular pleasantries, Mr. Chairman, a soft-spoken and even-keeled individual, began sharing his new taxonomy for the movie industry, scrawling some sketches along the way. The meeting moved along quickly and positively. Within minutes, curiosity was piqued, and by the 10-minute mark the entertainment mogul and his entourage were engrossed. After about 20 minutes, they seemed enthralled, having embraced several of "wow moments" described by Mr. Chairman.
Precisely at this high point of excitement, around the 25-minute mark of the meeting, Mr. Chairman glanced at his watch and announced that he had already taken a meaningful amount of their time and should leave now. He asked them to follow up if any of his thoughts stuck. With some bewilderment goodbyes were said, and that was it -- meeting done and wrapped up in just under 30 minutes.
But, of course, a long-term relationship ensued.
For my CEO friend it was a career life lesson: "Leave them wanting more." But this was not a Machiavellian strategy born out of a premeditated plan. It was the natural product of Mr. Chairman's innate leadership, humility, patience, emotional intelligence, and introverted disposition. With those qualities come self control, and an instinct for when to apply restraint.
There's a common misperception that extroverts are the best leaders and sales people. Adam Grant at the Wharton School has conducted studies showing that "ambiverts" (people who are a mixture of extrovert and introvert) are actually the most effective in sales, followed by introverts and then extroverts. In a three-month study of 300 sales people, ambiverts generated 32 percent more revenue than extroverts, and 24 percent more than introverts.
It is not that extroverted behavior is bad, but rather that when it's not leavened with restraint and listening, it can be limiting. Most extroverts would have loved exciting an audience as Mr. Chairman did -- and likely would have had trouble ending the meeting as he did, instead over-selling to the point of diminishing returns.
The power of restraint is a lesson that cuts across all aspects of our lives. It is a lesson that I have tried to internalize after writing a book and now numerous blog posts with editors exceptional at, yes, editing. It is not just about grammatical correctness or even structure, but a centrifugal type of editing that teaches the discipline of choice, and restrains one from making the mistake of over-telling, over-selling.
In business, we don't edit enough. Any list of three top priorities invariably includes an "a, b, and c" below each one -- which really means a list of nine. It is always a challenge to maintain focus on what truly matters -- "the big rocks in the jar," as Stephen Covey would often say. Covey talked of filling a jar that represents life. You need to start with bigger rocks (the largest priorities, such as family and health) before you put in the medium-size rocks, smaller pebbles, sand, and water. If you go in that order, everything fits in the jar. Going the other way does not work (just try it), and crowds out the things that really matter.
To practice more restraint, to stay focused on the things that really matter, consider the following:
- Start with self-awareness. Susan Cain, author of the book Quiet, has a simple online "quiet quiz" to let you know if you lean toward introversion or extroversion.
- Delegate, don't command and control. Effective managers and leaders understand how to motivate with just enough direction to get multiplier-force leverage, because people feel a true sense of ownership. Micromanagement is a symptom of an inability to delegate and of letting your desire to do overwhelm your need to lead.
- Sell with more judo and less karate. This is an analogy I use often to stress, similar to the delegation point above, the important of allowing people to come to their own conclusions and using that to create intrinsic motivation to get the task done.
- Quality over quantity of voice. We all know the rare type of individual who does not talk often, but when she does, everyone listens. There is tremendous power in increasing one's listen-to-talk ratio and then choosing the right moments for expression. Quality of comment usually matters more than the quantity of comments.
- Leave them wanting more. This was the key lesson from Mr. Chairman. When you lead a meeting, ask yourself each time it ends if you left people wanting more. Consider cutting -- at least mentally -- your meeting time by at 20 to 30 percent to make sure you focus on the right things first, and to understand that your goal may be to have them wish for more time, or even another meeting.
Ultimately Mies van der Rohe's got it right. His "less is more" maxim extends beyond architecture to a principle we should use much more in business practice.
This post was originally published online for Harvard Business Review.