Active Influencers are Masters of This.
Meet John. John was a regional manager at a large agricultural company. He led a team responsible for direct sales for the entire western half of the country. To keep his team on track and motivated, he held weekly conference calls for each of his four divisions and had a group meeting with his division leads once or twice a quarter (depending on the season). John had been in this job for 16 months during which time senior leadership aggressively dialed up pressure to grow sales, grow sales, grow sales. John had rock solid ideas about how his team could achieve growth. He had a clear vision and a pathway to lead the team where they needed to go, which he shared every week on the team calls. He reallocated money in his budget so he could send his entire team through advanced sales professionals training. Knowing he had prepared his team well, he looked forward to seeing mid-year results. He felt they had finally turned the corner and his team would rally hard and hit their numbers. At the next face-to-face meeting with his division leads, John’s bubble burst (it exploded). Number one, he had expected to see progress. He did not. He expected a level of enthusiasm and commitment. He did not see that either. What he did see was lack of accountability, resistance and confusion. He had no idea how his well-planned approach had tanked so badly.
The primary reason John couldn’t influence the team members and get the results he wanted is because even though he talked a lot, he lacked the ability to talk straight. And he didn’t have enough self-awareness to realize that. John was right in knowing training is necessary, budgets are essential, and clear plans light a pathway to achievement. Actively influencing results required a level of engagement and focus from John that he hadn’t experienced from his previous managers and surely had not been tested in the short tenure in his current role.
Even though things were looking bad, John’s boss knew that he needed to support John to make a transition to his new role. He clearly saw his potential and instructed him to start working with a coach. . .
Authenticity and Straight Talk
One of the first things John’s coach helped him discover was that for leaders to be more influential, they needed to be authentic. And to be authentic with others they first needed to be more authentic with themselves. They must hold up the “mirror” of straight talk. Straight talk is a practice that becomes a learned skill. To do it, you must:
- Deliver straight talk with a set-up – and always ask for permission
- Have no hesitation (be timely)
- Achieve competence in speaking clear requests and articulating clear directions
- Speak in simple, yet meaningful ways the Why, the How, and the What
- Understand it will involve learning for both parties engaged in the conversation
Ideal leaders move forward with straight talk effectively and courageously. The importance of timeliness can’t be over-stressed. Time is the difference-maker when you pursue meaningful dialogue that can change the trajectory of someone’s life, business, and financial future. The key starting point to having these powerful conversations is for the speaker to gain clarity about his/her own commitment to changing things or helping someone change. Practicing straight talk and embedding it as a “way of being” into your behaviors and organization’s culture is where effective leaders begin to separate themselves from many managers and business owners.
Time is the difference-maker when you pursue meaningful dialogue that can change the trajectory of someone’s life, business, and financial future.
Difficulties Surrounding Straight Talk
Only practice makes perfect. Straight talk is a significant leadership development concept that is not practiced consistently and requires a tremendous amount of emotional maturity to do well. Even though it isn’t second nature to everyone – we all have the ability. It’s a language activity that we lose quickly as we become social beings; we don’t have to acquire it, but rather we have to recapture it. Think about kids – they just say what they mean. Like when my son, at 4 years old, asked me why our neighbor didn’t have hair on his head, and why was it growing out of his ears? He spoke simply, in a meaningful way, and delivered his message with no hesitation! He was a straight talker then, and still is!
Why do managers hesitate saying what needs to be said rather than just talking about it? Social norms train us to stop saying “what is” because it might hurt someone’s feelings or we may not be well-liked if we tell it straight. Straight talk isn’t always valued, especially if the person receiving it thinks your intent is different from that of an “innocent” toddler.
Straight Talk is Well-Received When the Receiver Clearly Understands the Intent
The receiver’s perspective of your motives becomes the most important part of delivering straight talk. As a leader, you must be adding value — and straight talk is born of a baseline commitment to the other person.
From a receiver’s perspective, the following holds true:
- “If I believe your commitment to me is genuine, I can take some very difficult conversation from you.”
- “What has to be said may not feel good, but if I know your intent is to help and not harm me, I have received a gift many just will not give me. I’ve gotten pure feedback.”
Conveying intent or your “real commitment” to the person you’re influencing is not about being polite; it’s about results and effective action. We struggle giving straight talk because it fundamentally challenges some of our deepest hard-wired behavior as humans. Too many people want the quick fix or tips and techniques without doing the difficult job of saying what needs to be said with clarity and commitment.
The receiver’s perspective of your motives becomes the most important part of delivering straight talk.
Often leaders will want to take the easier path. They may tell themselves, “if we could just train these people, the problem would go away.” In reality, the truth may be, “this is clearly not a training problem; our business model is wrong, or our culture is not conducive to people contributing their ideas or taking initiative.” Difficult to hear? Yes. Simple, meaningful, powerful and effective? Yes. And it’s the only way forward, if you want to make a difference.
Is it truly better to give than to receive? Sometimes, yes. But receiving straight talk can be the gift that literally keeps on giving. To receive graciously, keep in mind:
- Never ask for feedback without clearly resolving to be active with it.
- Build power with people by thanking them for feedback and then declaring how you will use it and what you want to be held accountable to.
- At a minimum, thank the person and say you’re unwilling to change in that area.
- Relationships that operate at this level of candor are efficient and expedient.
- When we don’t receive feedback, we’re living by default in a world that maintains our identity but brings little value to our dreams, aspirations, and authentic self.
Our identities reside in others, and yet somehow we cling to our own points of view rather than valuing a clear description of how we really show up outside our own reality. We make others wrong so we get to be right. We can really sell ourselves short when we do this.
Build a Culture of Straight-Talkers
You can begin the work of culture-building by modeling the behavior you want to instill. Know that:
- It’s possible to build a culture that fosters, demonstrates, and rewards straight talk.
- It’s possible to build a culture with the safety and openness to speak one’s mind.
- It’s possible to have a culture that’s founded with respect and the broader commitment to contribute and build up, not tear down or gossip.
Building such a culture takes a leader who will not hesitate to engage in meaningful dialogue with people at any and every level of the organization. Straight talk gets embedded in an organization’s culture when leaders request it and model it; otherwise, everyone goes undercover. Having leaders who are coached to be straight-talking and compassionate is a significant element in the success of a business start-up or in sustaining an enterprise over time.
Building such a culture takes a leader who will not hesitate to engage in meaningful dialogue with people at any and every level of the organization.
John, the regional manager who was blind-sided and stuck, committed himself to the coaching process even though initially he didn’t see how it would solve his problem. He was honest and had the willingness to self-reflect. John learned from his coach (role model for telling it straight) how to receive straight talk and how to deliver it authentically and constructively. He learned that when you’ve had breakthroughs, you can then help others break through, which he did. He fosters, demonstrates, and rewards straight talk. His team got behind him and they hit their numbers the following year. More importantly, John embedded this concept within his organization, and he has left his legacy by having transformed countless people into active influencers. He’s now Chief Sales Officer at his company.