As we look ahead into the next century, leaders will be those who empower others.
In 2005 I took on the responsibility of line managing a scientist. It may be relevant or not that they were a scientist in another discipline to myself and while I had previously undertaken this task, this was slightly different as they were very well qualified, had some good experiences and they were very keen. They had moved from another country to work with my company and my attention was drawn to not only giving them an interesting and hopefully inspiring induction, but I felt it was just as important to attend to their adjustment to their new home, make them feel welcome and support their new start in a new environment.
Very shortly (just a week or so) into their employment, they would begin to knock on my door not to enquire about ‘how it works around here’ or to clarify a process, but they would begin to suggest ideas about how things could be improved in their new workplace. They started with, “Could we buy a X or Y gadget?”, moved onto, “We should start a monthly discussion group!”, or “Could we have a meeting every month to get the scientists to educate the coaches”. Then they started to ratchet up quite quickly, by which time the scientist, just a few weeks into their contract was proposing, “Why don’t we set up a new journal?”, “If we set up a new restaurant then all the support offices could have offices off the side of it, so the athletes can come and eat and we can provide them with services while they eat”, or “We need an online live, consultation service portal booth at the next Olympics for athletes to get advice 24/7”. The ideas were both perceptive and grandiose.
My initial thoughts were highly guarded, primarily because I was, without realising it, quite suspicious of how well thought through the ideas were given the lack of time they had had to soak up the environment, suss out the need, prioritise their ideas. I responded in the same way I felt, defensive and could do without some of these ideas. At the time my best tactic was to nullify the torrent of ideas. This played out in a series of;
“Well the trouble is…”
“Ah, you see we’ve tried that before and…”
“It’s not quite as straightforward as that, you see…”
After a very short time in post, I was beginning to tear my hair out, because the knock on the door were every morning, every afternoon and I was spending an increasing amount of time absorbing these ideas. I was getting frustrated and I could see that my staff member was becoming despondent with my continual rebuttals. I started a new tactic of hiding, which I am not proud of!
When on a training course, I went for an early morning jog and happened to see a trusted colleague of mine Jonathan Males going for his early morning run. I noticed how slow I thought he was running but at the same time noticing how he was running faster than me! I called for him and we started to chat. Acutely aware of my ventilator threshold being exceeded, I promptly asked for his advice about the ideas-harrassing-scientist, in so doing passing the conversation/breathing baton to him. He began by asking questions;
“When they share their idea, do you summarise it back to them?” “No,” I replied.
“When they share the idea, do you ask questions for clarity?” “No,” I replied.
“After they have shared their idea do you have an agreed plan of action?” “No,” I replied.
Jonathan responded, “I think you should make more attempt to listen, understand and help them with their ideas”. I was frowning by this point hoping to hear tactics to shut them down not open the ideas up! “Though some of the ideas are in the right direction, they are impractical even delusional in places!”
“That might be true, but I think they wanted to be listened to and therefore valued”
When the word ‘value’ hit my brain I agreed with myself to taking a new tack.
When I got back into the office (I had stopped hiding in Costa coffee), I was indeed visited once more with a backlog of new ideas. This time, I began to up my positive body language, with some hearty nods and less crossing of arms. After a few minutes I politely stopped them and asked if I could summarise, “So, if I hear you correctly, you would like to…”. The response was immediate, “Yes, exactly, because I think…” with renewed enthusiasm. After some further explanations and summaries, I asked some questions to clarify my understanding. Again the response was effusive, uncovering lots of questions they had been wrestling with. I shared some positives that I had seen, I shared some areas that felt were interesting obstacles and that I would be interested to know how they could be overcome. The response prompted some deep thought in the young scientist. “Hm, I’d need to have a think about that” and they started to walk off nodding. I stopped them before they left my office door, “So can we agree you’ll come back to me when you’ve had a think about the strengths and limitations of the idea?” “Oh yes definitely” was the response.
That afternoon I got a knock on the door, “I’ve had a good think about those insights you posed and I think there are too many limitations for it to be feasible.” Inside I was thinking, “You beauty, I’ve found a way to diffuse these bombs”, while calmly saying, “Ok, well thanks for sharing the idea”.
The next time (next day) an idea came along, I followed the same process of summarising, questioning, sharing some insights and agreeing a direction. Again my idea generator left the office full of thoughts. They returned again that afternoon, but the response was totally different. “I’ve got it!” they announced. “Got what?” I asked. The answer to your questions about how we could get my idea off the ground (albeit these were questions shared in the hope it would diffuse the idea). They then proceeded to give me a run down of how they would solve all the limitations I had thrown up. I slowly sat back in my chair, one-by-one I heard these truly imaginative, somewhat brilliant solutions being created. Then it dawned on me about just how much I had squashed out of this bright person. I had been a constant negative, more interested in getting my own work done than giving this person appropriate time and space to share their thoughts. From that moment I resolved to upgrade the way I listen, to be more attentive, to engage with people who would share their thoughts with me.
Over the years I have honed and refined this technique with the objective of empowering others. I have wrapped it into a model, that you might find useful.
Demonstrating leadership by empowering others through SQUIDD!
Demonstrate that you have listened by repeating back what you have heard
Explore the area by asking questions to establish clarity and show your interest
Show you have fully embraced the idea by demonstrating your understanding
Utilise your experience and expertise to gain insight about how the idea could come to fruition. e.g. “I really like this aspect of the idea”, I’d be interested to know how we could overcome … ALWAYS lead with a positive
Focus attention by asking how the idea fits in the overall scheme of priorities, how it could move forward, what support and resource would be needed
Establish agreement about what next
The process takes a little more time than you might hope to invest, but over time, the recipient will become accustomed to answering the questions before they share their thoughts, in so doing refining, maybe advancing or even de-prioritising their idea before it gets to you. So the SQUIDD is an investment. Give it a go and watch the difference in the response to the knee-jerk, “No, but”.
I learned, that leadership requires the patience to listen, the attention to see the best, the experience to frame challenges as opportunities. Empowering others requires the ambition to develop the skills, abilities and thinking in others and so in yourself!