Question: I have always been intrigued by politicians, who utilize “Town Hall Meetings” to communicate with their constituents. These meetings seem to be a great tool, allowing voters to ask the right questions. Recently, I decided to try out the Town Hall concept on a corporate level. I manage a company of 2,000 employees, all in locations outside the United States. In the course of two weeks, I visited 12 countries, presenting a slideshow on the “state of the union” and taking questions. Despite working hard to engage my employees and remove barriers, I feel something is missing. Any ideas?
Answer: “Ask, Don’t Tell” leadership is my mantra, and I am glad you are taking questions from your teams. In addition, explaining the company’s state of the union is a wonderful way to insure everyone is on the same page. Communication is particularly critical with a company as widespread as yours.
I do, however, have ideas for how you might improve your meetings. Consider turning the direction of questioning around, so that you are asking the right questions. Questions empower others, build your authority, and provide information that might otherwise be overlooked. At the same time, questions convey your willingness to listen and to consider the viewpoints of others. Your appreciation for each employee’s knowledge, skills, and efforts will undoubtedly shine through as you ask, rather than tell. When the company is gathered as a whole, your questions can be even more valuable, because the persons who answer gain the respect of all present.
It may seem counterintuitive that you, the leader, should do most of the asking. It is important to acknowledge and accept, however, that no leader can have all the answers. Acting as the “Oracle of Knowledge” can diminish your appeal and destroy appropriate lines of authority. Your managers will be rightly irritated if you are allowing employees to skip channels.
Regarding your PowerPoint presentation, again consider incorporating the input of others. The downfall of doing a presentation by yourself is that you appear to be the expert. I suggest sending a copy of the presentation to each office, prior to your visit, and asking leaders at each site for suggestions and comments. You may even want to invite these leaders to conduct the presentation with you. Make sure you are asking the right questions for them. For example: “How is this office going to achieve production goals?” “What happened during the second quarter?” “How will you be able to reverse this trend?” Remember that questions empower people, affirming the significance of their roles and responsibilities. Your willingness to step back and listen creates accountability and demonstrates your genuine interest in others’ thoughts, plans, and actions.
As a leader, it can be difficult to reduce your need to be the bearer of truth. The most successful leaders, however, are willing to be vulnerable, approachable, and open to others’ perspectives. Remember: Leadership is almost always about asking the right questions, not telling the right answers. Ask, don’t tell!