With Martin G. Moore

Episode #84

Being right isn't everything... it's just a good start

I have met some incredibly intelligent executives, who struggle to get the outcomes they should because they can’t elicit the buy-in and commitment of those around them.

Many senior leaders try to drive outcomes from a position of ‘the smartest person in the room’. Well, being smart is awesome, but you’ve got to be REALLY smart if you want to learn how to use your intellect to get the job done the best way possible.

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Episode #84 Being right isn't everything... it's just a good start

Welcome to Episode 84 of the No Bullsh!t Leadership podcast. This week’s episode, “Being right isn’t everything… it’s just a good start”. This is one of my favourite quotes, which I also believe is mildly original. I came up with it many years ago when working with an incredibly intelligent executive who struggled to get the outcome she should have been able to achieve in many areas. She simply couldn’t elicit the buy-in and commitment of those around her. I’ve thought about this a lot over the years, and observed many senior leaders trying to drive outcomes from a position of the “smartest guy in the room”, and I must say being smart is awesome, but you’ve got to be really smart about how to use your intellect to get the job done the best way possible. This means, you have to go way beyond your pure intellect into the nebulous world of emotional intelligence and human connection. I’m going to start today by exploring the good and the bad about being right. I’ll then answer the $64,000 question, “what could possibly be more important than being right?” And to wrap up, I’ll walk you through a scenario to demonstrate how you might use the power of influence to support your intellect. And so let’s get into it!

Let’s talk about the good and the bad of being right. Now, it should be pretty obvious to any of you who’ve had a romantic relationship – which should cover most of you – that being right doesn’t count for much sometimes. It’s not uncommon for many people to have to make the choice on a semi-regular basis, “Do I want to be right or do I want to stay married?” There are actually some distinct benefits to being right, of course, and we don’t need to spend too much time on these as they’re pretty obvious. The first is there’s something very compelling in a pure, logical, bulletproof argument. People look at it and they say, wow, that’s really solid. It can give them confidence in the path forward and particularly if you can communicate this effectively, you can get people on board just purely by being logically correct.

Another thing is that judgement is critical in decision making, so you’re much more likely to make good decisions if you’re right most of the time. The ability to synthesise complex and often competing pieces of information is a core skill of a successful executive or business owner. It’s much more likely that you will be successful if your decisions are more often right, and so everyone benefits – all the stakeholders of your organisation. You actually gain people’s confidence and respect as being intellectually capable if you’re more often right than wrong, and even though that doesn’t count for much sometimes, it’s a really good start. And it makes communication easier. If you don’t believe that, try explaining something that doesn’t make sense – it’s almost impossible. But there are some drawbacks. I want to cover off on about half a dozen of these because I think it’s quite important that we understand why being right isn’t necessarily always the ultimate answer.

Number one, no one likes a know it all. Now, people might begrudgingly agree when you’re right, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll comply. If they don’t like you, they won’t want to do what you want them to do. Now, I know that we speak a lot about respect before popularity and that doesn’t change. You still need to have people’s respect first and foremost. You will be popular with some just because you’re a good leader, but basically you’ve got to put respect first. So, why do you care if people don’t like your decisions? Well, you still want them to buy-in, and if they want to do things their way and you stop them from doing that, it can breed a bunch of resentment. Now, I do have a solution for this, which we’re going to talk about a little later on.

The second big drawback is that if you’re right all the time, people will stop questioning. Now, a really good example of this, years ago I worked with a very, very bright partner from McKinsey who was in working in an organisation that I was an executive in. And, what actually happened was that this guy was renowned for always being right, absolutely the smartest guy in the room. And so whenever he opened his mouth and said something, everyone went, “Oh well that’s come out of his mouth, it must be right”. And people stopped questioning. But I was a little more sceptical, so one day we’re in a meeting and he was drawing some stuff up on a whiteboard and he said, this is really simple, this is just maths. It’s just logic. And of course everyone went, well, of course it is. And we looked at the board and I said, well, hang on a minute, that looks like that’s not right there. How do you get from that step to that step? Because I can’t understand it.

And when he went back through it and started to try and explain it to us, it worked out that it wasn’t actually right. And so if you stop questioning people who are 99.9% of the time right, you’re going to miss out on the 0.1% when they’re not. And that sometimes can be quite damaging.

The third drawback is that having to be right all the time can put enormous pressure on an individual. It becomes their brand. So the focus goes on to what do I have to do to be right? And sometimes even though they’re not certain, they have the persona of wanting to be right. And this results in a very, very nasty little personality trait, which I like to call, “Often wrong, never in doubt”. I’m sure you’ve all met people like that in your working lives.

The fourth drawback is that if what you think goes against people’s view of the world, they may begrudgingly agree with you, but they won’t necessarily do what they need to do to make it happen. This has consequences. People start wanting for you to be wrong, and irrationally so. Now, a great example that immediately springs to mind is an executive who worked for me a few years ago who was extraordinarily bright, and extraordinarily experienced, and was generally pretty right. But, people didn’t like it. And the reason for this is because they knew that even though this person was right, it was belittling for them because they couldn’t be right, at any point in time. So one of his peers, another executive who reported to me, came up with a great analogy. He said, can you imagine this guy in a game of rugby? When it came to picking the teams, you would want this guy on your team every time because he is so good and so clever and so right and so valuable. But you know what? If he came up from the bottom of a ruck, and he’d been kicked in the head and he had blood pouring out of his melon, you wouldn’t be sure whether it was the opposition team or his own team that had done it to him.

The fifth drawback is that if people don’t like what you’re doing, even if they can see you’re right, they’ll find ways of getting even with you, and this can be really subversive and disruptive if you’re trying to implement something consistently across an organisation.

Finally, being right all the time erodes your people’s individual accountability. If you correct people all the time or override their decisions, you assume accountability for them implicitly. They can’t be held to account because if something goes wrong, the choices weren’t really theirs and if it goes right, they feel as though you’ve stolen the victory from them. As a leader, this is going to require balance. You want accuracy and judgement to be applied. You have to let go of your superior judgement if indeed that’s what you have in preference for a better ultimate outcome. Now, I know it seems counterintuitive, but all will become clear later on.

Years ago at Aurizon, When I stepped into a senior sales and marketing role, I remember going on a very early sales call with one of our key account managers. It’s important to understand the context here. The sorts of contracts we were dealing with were high value and low volume. So in other words, there weren’t that many contracts, but they were really, really big, big dollars and long-term. So most of these contracts are 10 year contracts for haulage of commodities from a mine to a port. And because the opportunity to bid for these contracts doesn’t come around very often, you have a very small window in which you can actually lock down hundreds of millions, or even billions of dollars in future revenues for the organisation. Now, this particular key account manager sat down with a client and the relationship between us wasn’t good. We’ve been doing their haulage for them for a number of years and they were really angry at the fact they weren’t getting the service they thought they deserved and that our organisation wasn’t commercial enough to give them the best outcomes in terms of sharing risk and reward.

And I remember this account manager sitting down and try to explain from some independent research that we’d had commissioned as to why we were the best option for them going forward. And he powered through this soliloquy of why we are the best because this research proves we’re the best. I was really only an observer in this meeting, but as I looked across the table at the most senior decision maker in this organisation for infrastructure services, I could see the look on his face, and that looks said, “If there is any way on this planet, I can avoid doing business with you, I will”. So I realised at that point that it didn’t matter what data we presented until we had started to repair the relationship. And that’s what we did, and eventually about 12 months later, we won a major contract with that client because it is a long sales cycle.

So look, let’s just a little example of the way these things can play out. It’s not being right that counts. In that case, it was the relationship and the trust element. So it’s important as leaders that we never lose sight of the object of the exercise. I’m going to give you a few things here that in my view are way more important than being right. The first of those is, it’s not about being right, it’s about getting the right outcome. You have to have people sign up to the solution. Any decision you make has to be executed and you’ll need the commitment of your people for that however you achieve it. It doesn’t just have to be the right answer. It has to be the best answer for the stakeholders who rely on it. And just a little caveat here, just remember you’re not looking for consensus – you’re looking for an accountable decision maker to execute their accountability.

The next thing, is it’s more important to build team confidence than it is to be right. If you have all the answers, no one else has to come up with any. “Oh, Marty’s always right, I’m not. I know that whatever decision I make is just going to get overruled ultimately. So I guess I won’t put much effort into it until I know what Marty actually thinks”. Or even worse, your people can become frozen by perfectionism, so they’re trying to make something perfect to cover off every angle and spend too much time trying to be right because that’s the culture that develops around it. Your team then becomes quite weak. It’s not the confident team you’re looking for that produces results and values excellence over perfection. Another thing that’s more important than being right is making yourself redundant.

Now, this is really important if you want to mitigate key person risk. You’ve got to ensure that you and no one else around you is indispensable. If you always need to be right, guess where that puts you? You can never be free until you replicate yourself in the people below you, and you’ll always have more work than you should, so you’ll be working a lot harder and your people will carry less accountability than they ultimately should, so you will let them off the hook for poor performance.

And finally, much more important than being right is growing other leaders. The first accountability of a leader is to build leadership capability below you. As a leader, you need to be able to demonstrate sustainable performance. Just step back from this for a minute and have a think about it. As a chief executive, your number one objective is the perpetuation of the organisation. That’s it. Your number one goal. But if we look at the median life span of a CEO in large caps in the U S for example, it’s around five years and the average tenure is about seven. In Europe, the average tenure is just over six years. So if you want your company to flourish beyond that, you’d better be thinking beyond your own horizon. And if the organisation has to rely on you for everything, guess what? That’s not making the organisation sustainable.

Ultimately, being able to influence trumps being right. As we’ve already discussed, there’s no point in being right all the time if it disables, or demotivates your team, if it weakens your bench strength or if it dilutes the ultimate results because execution is compromised. Think about how to capture the upside of being right without excessive exposure to the downside of the potential negative impacts we’ve discussed. Let’s walk through a scenario to demonstrate how this could work. What would happen if despite your obviously superior judgement and capacity for making decisions, you helped your people to work through a problem to arrive at the best answer. This can take a little more time, but it doesn’t have to compromise decision-making speed and it will pay itself back in spades when planning and executing the solution – especially if there’s a person below you who’s accountable for project or initiative and they should have decision making accountability in any case.

Instead of you as the leader being the final port of call for the decision, leave the decision with the accountable person and wrap some support around them. This has some surprising effects, so the first thing is it promotes a stronger understanding of the issue at hand. Can you imagine if you just allow more free flowing conversation about a problem before you actually dive into solution mode? This is the big difference between Eastern and Western thinking styles, if you’ve ever studied this. In Western thinking styles, there is a very, very little time spent on understanding the problem. Understanding the problem happens really, really quickly and then most of the time is spent in designing the solution. Eastern thinking styles approach the problem slightly differently. They spend a lot more time contemplating the problem itself. They looked at it from many different angles and seek to get a deeper understanding before they jump into solution mode and for those of us on the Western side of the world, we look at that and we say, “Oh my God, they’re doing nothing. That is so slow. They’re just procrastinating”.

Not necessarily the case. If you get into some sort of better frame around understanding the problem, it can also help to keep you honest and challenge your thinking, because guess what? Even if you’re right most of the time, you’re not going to be right all of the time. The second benefit to doing this is that people end up owning the solution. It can even have the fortuitous serendipity of people thinking it was their idea when you wanted something implemented. See, you get to leverage your intellect in a more sophisticated way. It’s really easy to tell someone the answer if you know it much, much easier than it is to bring their way of thinking around through influence. They say that Nobel prizes aren’t awarded to those people with the best answers, but to those people who ask the best questions, so your job shifts as a leader from the person who is always providing the answers to being the person who is asking great questions. And it’s awesome in a decision making forum to ask questions like, “I wonder what would happen if”, just to muse about certain elements of the problem to get people to engage on it and to discuss it.

Then you can lead them through to a solution and sometimes as I said, you’re going to learn something yourself. You can also use this discovery process to reinforce people’s capability and help them to become more confident. It gives you the opportunity as their leader to help them calibrate their thinking and the inputs that they’re providing and this is really useful for the long term. You can also create a better team dynamic and culture by reinforcing your values, the modes of behaviour and expectations, and the standard of work you’re trying to deliver. This happens in the general run of play in situations where there are multiple team members present and you get to direct the flow of traffic. And finally, this provides a great platform for feedback, cause you get to observe your people much more closely and have a better idea of their strengths and weaknesses. This feeds directly into the feedback loop because you get to know your people so well that you can give them extremely targeted specific and surgical feedback about their performance, both good and bad.

Being right is an excellent start and you’ll be rewarded for making better decisions than your competitors. It’s important to foster this culture in your people. You will need to be careful that this isn’t at the expense of the speed of decision making. You will need to balance the speed and accuracy of decision making with the optimization of planning and implementing the solution. You can’t do this without influencing the people below you, above you and beside you. Sometimes, even if it’s only to arrive at the same answer you would’ve come up with in the first place. But who knows? Maybe you’ll find by listening a little more effectively that you aren’t always right after all.

All right, so that brings us to the end of Episode 84. Thanks so much for joining us and remember at Your CEO Mentor, our purpose is to improve the quality of leaders globally. So please take a few moments to rate and review the podcast as this enables us to reach even more leaders. I look forward to next week’s episode, “Strategy isn’t hard: don’t overcomplicate it”. Until then, I know you’ll take every opportunity you can to be a No Bullsh!t Leader.


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