When I first started working for the Navy, I spent a lot of time in waiting areas. While I waited, I read all the magazines. I overheard the office chatter, noted who came and went. The most exciting days were budget briefings. No one looked happy leaving those meetings. They mostly looked like someone had just kicked their new puppy and called it ugly.
What I found most fascinating was how apparently unprepared these individuals were for their meetings. Or was the leader just that demanding? It turned out, a little bit of both.
We've all had that leader - the one who keeps coming up with more questions, apparently with the sole intent of blowing gaping holes in our most amazing ideas. I had that leader. And guess what? He wasn't trying to blow gaping holes in my ideas. He was asking all those questions to ensure my ideas were rock solid and could withstand an 8.5 magnitude earthquake.
Aside from sitting in waiting areas, I also spent a lot of time sitting in the back of the room at some fairly high level meetings. Here, I had the privilege of observation - well out of the line of fire. I always kept Principle #3 from last week in mind. Pay attention to the questions your leader asks. They are the keys to your success.
Did this particular leader ask a lot of questions. Yes. Did he demand that you know your stuff? Absolutely. Were his expectations unreasonable? Actually, maybe not. Did his questions come out of nowhere? No. They were as predictable as the sun rising in the east - if you paid attention.
Most of the briefers I observed began with (often vague) notions about what they needed from him, or what they came to talk about. They started flailing only when the leader started asking questions. I wondered, what if someone created a brief designed around answering his questions - before he even had the opportunity to ask them?
So that's what I did. I sought to answer all his questions before he got a chance to speak. My goal was for him to say, "Yes, sounds good. Go ahead." That's it. No grilling, no leaving the office red-faced and sweating. No returning to the office a second or third time.
What were those questions?
- Why are we here today? (This better be laser-focused; it had better require that particular leader's attention - because he's busy; wasting his time when you could have spoken with someone not as senior and gotten the same outcome just made him unhappy)
- Who else have you talked to? (Key stakeholders need to be involved, and onboard)
- What are the costs? (time, money, effort)
- What are the risks? (short and long term)
- What other options are out there? (costs and risks associated with those)
- How long will this take?
- Why are you recommending this option? (why were other ideas discarded?)
- Who or what else are we depending on? (contractors, partners)
- What do you need from me?
I'll admit - it was a lot of work - the first time. But it worked. I walked into his office with a rock solid brief, and I walked out with his approval. Every. Single. Time.
With practice, this became second nature to me. After the first few times, briefing this leader only took me 5 minutes. He got used to trusting that I'd done the legwork. Our conversations were easy and pleasant. In a very short amount of time, he'd become one of my favorite leaders.
He made me a better leader, and a trusted professional. His questions laser-focused me to dig deep, to understand a topic inside and out. His questions forced me to engage with key stakeholders across the Navy (and beyond), and see that I had access to more resources than I'd imagined. He taught me how to brief senior leaders in a way that directly addressed their concerns, challenges and priorities.
The best part? He never knew that he was teaching me. I simply observed the questions he asked and implemented the formula. It worked every time.
Try it for yourself, and take it a step further. Put yourself in your leader's shoes. My leader was a senior person for the Navy's budget. If he got something wrong, a lot was riding on his shoulders. How might your perspective shift if you were standing in your leader's position? How is your leader actually helping you with all their questions? How does this make you a better professional?
I hope you've found this helpful. Please let me know in the comments, and if there's a particular leader you'd like to see featured!