John O’Donnell is by no means shy; he just prefersto keep interaction with his senior team to a minimum. In a highly functioning organization, he says, this hands-off approach is the best way to elicit imaginative input, and the only time leaders should ever intervene in the boardroom is when their staff has hit a wall and cannot find a solution.
At Stark State College of Technology, the president fosters that self-directed culture by surrounding himself with 797 of the “best and brightest” full- and part-time employees in the industry. This laissez-faire approach is generating positive results: The institution, which has an annual budget of approximately $40 million, is the seventh-fastest-growing, midsized public two-year college in the nation.
Smart Business spoke with O’Donnell about how listening builds a great team and how to get your team members to raise their hands and contribute.
Listen to your best and brightest. The author David Halberstam wrote a book called “The Best and the Brightest,” and it was about the cabinet Kennedy recruited from academics the best there was and the brightest there was in their areas of expertise.
After Kennedy was assassinated, Johnson kept many of them. What happened under Johnson was they stopped talking. They stopped the debate. The best and the brightest became ineffective.
Kennedy wanted to learn, and he wanted debate, and he wanted give and take. Johnson really felt locked in by his own ego and his own perceptions of how things should work.
The base of communication is actually listening. Many leaders fail because they start talking too soon, don’t listen and don’t turn to the natural talents of the individual to solve the problem.
Don’t start with your value-added because plenty of other people have great ideas, great solutions, great abilities to facilitate. In a highly functioning organization, the only time a leader has to intervene is when the group ... has really hit a wall and cannot find a solution.
I firmly believe that most people do their jobs very well. By listening, what you do is pull out their expertise.
Display your expertise by tapping into the expertise of others. The individuals and the group have to trust in the leader’s expertise. They have to believe that the leader can bring a value-added to their day-to-day operations and to the organization.
Pull out the facts that they know about the problems. Pull out the gaps that they have about the problem. It’s in any interaction or forum, just asking questions and listening. Don’t pepper them with questions, though.
Say, ‘Here’s where we can go to fill these gaps. Here’s what I know that would fill the gaps.’
What you’re doing is really getting the complete picture of the organization because everybody sees it in a different way, and you have a comprehensive view of how it’s working.
Listen and respect the expertise of those around you. You show your expertise by bringing that value-added comment when they present you with a problem.
By giving the value-added and listening, everybody is more willing to trust. You build a team that will work together to make the organization great.
Look at history to gauge future performance. For any individual who is applying for a position, regardless of the type of organization or job, the best window to that individual is their job history and their references. History is telling.
How we behaved in the past is perhaps the best predictor of how we will behave in the future. If you speak of an individual’s core character, there’s a constancy to it over time.
And then, here’s something that is very often left out of a job interview: the expectations of the organization, letting folks know right upfront what the expectations are.
It’s an issue of match, and it’s an issue of match on two levels. One, are the tasks and the responsibilities they will have, is their skill set a match with those tasks and responsibilities?
The second part is an issue of spirit. Does the person really feel and believe in the mission of the organization?
People are very insightful. If they hear the expectations, they can hear that there’s really not a match with their history and their answers as they sit right before you in terms of the organization’s expectations.
Get your team members to raise their hands. I spent many years teaching, and [during] the first class I would say, ‘In order to have this class work, I really need you to put your hands up. It’s OK to be wrong. Don’t look at being wrong judgmentally. We’ve ruled out one of the possible solutions or one of the possible data elements. Keep putting your hand up because that means you’re thinking critically.’
That’s what it finally gets down to. It is not the right answer or the wrong answer. It’s the critical look at the problem that’s on the table.
At some point, there has to be a final product we have to make decisions but every question and every presentation of another viewpoint really should get you to rethink the hypothesis.
I would tell (another CEO) to admit that he doesn’t have the answer, and that he really needs their help. Then be quiet and listen. People love to help. They love to talk about what they’re doing and their job. Just pull back and listen. (Employees are) a window to effectiveness.
HOW TO REACH: Stark State College of Technology, (330) 494-6170 or www.starkstate.edu