What You Don’t Know Can Help You

If you are at all like most people, yours truly included, you’ve been guilty of trafficking in assumptions. 2008 will be a great year to build my dream house. It would never rain in Las Vegas in January; I don’t need that umbrella. Sure, I can fly on a red eye and go straight to work in time for my important meeting. Most of us don’t know what we don’t know. Recognizing this, and putting ourselves in line for opportunities where our assumptions can be cracked open, can serve us tremendously.

This week I consulted on a project where I got to do some assumption exploding for a great group of folks. And while the process was about them, through it I learned a lot about me. And how I want to challenge myself to operate.

As just a bit of background, this week’s client was a 50+ year-old national company that in the throes of creating its strategic plan recognized the need to incorporate the ideas and concerns of its Millennial talent. They brought me in to facilitate a visioning retreat with a small group of these emerging leaders. The experience culminated with a pitch session where the group had the opportunity to share back their own strategic plan with a dozen leaders of the company – founder included. Super cool, right?

I had no idea what the organization expected out of this group. I was given very little structure, which I love – truly – and told simply to facilitate the discussion and ensure that the discussion culminated in a pitch with ideas for implementation.

As I was tickled to learn at the end of the retreat, the senior leadership team was shocked by the content that came out of the experience. They were expecting a proposal for doggie daycare, employee massages, and a photo booth in each regional office. What they got was not only a pitch but also an actionable plan for how to roll out a comprehensive employee onboarding mentorship initiative; a leadership development program for high potential talent incorporating a buffet of leadership trainings, employee-led classes, and sponsorship for high potential talent; and a redesign of company apparel to reflect the increased percentage of women as employees and clients. The Millennials talked about what would incentivize them to stay at the organization – preserving the entrepreneurial, family culture; creating a transparent pathway for career and professional development; and the adoption and integration of regional best practices throughout the other offices. Higher pay and a sexier job title came up, briefly, but they never made it into the pitch.

Fortunately, although the senior leadership team thought they knew what motivated their young talent, they believed in creating a process whereby their emerging leaders could speak for themselves. For the last day, I’ve been seeking to identify a lot of my own assumptions and unpick which serve me, which need more exploration, and which need to take a permanent vacation into the compost bin. I’ve realized that a lot of the assumptions that fall into the tricky “need more exploration” category center around Who can I be for my clients? I frequently focus on describing the content and value of my programs and classes when I have an opportunity to introduce my work.

I can teach the art and practice of giving performance reviews.

I can come in and help your sales team dial-up their presentation skills.

Or, I can train all of your HR leaders and managers how to coach. 

When I sniff some interest, I ask a lot of questions to customize my curriculum. But imagine how much more effective I could be if I began from a place of curiosity and client-centeredness?

When I look at my three most exciting projects of the last couple of months, each unfolded from unanticipated conversations where people reached out to me to share struggles they were experiencing. And through a combination of asking questions without attachment to the answers and brainstorming possibilities for how aforementioned people would know when they were on the other side of the problem, I wound up cooking up opportunities to design and deliver different juicy customized learning and development solutions.

Unfortunately, nine times out of ten I don’t start my prospecting conversations this way. I assume that my topics and class names are going to be valuable to whatever decision maker I’m speaking to. I neglect to hold off on sharing the what until I understand the why. Mmmm…if only you could see the “aha” and “oh, you silly woman” look on my face right now!

I invite you to take some time and pick an area in your life where you feel super clear and in your zone…and most likely, as a result, are not spending a lot of time self-reflecting on your internal communication. As I’ve been doing, give some consideration to which assumptions set you and others up for success. Identify which you want to let go of, and most importantly, which could benefit from some additional probing.

The Center for Creative Leadership recently put out a report, Expanding the Leadership Equation, detailing the five most important qualities for effective next-generation leadership. The list included effective communication (no surprises there!), learning agility, self-motivation and discipline, adaptability, and… self-awareness.

Are you ready to make a habit out of self-awareness through practicing some assumption explosion?

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