What’s Your Headline?

Last month I got invited to a feedback meeting with a colleague who works for one of my peers. As I popped into the conference room I smiled across the table and asked the man, “What feedback do you have for me?”

He paused for a moment and I could tell he was a bit uncertain how to proceed. He quickly recovered and shared that he had scheduled a series of meetings with me and my peers to create better relationships and to open the door to feedback on his team’s performance. In short, he didn’t have feedback for me; he was looking for my feedback on him.

I adjusted my expectation for the meeting and shared what I could based on our brief interactions. I noted that I respected his thought leadership and that our leadership team would benefit from him sharing it more actively in our large group sessions. I suggested that he set a goal to identify and lead a topic this year and I offered to help him. We don’t work together much so I ran out of ideas quickly. I was ready to head to my next commitment when he signaled, hesitantly, that he would appreciate guidance on the best way to approach one of my peers for a similar discussion.

I’m always surprised when people are nervous about asking the “what makes her tick” question. One of the first things I tell my direct reports is that I fully expect them to talk about me. I know that getting the best out of my capabilities means understanding my strengths and weaknesses. I want them to share best practices for effectively “managing up” so that we can deliver the best results as a team. I feel the same way about understanding my peers and subordinates; knowing who they are and what is important to them allows me to adapt my approach.

There is one significant problem with this concept. Getting to know the people you work with deeply is hard and keeping the instruction manual of every one of them in your head can be challenging. If you aren’t careful, it can feel less like a results-based strategy and more like a Machiavellian plot. Over my career I’ve been pretty good at modifying my approach (a strength that Strengths Finder calls “individualization“) but even I am finding it hard to keep up as my teams and networks get bigger. So recently I crafted a new technique: writing a headline for each person with whom I collaborate.

A headline is simplified statement that reflects the uniqueness of the person, often attached to both opportunities and challenges. My headline is “Only one setting, turned to max.” It’s true of my relationships, my energy level, my desire for achievement and my volume. On the rare occasions when my setting is low, I get a lot of questions about what is wrong. Usually, I’m sick.

I shared my headline with a colleague and he laughed. He compared me to having only one volume on a tv set — high. For a big sports game when the energy is flowing and everyone is in the moment you want it to be loud. It creates the kind of shared experience that lifts everyone up and brings them into the action. But then there is the awkward moment when it cuts to a commercial for tax services and everyone is stunned by the grating noise. There is a mad scramble for the remote to turn it down. High volume can be awesome or awful, but the fact that my knob doesn’t turn down is just a part of me, the headline that I carry.

So, I had something to offer the man sitting across from me as he sought guidance on the most effective way to approach my colleague. I shared that he was a great partner, committed to the company and doing right by both our team and our customers. I briefly outlined the idea of headlines and then noted that the headline I had given my colleague was “Always in motion.” He is rapid-fire, he walks with purpose, has a never ending list of ideas, and has a huge bias toward action. He is often double and triple-booked, multi-tasking, and communicating on the run. I find that reflective listening is important to make sure that I have caught his ideas and that I understand the intent. I offered that an email which may appear curt or frustrated on the surface should be seen through this lens and was likely just rushed. I suggested that if he felt a disconnect he should force a pause and seek to clarify. If he kept the headline in mind he would get valuable and important feedback.

Soon after that meeting, I met with that peer. I shared the idea and the “Always in motion” headline I had attributed to him. I worried a bit; his first response was to  focus on the down-side, noting that it was something he knew he needed to work on. I re-oriented him and reminded him about the upside of his headline, how we benefited from his energized nature and his willingness to drive progress and offer new ideas. He pushes us all to action in a way that might not happen without him. I assured him that his headline was appreciated and that I wouldn’t give it up.

Maybe the concept is too simple. After all, people are complicated and we can’t reduce them down to a witty line any more than you can take a thoughtful New York Times article and reduce it to a single headline and expect the same result. But, for me it is important to have a quick filter for my experiences so that I don’t overreact to a moment of confusion, so I can adjust quickly while assuming positive intent. Thinking about a person’s headline provides a helpful starting point when crafting a challenging email, approaching a hard conversation or thinking through an unexpected response. Like a real headline it’s doesn’t tell the whole story, but when well-written it provides a great start.

Getting Comfortable with Unknown Unknowns

Earlier this month I found myself commiserating with a fellow parent around the challenges of raising a teenager. We talked about battles over homework, our effective (and ineffective) carrots and sticks, and the ever present feeling that you aren’t going to successfully get your adolescent human to adulthood. As we shared our stories I suddenly realized why this stage of parenting is causing me so much stress.

Teenagers do not believe in the existence of the unknown unknown.

To be honest, I don’t blame them. I remember the feeling of absolute certainty that came with my teenage years. I entered every discussion and decision convinced that my extensive years on the planet had given me every experience needed to know the right answer. I was a cocky, arrogant know-it-all and the last thing I even considered was the risk that there were things I didn’t know I didn’t know. Matthew Squair in his blog post on the risk continuum calls it ontological uncertainty and compares it to a card game where you start without any knowledge and slowly pick up the rules as you play. You think you have it all figured out but what you don’t know is that the dealer has a single card that can be played against a rare situation, a black swan. You have no clue that it is waiting to change the rules yet again.

The only cure is more experience.

As we talked about the unknown unknown I shared that my own appreciation for how little I knew came from going off to college and being faced with hundreds of experiences that my younger self could not have predicted. Step-by-step I shifted from an incorrect certainty to a grudging curiosity and finally to a willing investigation of the world, recognizing that no matter how much I learned I wouldn’t ever be free of the not knowing. But, unlike many of the lessons I’ve learned from life, I couldn’t point to a single moment when I got it.

On the other side of the phone, I could hear him smiling. He told me he knew the exact moment when he had come to understand that he didn’t know. He told me it was a business meeting when he had laughed out loud at a funny sounding word — a technical term that his CFO had quietly corrected him over — that had jarred him to understanding how little he knew. He expressed, more than 20 years later, the embarrassment he had felt in the room of others who understood not only the topic but his ignorance. I felt for the younger version of my colleague, but the truth is that he wouldn’t be the leader I know him to be now without learning that hard lesson. In any given situation you probably know a whole lot less than you think.

What surprises me is how hard it is for individuals to accept the fact that there are things they don’t know and worse things they don’t know they don’t know. As leaders it gets harder and harder to acknowledge the gaps in your own knowledge and that of your team; the higher you get the more people expect you to have the answers. It takes real courage to say, “I don’t know” or “I haven’t seen that before” to your boss, your peers, or your team. You have to have confidence and bravery to believe that through discovery you can turn an unknown unknown into a known unknown — a gap in knowledge that can be closed through data gathering, research, and modeling.

This week I’ll turn 45 and I am officially declaring it my middle age. While I can’t know with certainty when I’ll hit my official middle, it feels right because I feel simultaneously young and old. Young because I’m (hopefully) only half way through this adventure we call life and old because I’m decades away from the teenager who knew that she had the whole damn world figured out. I have no idea how much it is I don’t know I don’t know and that’s ok. I plan to keep learning as long as I am able and isn’t that awesome?

(Post graphic created by Mike Clayton in his Four Types of Risk post on his blog “Shift Happens!“)