Take the lead (the right way) in meetings where other people know more than you

We all like to ‘know our stuff’. Our sense of competence is based on what we know. It gives us the confidence and certainty to do something, have an opinion or perspective, or share with others how things are done. On the flip side, our brand, relationships and leadership are negatively impacted by our ‘need to know’ and our ‘need to be right’ (about what we know); which is our ego surfacing.

Learning to be comfortable with feeling uncomfortable isn’t easy, but necessary for leadership.

We work in environments full of complexity and change these days where leadership occurs in the shades of grey. Navigating problems requires judgement, intuition, as well as knowledge – to read the cues, make decisions and anticipate the consequences of those decisions. Leaders with poor emotional awareness and relationships will struggle and get the shades wrong. Being right doesn’t matter if you have no one following you.

When you listen to someone, the way you interpret and make sense of what you hear is through past reference points, which represent what you know about something. What happens when you have no reference points and you still need to take the lead?

Shifting from technical expert to influencer is a pivotal transition for any leader

We’re known for our technical (subject matter) expertise until our value lies in how we engage, influence and collaborate with others to solve problems toward shared goals.

Moving from expert to influencer requires the ability to have purposeful conversations. It’s not about being right. In a room of people it’s about taking the collective thinking forward. It’s about knowing when to take the lead. Sometimes, that’s speaking last.

I’ve loved working with Fran (see the photo of us below). She’s been promoted into a new ‘head of’ role outside her main area of expertise. She asked “What happens when you don’t have subject matter expertise or know the ‘content’ of a conversation and still need to contribute, make decisions and lead people?

Leadership is about making decisions that lead others forward

Here are three thinking frames (questions to ask yourself) for purposeful conversations and decision making that Fran and I delved into, as we addressed her question.

1. How are we thinking about this?

As you follow the conversation:

  • Are people in the room aligned on how the problem is being defined? People who don’t agree on what the problem is, will find it challenging to align on a solution that won’t fix the problem as they see it.
  • Are people welcoming diverse perspectives to expand and stretch the thinking in the room? Are people speaking up?
  • What assumptions, beliefs, and biases are underpinning people’s views that might be worth pointing out or challenging?
  • Are there gaps in logic? Do the dots (eg: data points) connect? Are enough questions being asked?
  • Are the chunk levels logical? For example, someone might pose an idea (high chunk level) and someone else shuts the idea straight down on a tiny bit of detail (low chunk level) therefore negating the idea before it’s had a chance to be explored.
  •  Have the risks/consequences of deciding/acting now versus later been considered?

The above examples are cues for you to refocus the conversation through the process of problem exploration and assessment.

2. How are we making a decision about this?

  • Are there agreed criteria for making a decision(s)? Do the criteria stack up?
  • Are people’s contributions toward the criteria or are people shooting off their opinions and wanting to be right about them?

Meetings can easily derail when one opinion fights another. Our ability to listen decreases when we are emotionally charged. If the criteria to make a decision are clear, opinions don’t matter – contributions toward the criteria do matter.

3. How are we aligning and committing to the way forward?

  • Is there shared understanding about what has been agreed? 
  • Even if people disagree, are people aligned to the decision and way forward?
  • Are roles, responsibilities, timings and other expectations clear?
  • Is there a check in point to assess and validate the decision(s) made?

Bringing it all together

Meetings are your greatest opportunity to be visible, add value to others, and show your thinking capacity – whether it’s from tactician to strategist or doer to leader. You don’t have to be a subject matter expert to contribute to a discussion and decision-making process. The more agile you are in your thinking, the more influence you’ll have. In other words, don’t worry about not having the right answer or not knowing enough to contribute. That’s making it about you. The quicker you are able to help make informed decisions, the more momentum you’ll create around you that will help bring everyone forward. How will you contribute outside your area of expertise this week? I’d love to know.

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