What Happens When A CEO Speaks Last?

Curious to know what happens when a CEO speaks last?  I was too, so I leaned back and observed several of my CEO clients in action.

One of the most important things I do in my job is observe.  I sit back and watch.  I watch how people interact in meetings, during lunch breaks and while on video calls.  While most consultants want to be hidden in an office, I prefer to be where the action is, setting up in an open area so I can observe day to day behaviors of people working. With my  background in behavioral science, I’ve learned how to read people’s words and actions to identify the root cause and agenda for their behaviors.

While this is a great skill for my job, it’s even better for the CEO, but not that common.  Most CEOs feel the need to be in control and vocal at meetings with their executive leadership team.   I mean, isn’t that why they are where they are, to lead their team in discussions and drive towards solutions?

But, what if they didn’t.  What if  they “leaned back” instead of charging forward, allowing their team to come up with ideas and solutions.

There are some CEOs that empower their teams to take control and bring forth solutions, but that has some risk with it and most are hesitant to hand over the reins. Now, I’m not saying they should release all control, but incorporating an exercise of leaning back in meetings and speaking last so as to hear others ideas is a risk worth taking.

Having worked with over 30 CEOs, I have found a distinct difference in the performance of leadership teams based on if the CEO leans back, observes and empowers versus CEOs who feel the need to control every situation.

What is ‘leaning back”?

It’s a simple approach used in relationships.   There are two aspects to it, physical and mental, and the goal of it is to put the other party at ease.  By leaning back and listening, you create a space of receptiveness and in turn, an opportunity to understand.

This is easier said than done.  I was working on a restructuring with a CEO who had been in his role for dozens of years.  I had noticed that in a leadership team meeting, he would start off by giving an introduction to the problems we were looking to solve that week, then go right into a long speech about how to fix them. When he was finished he would ask what his team thought.

By then, (he was long winded), most of the leadership team was disengaged, and knowing he had already made up his mind on the actions to take, they simple went along and nodded their heads in agreement.

The couple of people who did raise their hand to provide a different approach were reluctant, and their delivery was less than effective.  Most started their response with, “You’re approach is great, and I was thinking maybe we could….”

The meetings weren’t that effective and the CEO would ask why his team wasn’t as innovative as he would like them to be.

Learning to Speak Last

Hearing my client’s frustration, I asked if he would try an exercise I’d used many times in the past with great success.  I told him it would require a different mindset and was not going to be easy. He paused but agreed to try it.

I suggested the following:

  1.   Ask the team to come to the meeting with “What If” scenarios, basically ideas on how to solve whatever problems the company was working on.
  2.   Speak last or not at all during the meeting, lean back and just listen.

He began this exercise hesitantly, but once he implemented it he began to see a big change in how his team was performing. They were excited for the meetings and would laugh about who was going to share their “What If’s” first.  The entire meeting had shifted from a long, drawn out speech by the CEO to a collaborative, idea generating session.

And more importantly, the solutions were coming from the team, not the CEO.  The endless nights of worrying about how to fix the problems in the business were eliminated by his team’s engagement and critical thinking.

The Mind Game

Now, you’re probably wondering how this is possible. Well, let’s take a look at what happens when a CEO speaks last versus first.

When you speak first, you are basically setting the tone for an “agree with me” culture.  Most executives don’t want to have conflict with their CEO boss, so they are less likely to voice opinions that may be different.  Even more so, they want to be seen as a team player, and having an opposing opinion from the CEO may put them in a less favorable position than their brown nosing counterparts.

When you speak last, you are allowing everyone in the room a chance to express their points of view.  Most feel comfortable opposing their colleagues and if they have good relationships, it may even be fun as each gets their turn to demonstrate their problem solving savvy.

The approach of listening and not speaking allows the CEO to hear different ideas and understand the thought processes of his or her team. When you have diverse ideas you can build upon the ones that make the most sense, creating an efficient problem solving process.

Another advantage when a CEO speaks last is that people feel safe in that the CEO is listening to understand and digest the information, not respond.  Having this feeling of safety at work results in a more productive and engaged leadership team, who are willing to speak up about what they believe is best for the company.

Lastly, with empathy becoming one of the most critical skills for a CEO, speaking last demonstrates an openness and trust that bonds the leadership team,  creating loyalty and better overall performance.

It goes without saying that this is a mind game, and a good one at that.  Eventually, using this approach at every level of the organization begins to build the competency of critical thinking and listening.  The result is a culture that feels empowered to share ideas and the value of respect by listening to others.  And who doesn’t want a culture of innovative problem solving and workplace collaboration?



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