You are the Expert. Who Me?

At my first credit union, we had an extremely competent board with strong business acumen. I was lucky to engage with this group as they taught me a number of valuable lessons. I remember vividly having lunch with one of these individuals. He was sharing a story about the early days of his career when he received a promotion. He told me, “I was leading a competency that I had never done before. I had no idea how to do what the people on my team were doing.”

He shared with me that he quickly adopted a technique to elicit ideas and solutions from his subject matter experts. When they would come to his office and say, “We have this big problem. What should I do?” He would say, “What do you think we should do?” He alerted his team that they should not even enter his office unless they had ideas about how to solve the problems they faced. He had quickly positioned himself as an expert and quite a dominant influence without any subject matter expertise. He laughed and said to me, “They knew better than I did what the options were and I quickly learned a lot about the business.” He said, “Being a leader isn’t about having all the answers.”

It is tempting at times when asked for advice to pontificate. As we age, we draw upon experience and want to share it. It can also be terrifying. Over the recent Thanksgiving holiday, my daughter, MacKenzie and I enjoyed the slower pace of our mornings without work and school. When she woke up, she quietly crept into our bedroom. My mom alarm went off and I invited her to crawl in for a few extra minutes of dozing. Then came the questions.

“Mom, what does it mean to get divorced?”

Oh my. There goes the slow wake-up. MacKenzie had recently had a playdate with a friend whose parents were no longer together and it had sparked her curiosity. I said, “Well, sometimes when people get married, it doesn’t always last forever. In fact, most of the statistics on marriage are somewhat grim and nearly 50% of marriages end in divorce. Of course, even when that happens, if the couple has children, both parents still love the kids and work to create the best situation they can for them.”

My stomach was churning. In my mind I was thinking, “I’m not the expert. Can’t we talk about how you make stuffing?” Then I thought, well, try to paint a positive picture she can relate to and I said, “You know, Papa Floyd and Grandma Lizzie are divorced. They were married for 30 years and then grew in different directions. You and mommy are really lucky that they realized early on that if they could spend time together when you and I are around, they both continue to see us more.”

We weren’t done. She asked, “Will you and Daddy ever get divorced?” I said, “I hope not. I can’t predict the future, but no matter what happens you have lots of love in your life and your Dad and I will always love you.” With a few more questions, she started to lose steam on the topic and we started our day. I felt drained. I wondered if I’d told her too much at seven.

The next morning, she came back into our room and said, “So, mommy, what should we talk about this morning?” Despite my trepidation, I started with a question, “What would you like to talk about MacKenzie?” She said, “Let’s talk about authors and illustrators. What is the difference?” Pure relief.

In a world that is changing as quickly as ours is, being a subject matter expert is becoming more and more difficult. By the time you master one subject, it has likely changed. As a leader, as a parent, as a friend there are a range of choices as we respond to important questions. Answering MacKenzie with another question when she asked me about divorce, didn’t feel like the right choice. My little girl was faced with something foreign and scary and she needed answers.

Alternatively, I had a team member recently ask me about a presentation she was preparing. I started to give a laundry list of options on approach. Then I stopped myself and shared my vision for the outcome and the response of the audience and invited her to surprise me with the way she created a path to that result. This wasn’t a moment where she needed an answer. In fact, I suspect her presentation will be much stronger without the cloud of my opinions.

In becoming the nouns of mom and leader, I'm on a quest to find the balance between living the verbs of sharing experience, expertise and ideas and being quiet to ask good questions, listen and learn. Who have you asked a great question of today? 

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