March 22, 2011
The Yellow Legal Pad
Some years ago I had a boss who demonstrated how easy it is to get the best ideas from people. I was a television reporter at then-CBS-owned WCAU-TV in Philadelphia. Every morning at 8 am (an ungodly hour for those of us who worked the 11:00 pm news) the entire team of reporters and producers crammed into a standing-room only glass-walled office at the center of the newsroom.
My boss started each meeting the same way - by opening his drawer and reaching for a yellow legal pad and pen. He looked to his left and asked whoever was standing next to him, "What have you got?" Each of us had about a minute to pitch a story idea. He jotted notes as we stood there. Around the room we went. Sometimes I felt my stomach knotting up. But it forced me to get into the game.
It was understood that the quality of your pitch would determine the quality of your assignment and ultimately, the path of your career. No one got a pass. But, if you did well, the reward was to cover your own story. And, you were partnered with one of the better producers. If you were in a coma after a late night of partying? Cowboy up, or take your lumps. You'd be covering a dreaded house fire and riding with the photographer who bathed once a week and was determined to give you the blow by blow on his 3rd divorce. An only slightly better scenario would be an "evergreen" story that could run "anytime" - which usually meant it would never see the light of day.
If you didn't have an original idea you could always propose a creative side-angle to the top story of the day. This might still get you into the "A-block" (the first 8 minutes of the newscast). Eventually with enough top block stories, you had a resume reel that might well be your ticket to the big-time network someday.
I've often thought this boss was a genius. He didn't just set an expectation. He actually made it so everyone HAD to contribute.
We often receive executive coaching requests for high potential leaders who aren't contributing as much as their boss had hoped. We love to work with them, and our approach is to help them structure and think through their meeting contributions in advance. But what's also required is a holistic approach to team dynamics. As we tell our clients, to create a high functioning environment, the leader should acquire fantastic meeting leadership skills, and the group should go through training to agree on best practices and norms.
Getting the best from people has less to do with dissecting personalities and more to do with a robust meeting environment. You need all types of personalities to build a high functioning team. Getting everyone to contribute is a leadership issue. It's your job to manage - so the quiet ones contribute and the bolds don't suck the air out of the room.
It takes no more time to get the best from everyone. In fact it saves time. When you create the right dynamic everybody knows what they are supposed to do and you make faster progress.
When I think back on the 20 years I spent in TV news, he's the only boss I ever had to did it this way. Usually it's just a few producers meeting on the phone and then doling out assignments. The mystery surrounding those decisions compares to the cloak and dagger style selection of the Pope and produces a lot of grumbling. At least once a day a disgruntled reporter would call in to inform the assignment desk that the story was a "bust."
It is common sense that if you ask people their opinions they will be flattered and find an answer. If they don't have one, they don't belong on the team. If they do, get out your yellow legal pad and start writing. In no time it will be filled with great ideas.