When my company reached 12 people, I started doing all-hands meetings every Monday morning. I thought it was a good way to bring everyone together and set the tone for the week. I’d present my own agenda at the very start: everything I wanted to talk about, everything I wanted input on and everything I needed to say.
My team would chime in with questions, but otherwise, I led the meeting. I believed that was what meetings and leadership were supposed to be. At first, it was overwhelmingly positive for our culture and organization. We were communicating better, and I felt better connected with the team.
However, after a few months, I began to worry that it was becoming just another unproductive meeting in everyone’s day. It felt like the same thing every week: I’d stand in front of everyone and lecture, and they’d give me their responses.
Then one morning, I heard an inspiring story about Nelson Mandela on a podcast. Mandela — a revolutionary, activist and president of South Africa — learned everything he knew about leadership from his tribe’s king, who was also his father. The king would gather all of his men in a circle and let them speak — any gripe, comment or idea was fair game. At times, he would sit there silently for hours while they spoke.
After they’d exhausted every thought they had, he finally began to speak. By listening, he understood how to lead. He could bring together everyone’s thoughts, combine them with his own ideas, and create an effective plan that his whole team could get behind. He steered them not with force from the front but a gentle nudge from behind.
A technique like Mandela’s is so far removed from the visual most of us have of CEOs and company leaders — loud, enthusiastic, passionate, self-assured. By comparison, Mandela’s method asks us to be reserved, contemplative and introspective. On the surface, it doesn’t seem like leadership at all.
I was so curious about this style that I changed the agenda for the Monday meetings to try it out. I decided it was time I talked less and listened more. I began the meeting by asking: “What’s one thing we’re doing well, and what’s one thing we could do better?”
And I sat down. I left the floor open to my team. It went against everything I had ever learned about leadership. But I was blown away by the results. A few people raved about how close-knit our team was. They said they’d learned a lot from me and from each other since being hired. One person said they wanted even greater communication — something I thought we’d been doing a decent job of. Another encouraged the team to pay greater attention to detail.
It was like there’d been a gold mine at my feet all along. And all I had to do was let go of my agenda so I could start digging. Here’s what I learned about reinventing my meetings as a leader:
Ask a prompting question. Leaving the floor completely open means some employees will get into the weeds of their client work, and others will use it as an excuse to chat about their weekend. While those conversations are important, they aren’t great for the all-staff meeting. Asking a productive, thought-provoking question will keep everyone on track and make sure your meeting stays short.
Take thorough notes. Some of the comments you get might be surprising, exciting or even confusing. It can be hard to process what you’re hearing and see trends in your team’s thoughts when you’re in the thick of it, so make sure you take good notes to review later.
Be present. While you’re not front and center, you’re leading from the sidelines. Make sure no one else takes the mic for too long. Be a present voice in the room. Focus more on keeping the conversation moving forward and ensuring everyone’s voice is heard.
Follow up. These hands-off meetings are a waste if you let your great ideas get away without taking action. Don’t let your meetings become a place to complain and whine. If there are problems, make it clear that you’ll develop a plan of action — and follow through.
Relinquishing control can be tough. That headstrong, pioneering style is so ingrained in how we view leadership that setting it aside almost feels lazy. But how can you lead if you don’t know what your team needs?
Whether it’s at your all-hands meetings or one-on-one, stepping back and listening will make your business stronger. Like Nelson Mandela once said, “You can only lead them from behind.”