METHODS FOR DEVELOPING THE EAR OF YOUNG MANAGERS
By David Downey
Two guitarists were playing and singing to diners in a crowded outdoor restaurant under a moonlit sky. “I can’t see which one it is,” my wife told me, “but the guitarist playing the lower melody line is tuned flat.”
Odd, it sounded fine to me. But then again, I don’t have Kathy’s decades of musical education, her Masters from Julliard, nor have I played on the stage of Carnegie Hall two dozen times as she has done. I seem to have Van Gogh’s ear for music, and struggle to play the radio in tune.
A few days later, I’m on a conference call with clients and a few colleagues. Afterwards, I asked one of my young managers what he thought about the call. “Awesome! Couldn’t have been better,” he enthusiastically replied.
I wondered if he had been listening to another phone conversation. He had not picked up on the unspoken concerns, doubt and hesitancy that were so obvious to me. In his position, he’s had just a few years of limited exposure to client presentations in a somewhat narrow field. In nearly 35 years of doing business deals, while I may not have heard it all, I’ve sure experienced a lot of it – repeatedly. My business sense told me there was peril ahead with this particular client’s project.
It then struck me that just as I had been tone deaf to the out-of-tune guitarist, my young manager had not been able to hear what had blared out to me during our client conference call. It underscored an all too common challenge in business: In today’s harried business environment, how do we facilitate the professional development of our staff by leveraging the experience of more senior managers?
Success in business often comes down to more than superior execution and technical skills. While a well developed “business sense” may be somewhat subjective and difficult to quantify, it never the less is often the deciding factor between success and a missed forecast.
As a senior executive, I’ve always felt that other than protecting the balance sheet, my primary objective was to develop my staff, impart the knowledge I’ve gained over the years while continually challenging them to grow professionally. But how do you train “business sense?” That’s something not taught in even the best universities. Case studies will only take you so far. How does one develop the ear for business?
There is seldom anything most of us receive with so much reluctance as advice. That can be doubly so when the recipient views him or herself as a whiz or a young master of the universe. Experience has shown me in order to enhance the realizations of less experienced staff, often the best way is also one of the oldest.
Socrates used a form of inquiry and debate between individuals (the “Socratic Method”), based on asking and answering questions to stimulate critical thinking and illuminate ideas. It’s a standard form of teaching and learning used in many law schools today. Going beyond drilling details and facts, it provides an exercise to stretch one’s mind; to see new connections and perspectives all while aiding the formation of instincts.
Following a sales call or a presentation to a prospective client, I’ve found it helpful to debrief accompanying junior colleagues immediately following the event. I want to know what they learned and impressions they gained. I go back through any questions that were asked to determine what their take-aways were from the meeting. Ask leading questions that force them to think:
“What concerns did you hear mentioned that might turn into an obstacle later on in the project?”
“How should we address those issues now before they turn into problems later?”
“Who on their team do you see as “influencers” and “decision makers?”
“What are the drivers or motivating factors for each?”
“What prism shall we use to bring them all into focus?”
“What information that wasn’t learned today do we need to formulate a compelling strategy?”
“How do we go about getting it?”
“What do you suppose was really meant when they said ______?”
When attempting to help develop a subordinate’s business sense, here are some other methods that can help facilitate the results you desire:
Management guru Peter Drucker reminded senior executives that, “At this stage of your life, it is your job to release and direct energy, not to supply it.” One of the hardest tasks for any senior manager is delegation and learning to monitor and manage projects rather than doing the heavy lifting themselves. Effectively doing so will allow much more to be accomplished, along with the development of junior staff as they learn from your experience. To paraphrase the great 19th century English author Samuel Butler, “Life (and business) is much like music; it must be composed by ear, feeling and instinct, not rule.”
David M. Downey is President/COO of Corporate Rain International, based in Dallas & can be reached at: DDowney@CorporateRain.com
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