The most important skill needed to become more strategic: Patience

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I’ve read several blog’s under LinkedIn Pulse #SkillsGap series focused on skills that people are acquiring or refining this year and thought I’d add one more to the list.

If I could acquire one skill, it would be patience. Everybody laughs when I say that. They are probably laughing at me, not with me, because in my informal skills gap poll of work colleagues and family members, everyone was in agreement. There was no hesitation.

Why patience? Ultimately, it helps you to become more thoughtful, and more strategic. When you start focusing on strategy, alignment becomes so important. Alignment takes patience because you don’t necessarily have command and control of people and resources. You have to influence people. That means communicating your ideas, listening to other peoples’ ideas and understanding them at a deep level. Then you have to negotiate and communicate until everybody aligns. It takes deep listening, careful and consistent communication, and most challengingly, time.

The funny thing is, I can do this really well when I’m in a sales cycle. In that situation, I operate by the motto, “two ears, one mouth,” meaning I listen more than I talk. To close a sale, you have to have empathy for the customer’s needs and their process and let it unfold more or less in its own time.

The problem is, I don’t always apply those skills with the same rigor internally. The first person to call this to my attention was Jim Thanos, a board member at Pilot Software, a company I founded and ran from 2002-07. One day he said to me, “You need to remember you’re always in sales.”

I said, “Okay, I don’t know what that means.”

He said, “Well, the moment you finish talking to customers, you change your whole process. You need to use the same skills with your internal peers. Slow down. Be patient. Two ears, one mouth.”

I started to monitor myself and I noticed that I became really impatient when we were having a discussion and somebody didn’t share my point of view. Yet, with most customers and prospects I was meeting, that was exactly how it was and I had no problem with it. Looking back, I think I just figured that patience was my “day job,” and when I came back to the office I could stop working on it.

I presumed internal people understood my point of view and the challenges I was facing and they were in alignment. In reality, they weren’t. And I wasn’t really taking the time to talk to them. I was talking at them.

This mostly worked for me for a long time because my role at Pilot was a command-and-control type of role (at least I saw it that way at the time), and for the next decade after I sold the company I took on a series of one-year, tactically focused assignments starting, rebuilding or turning around business units or regions. I would parachute in to lead a small team of commandos, take whatever hill it was we were supposed to take, and then pack up and go on to the next assignment.

In these assignments, I never invested time or effort in bringing the extended team or other constituencies in the organization along with me. So, when the last of them extended to year two, all the operational efficiencies we had gained in year one evaporated because we hadn’t strategically aligned with everyone else. The second year was a lot more difficult and my team and I really began to struggle. Had I been more patient building relationships and working towards alignment in year one, we might not have gotten to the results as quickly, but our gains would have been much more solid.

As I look forward to what I want to achieve professionally, which is to build a company again, I see that my biggest challenge is to hone the skills necessary to lead a cross-functional team to growth. Patience is skill one. I’m going back to sales basics—two ears, one mouth—internally. I’m forcing myself to listen before I jump in with the solution.

I’ve noticed two things so far. First, the gap in terms of where people really are and where I think they are is usually not as big as I think it is. I just haven’t been giving people enough time to consume information and go through their process. That’s what I have to do myself to get on board with anything new, but I’m typically not affording my audience that same sort of time.

Second, when I’m patient and take the time to gain alignment, the work quality and productivity is much better. There’s a lot less stress because everybody had input and understands how and why the decision was made. There’s a lot more support when we move into execution, and if I miss a meeting or two, the team continues to move forward, bringing solutions based on their own experiences to the table, solutions that I wouldn’t have necessarily seen.

I still have meetings where I’m gritting my teeth because this is still so uncomfortable for me. Some days I’m mentally drained from the effort. But then I get emails the next day saying things such as, “That was awesome. Thanks so much for sharing. Now I understand.” I remind myself that I’m exercising a new muscle, and that six-pack abs don’t develop overnight. The key is to exercise that muscle every day, and that’s what I’m doing. I also remind myself that when you’re building a business, not just making the next couple of quarters, patience actually saves time in the long run.

 

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