How do you learn to see what you don’t see? How do you learn to look for what you don’t know to look for?
While those questions sound like something you’d hear in a Philosophy 101 course, in reality, they capture one of the toughest challenges leaders and their teams face.
Many leaders’ teams simply won’t and don’t see what the leader will, even when they’re looking at the same things. It’s not that their teammates are willfully ignoring what they see, but that they haven’t learned to see it.
A teammate sees an error; the leader sees a pattern or breakdown in the system.
A teammate notices that something worked; the leader sees a potential team best practice that everyone else needs to know.
A teammate notices a shift in data; the leader sees the start or repetition of a trend.
It’s easy, but wrong, to think that it’s a matter of intelligence or talent. In truth, it’s a matter of experience and a way of seeing the world. Therein lies the challenge, for that amalgam of experience, expertise, and worldview creates what’s more often called intuitive synthesis. The leader operates from an unconscious intuitive space that takes data and converts it into insight and actual information.
Articulating your intuitive synthesis is one of the hardest things to do as a leader. It’s also one of the most important things to do. (Tweet this!)
If you don’t learn to articulate this intuition, the result will be individual micromanagement or mass micromanagement via meetings, for starters. Since the team isn’t seeing whatever you’re seeing, a natural response is to get their teams together to talk about what’s going on so (only!) you can make sure things are going correctly.
And if your teammates can’t do their jobs and make much progress without checking in, projects are going to go slower and you’ll be the bottleneck. And this pattern creates a self-reinforcing feedback loop: since they can’t go far without you, you’ll be the one seeing, fixing, and doing, and since you’ll be the one seeing, fixing, and doing, they won’t be able to go very far without you.
Breaking out of this cycle will require active participation from both the leader and her team.
If you’re the leader of the team, you need to ask yourself how to help your team see what you see. Have you developed and shared a vision for your team? Have you created and shared strategic roadmaps? Do you have scoreboards and KPIs that you center discussions around?
If you’re a teammate, you’ll need ask your leader to help you see the world the way they do, rather than just asking them to solve the problem or give you the answer. “What’s your thought process here?” or “What are you seeing that I’m not?” are great questions to ask, as is showing up to the conversation with recommendations to problems rather than just the problems themselves.
Filling in this picture will require a combination of training, coaching, and mentoring — no single expertise transfer modality will be sufficient. The more responsibility a teammate has, the longer it’s going to take to get them up to speed with how you see the world. An entry-level administrative assistant might only work in a small corner of the business and thus doesn’t need to see so much of the business to excel, whereas a Chief Operations Officer will need to see the entirety of the business to do her job well.
Articulating your intuitive synthesis is hard work, but it’s the only way you’re going to be able to do less of someone else’s work and more of the high-value work that only you can do.
And if you’re not currently in a leadership position and want one, learning to see ever greater slices of your boss’s vision and to operate on it is the fastest way to promotion, simply because most people are content to be told what to do and push the ball to someone else. It’s the safest way to avoid failure. The people willing to step up and fail are the ones who move up and succeed.