Chapter 4. Act Last, Read the Room, and Taste the Soup

The consistent quiet is my favorite attribute of a holiday break. My various Slacks are quiet, the house is quiet, and while it takes three days of quiet to get there, eventually my head is quiet.

Quiet enables reflection. I replay the critical parts of my recent life, and rather than living them, I observe them…from a distance. This often allows me to find the lessons rather than react to the situation.

On a recent long vacation, I found three lessons during my reflection on recent events at work. They are lessons I wish I’d learned a long time ago, and at their centers, they are all about the quiet.

Act Last

In poker, a full table is 10 players, and the betting starts to the left of the button, which is a round plastic thing to indicate the dealer. The button sits in front of one player and rotates clockwise with each subsequent hand, indicating the last player to bet. This is the prime position because you get to see how every other player at the table is going to play this hand. You have the most information with which to make a betting decision.

Oddly, at work, you will find yourself in precisely the same situation. You’ll be sitting in a meeting where folks are going around the table and giving their opinion about some important topic—and for a great many situations, when it’s your turn to offer your opinion, the savvy move is to pass.

Information builds context, and context is what forms the setting for an idea so that it can be understood. The more folks go around the table and weigh in with what they think about the idea, the more context you have, so the better you can shape your opinion before you share it.

Extroverted humans love to own the energy of a live conversation, which means they’ll likely play their cards right out of the gate. Unlike in poker, this is often the right move to land a new idea. It’s called “first mover advantage,” and for the human who wants to define the narrative by landing their compelling idea first, it’s a solid opening play. The thing is, acting early might set the tone, but it doesn’t make an idea sound. An idea doesn’t get better with agreement; it gets better with debate. It gets better when a diverse set of humans have a chance to stare at it and share their unique, informed perspectives.

So the question is, “When to act: first or last?” It’s a fair question, which is why you need to…

Read the Room

My opening move in any presentation is to read the room. The slippery question I am answering for myself is, “What mood is this particular set of humans in?” Impossible to answer, right? What is the aggregate happiness or sadness of a group of 10 or 50 or 500 humans? How are they feeling? And why does it matter?

The reason you care about the ambient mood of a group of humans is that you have business with the folks—you have a talk to deliver, you have a 1:1 to complete, or you have an urgent topic to discuss at a cross-functional meeting. Their collective mood is a critical signal informing your approach path for getting your work done, and the sooner you’ve tested the mood, the sooner you have an approach vector.

Here are my opening moves for reading the room.

For a talk, I almost always open with an audience participation exercise. Raise your hands. How many extroverts? How many introverts? Why do I care about the split of perceived personality types? I don’t. What I care about is how many folks willingly raise their hands. If you have five hundred people and only one hundred raise their hands to identify as extroverts or introverts? Okay, this particular crowd has its guard up. No clue why, but it means they’re holding me at arm’s reach, so I’ll do extra work to connect by explaining my background and my goals for the talk to make myself seem more familiar.

For a 1:1, I ask, “How are you?” I listen carefully to the answer. What’s the first thing they say? Do they deflect with humor? Is it the standard off-the-cuff answer? Or is it different? How is it different? What words did they choose, and how quickly did they say them? How long did they wait to answer? Did they even answer the question? Do you understand the answer isn’t the point, either? The content is merely a delivery vehicle for the mood, and the mood sets your agenda.

Finally, a meeting—and to make it harder, let’s say it’s a meeting I am not running, but in which I have a role as a participant. Not being able to land the first question and set the tone makes the initial read harder, but all the signal I need is still in the room. Who is running the meeting? How do they open it? Who perks up? Who keeps their nose buried in their phone? As the topic changes, how does the demeanor of each denizen change? What do I know about each participant in the room, and how might that context inform my reading of their changes of mood depending on the topic?1

Reading the room is the specialty of introverts, because we are comforted by the act of gathering of context. This context gives us the impression that we have a map for how this particular meeting might go. But where introverts can fail is when all we do is listen, all we do is build more context, and we don’t…

Taste the Soup

What do you hate about micromanagers? I’ll tell you what I hate. I hate leaders who believe that prescribing every single action without room for improvisation, iteration, or feedback is anything but demeaning and demoralizing. If I screwed up, if I failed on something critical because I failed to listen to your guidance, then sure…dictator it up. Until we arrive at that failure case, I don’t need to be told what to do; I need you to taste the soup.

In your career, you’ve had a lot of soup. You’ve had tomato, chicken noodle, potato and leek, and countless others. More importantly, you’ve had different variations of each soup. Big huge noodle chicken noodle. Some amazing type of cream on that tomato soup. This soup journey has taught you a lot about soup. Now, when presented with a new bowl of soup, the moment that counts is the first taste. You taste a bit and wonder, “What is going on with this soup?”

In a meeting where an individual or team is presenting a complex idea or project, my job as the leader is soup tasting. It’s sampling critical parts of the idea to get a sense of how this soup has been or will be made. Who are the critical people? What are the critical parts? Which decisions matter? I don’t know. I do believe that a prerequisite for leadership is that you have experience. You’ve had trials that have resulted in both impressive successes and majestic failures. These aggregate lessons define your metaphoric soup-tasting ability, and when your team brings you a topic to review, it is this experience you apply to ask the critical soup questions.

Leaders who default to micromanagement teach you nothing about the craft of building. Their tell-assertive style creates an unsafe environment where some of the best parts of being human, our inspiration and our creativity, cannot exist. Tasting the soup by asking small but critical questions based on legitimate experience creates an environment of helpful and instructive curiosity. Why did you choose this design? What is this metric going to tell us? What do you think the user is thinking at this moment?

The opposite of quiet is noisy, and business is noisy. It’s full of humans acting first, ignoring the room, and tasting none of the soup…and perhaps being annoyingly successful with each of these acts. Like all the advice you’ve ever received, mine is situationally useful, but it’s based on what I value as a leader.

Let others share their thoughts. You never know when a great idea will appear. Understand that because you’re the leader, your team is going to be less likely to contradict your idea—which is another good reason to act last.

Understand that everyone is busy living their lives, and they often bring those experiences to the conference, the 1:1, or the meeting. Their lives might not always fit neatly into the business, and your job as a leader is to read the room to understand what they need.

Demonstrate respect to the team by asking great questions. Be curious. Your experience has taught you lessons, and your questions often share those lessons better than your lectures. Plus, you never know what kind of soup you’ll get to taste.

1 Exhausting, right? Now you know why it takes three full days to clear my head.

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