I had a horrible stutter when I was little. Everything and everyone scared me, most of all Mrs. Kirby, my first grade teacher. In memory’s eye she’s elderly and deformed, towering over me with a wagging finger and scolding voice, some minor childish infraction having landed me in trouble.
It takes a long time for a stutterer to find her voice. The fear of being ridiculed for the impediment is a personal gag order, especially given the mocking cruelty of young children. It led me into a more private, less social, world of reading and writing.
And I suspect it’s not unusual, once that voice is found, for it to roar, words tumulting over themselves in the rush to be said and the eagerness to be heard. Maybe it’s an excited tumble or an angry rumble, but it feels that much more significant being a new found strength where you once thought you would always be weak.
I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to have a voice watching the political theater of Senator McConnell shushing Senator Warren for infraction of a Senate rule. The pros believe that she was grandstanding and launching her 2020 run, and that a return to civility was much needed after all the drama of recent cabinet hearings. The cons saw an aggressive woman with power and appeal being told to sit down and shut up, followed by her male colleagues saying the same thing without censure or shaming.
There are lessons here for rising leaders, those aiming for or already in their first big role. Navigating the landscape of workplace politics is treacherous. When to speak out? When to stay silent? What issues to push for? When to give up? When does their insistence look like courageous vision and when does it seem like obnoxious self-indulgence? If I agree with my boss will that mark me as a kiss-up? If I disagree will I be labeled as difficult and hard to manage?
These rising leaders are your next C-Suite candidates – they are finding their voice – how do they train it to add value without mouthing cliches; to engage in healthy debate on issues that matter; to nail their brand as one of intellectual heft and verbal persuasion? And how do you, senior leader, manage a group of them competing and vying for your attention at the same time all the time?
It isn’t easy, but I’ll try – here’s how you figure out when to keep talking and when to shut up:
- Mind Your Own Business. It’s smarter, safer and adds more value to the organization when you are a bull dog about contributing to top line growth and achieving the company’s objectives. Your business should always be aligned with the greater good – if you see a risk to that, or an opportunity in that, you have an obligation that should not be ignored.
- Know when to quit. The first time is interesting; the second time impassioned; the third time you’re a pain in the ass. Some battles aren’t worth fighting; some battles can’t be won; and sometimes you’re just wrong. Or your timing is wrong. Or your messaging stinks. Save your energy for another way and a different win.
- Build Alliances. Did you socialize this idea? Figure out the obstacles ahead of time and develop strategies to overcome it? Discover your allies and your enemies and pay attention to both? Get your boss’s support? If you haven’t done all those things then you have increased the risk that you,and your idea, are going down fast.
- Honor Your Line in the Sand. Shortly after 9/11, my boss insisted that I do grief counseling for Wall Street employees, despite not being a psychologist or a counselor. I followed orders, and after one heartbreaking day of listening I refused to do it again. I was an imposter in that role, and despite the charge of insubordination, refused to fake help I couldn’t give. And I’m still proud of that.
If you’re introverted, or a diversity candidate, or new to the organization this can be harder. You’ll need some time to read the tea leaves, observe what gets said and what doesn’t. But do find your voice – because when you do you’ll discover something even more invigorating than the power to speak – it’s the amazement that you’re being heard.