Hidden Lessons in Leadership #24

What does Mark Fuller, CEO of WET Design, do to foster a collaborative and creative culture?  Given that people are far more creative when they actually share ideas with each other, Mark focuses on developing skillful listening.   Quite creatively Mark uses improvisation classes as a means to this end.  Why? Because he feels that the improv process of responding to others forces people to attentively listen to what is being said.  Generally people hear each other—people are heard—because how else can one know when the other is finished talking?  How else while one know that it is now his/her turn to talk?  There is no listening going on, just hearing!  As Mark notes, people can’t just wait “for the other person to finish so they can say what they are waiting to say…they have to really be listening” so they can make an appropriate response to each other’s response.

What this also does is help people to be comfortable with uncertainty, which is foundational to the creative process.  One never knows what will arise from the creative act: That’s what makes it creative!

In addition to uncertainty another aspect of creativity is failure.  Not all ideas will be The Idea, but if not for all the ideas The Idea would most likely not have surfaced.  Is this not the process and value of brainstorming!  Hence Mark explains that he “encourages people to put their ideas on our walls” to make their ideas public.  Why are most reluctant to do this?  People don’t want others to see the flaws or mistakes in their idea.  As a means of overcoming this in meetings Mark models the behavior he wishes to see in others, by saying “let me tell you where I just screwed up” and then goes on to demonstrate that we learn by trial and error and not by trial and success.

Apart from the specific tactics mentioned above, Mark’s recounting of his practices provides a crucial aspect of leadership that is often overlooked.  Mark cares! A key principle of leadership—often overlooked in business—is that it requires a deep and wide sense of caring. If a person is fortunate enough to have attained an upper rung of an organization’s hierarchy, then he/she has the positional authority and thus the added responsibility to make the world for those he/she touches a better world.  As Mark stated, “I really love coming to work to develop the workplace and the team….So you need to build the company so you have great talent and great projects and a great environment.”  In regards to the environment of the organization make a safe workplace—both physically and psychologically safe—and one that fosters learning. As Mark asserts “the world is driven by change, so part of my job, I think, is to stir things up” implying that people in the organization must feel safe enough to embrace change, which is learning’s correlate.  In other words pay attention to the hiring process and continue to develop people to actualize potential and provide meaningful work while paying attention to the culture you foster.  Make sure everything you do reflects that you care about people and the work they do.  In short, to lead learn how to act in a deeply caring way.

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