Big Yellow Hats

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When my (now 31-year-old) nephew was young, he loved Curious George. If you know the story, through the many circumstances in which “George was curious,” the man with the big yellow hat encouraged him to explore, but was always there to keep him from going too far afield. George learned a great deal because the man with the big yellow hat allowed him the freedom to try new things.

Are you a “big yellow hat” leader? Do you encourage your staff to ask why, experiment, test theories and take risks, even when you know that sometimes they will stub their toes? According to a new report from The Bridgespan Group two of the core components in building a capacity for innovation within your organization are a curious culture, and catalytic leadership.

George was allowed to live in a curious culture. He took risks, and when he “failed” it became a lesson-filled learning opportunity. For the skeptics out there who are thinking your organization isn’t a cartoon and you can’t afford to have your staff play around, I would respond that, yes, there are risks that come with innovating. There are also costs associated with always coloring within the lines drawn by others. Just recognize that if you want your staff to identify creative approaches to the challenges before them, you have to let them explore a bit and ask “what if.” You have to let them be curious.

And what, exactly, is catalytic leadership? Merriam-Webster defines a catalyst as “an agent that provokes or speeds significant change or action. Catalytic leadership provides the push needed to get the ball rolling in a specific, focused direction. The man in the big yellow hat always identified where they were going or what they were going to do, he simply allowed George the freedom to be curious along the way. Catalytic leadership isn’t about letting staff focus their energies in twelve different directions. It is about articulating a vision and priorities, and then letting your people grapple and experiment with the best way to get there. It is about mentoring and encouraging collaboration and hands-on learning. It is about allowing your staff to find a path forward.

Being a big yellow hat leader takes patience and the ability to embrace ambiguity. It requires a recognition that progress rarely happens in straight lines or amid a tangle of rules, and that one rarely knows the route to the end of the journey when standing at the beginning of it. It requires a clear vision of the destination and the ability to inspire others and serve as a role-model for embracing possibilities.

How exactly does one become a big yellow hat leader? The first step . . . is to be curious.

Questioning Leadership

Question MarkOne of the great myths of leadership is that a leader has to have all the answers. In reality, if people in positions of leadership were required to provide all the answers, a lot less would get accomplished in this world. The real trick of leadership is asking the right questions.

Then why are so many leaders more prone to answering rather than asking?

  • It is quicker just to provide the answers. It seems everyone is running faster and the to-do lists just keep getting longer. Given that, if the leader already knows of a good solution, why not just provide it and save everyone time and energy, right?
  • Sharing their opinion has served them well. Most leaders didn’t move up through the ranks by keeping their thoughts to themselves. If voicing their perspective — giving an answer — has been rewarded up to this point, why would leaders want to change their approach?
  • Leaders are supposed to have things figured out. At least that is what everyone is telling them, and they have invested a large amount of time and energy into trying to do just that, so why would they not want to share what they have learned?

True? Maybe technically . . . however . . . to quote Marshall Goldsmith, “What got you here won’t get you there.” It is a myth to think that the behaviors that enabled you to a position of leadership are the same skills that will make you a successful leader.

  • That whole teach a man to fish thing . . . it really is true. We’ve all been in those meetings where someone is continually pulled out to answer a question or take a call simply because their people haven’t been asked, or allowed, to come up with an answer on their own. Sure, it may take longer at first to ask rather than tell, but in the long run you’ll get farther faster.
  • Why hire smart people if you aren’t going to listen to them? The best leaders seek out the slices of genius just waiting to be tapped throughout their organization. When you genuinely seek input before forming your opinion, your people feel valued for their expertise and you get to make better decisions.
  • Asking questions is how you . . . and your people . . . gain new insight! Think about the wisest leaders you know. Do they spend their time telling you how much they know, or do they ask probing questions that result in you identifying new solutions? In my experience, the most effective leaders use a few well-placed questions to steer you in the right direction and then encourage you to find the path forward.

Maybe, just maybe, the key to effective leadership is not imparting immediate answers but in asking the right questions. What do you think?