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How to Become an Opportunity Maker With Others

Years ago, a board member brought me into a corporation to lead a team in creating two products that he felt would boost the stock price. Here’s how it happened. In my vigorous interview of him for The Wall Street Journal, he described how the firm could fall behind without them, and I became fascinated by their capacity to scale. He read my article.

Then, much to my surprise and his, as he later told me, as he is a very deliberate thinker, he called and offered me the job of leading the new product research and design team. Ah, what an unexpected and serendipitous opportunity for me to see business from the other side, I thought, so I rashly agreed.

1. When a Random Event Sucks You Into an Opportunity…

Success is random so court serendipity” ~ Frans Johansson

There were only a couple of problems with my coming into the company as an outsider. As a journalist, I’d never led a team, did not have the relevant technical experience and was ten years or so younger that the mostly ex-military and highly technical folks I was to lead. Oh, and my new boss had expected that he’d be leading the team, bringing in more resources to do so.  That may be why, in his welcoming email, he directed me to the wrong office and didn’t inform my direct reports that I was arriving that day.

One upside of being a business reporter is that it’s actually an accelerated learning experience. Yet, just as it’s one thing to “consult” with a firm, or report on it for a news story and quite another to actually be in the trenches, day to day, and attempt to accomplish something, especially when others are motivated to make you fail. Cobbling together what I learned by interviewing and observing business leaders, here is the approach I boldly, well blindly, took and what I learned during that sometimes wrenching yet ultimately satisfying project team experience…

2. Upfront, be Upfront

“You don’t have to be loud to lead” ~ Erika Anderson

When I finally found my office and introduced myself I asked for an all-hands meeting.  I’d brought along a longtime friend and unflappable graphic facilitator. Instead of the traditional introductions I just asked them to tell me their names, going around in a circle. Then I took an approach I learned from Richard Branson.

I said that I had three goals for the meeting, one for “us” and one for each of them, and that Tom, our graphic facilitator, would draw our unfolding conversation pictorially on the white wall so we could literally focus, not on me or one of them, but on our conversation as this crucial first experience together.

3. Crafting a Clear Top Goal Creates Collective Context for Making Better Choices

“Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence win championships” ~ Michael Jordan

Like reverse engineering, starting by clarifying the end goal helps us stay on track as we move towards it. So we began by discussing the main benefits that the two products should offer and the markets they could serve, then prioritized both. The more specific we were in that conversation, the more quickly and easily we could communicate and agree on changes as we learned more in later stages.

4. How Can We Each Use Our Best Talents on Our Strongest Interests?

“Look for the best in people to build a fantastic team” ~ Richard Branson

Next, in light of our shared picture of the most important attributes we wanted in our two products, each person was asked to specifically describe the parts of the project where they most wanted to take the lead and why.

In this step you learn a lot about your colleagues, from how much they understand themselves, how willing they are to be upfront about what they really want, and how articulately they can express themselves… See the rest of this post at my Forbes column, Connected and Quotable.

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