The Surprising Truth In How To Be A Great Leader: Julia Milner (Transcript)

Full text of leadership professor Julia Milner’s talk: The Surprising Truth In How To Be A Great Leader at TEDxLiège conference.

Listen to the MP3 Audio here:


Julia Milner – Professor in Leadership

So the other day I was in the classroom; I work as a professor in leadership. And during one of the breaks, a student came to me, and we had a conversation. So he’s a bright student, great social skills, and he already works as an engineer.

So we talked about his career, and I said, ‘Well why don’t you go for that leadership position?’

And he looked at me, and said, ‘No, I could possibly not do that.’

And I said, ‘Well why?

And he said, ‘Well look, they’re different team members of my team, and each one of them is an expert in their own area, and I could not be the expert of all of these people. I would not be able to have the solution for everything, provide an answer for everything.’

And it occurred to me at that point that this is an assumption that a lot of people actually have: a lot of leaders have, and a lot of future leaders have, that you have to be the expert, and that you have to be able to give advice for everything.

So today I would like to show you that actually it’s more often than not better to not give advice, and I would like to show you an alternative, and show you what we know about learning that alternative.

So if we think about maybe like a common topic, so I was talking to my friend on the phone, and to illustrate you why advice-giving does not work.

So she was saying to me, ‘ah you know I’m really unhappy that my boyfriend does not spend enough time with me.’

Me, trying to be a good friend, what do I do, why? I think about solutions.

So I say to her, ‘Well why don’t you have a conversation with him?’

And she started to play with me what I call the yes, but… game and I’m sure you’ve all played it before. So it goes like this.

Me: ‘Why don’t you have a conversation with him?’

‘Yes, but… that would be too difficult of a conversation to have.’

‘Okay, and why don’t you write him at WhatsApp?’

‘Yes, but… that would be too impersonal.’

To be honest, I was really trying hard at this point not to go: you know what, he’s an idiot; you should just see other people.

No, I followed on, you know and we were yes butting for at least one and a half hours, and afterwards she was frustrated; I was frustrated, and there was no solution.

So yes but is a common response to receiving advice. Why is that? Well, it’s somebody talking about our life, and you know they’re not the expert of our situation, so they come up with what they think is best at that point in time. And it often doesn’t match.

ALSO READ:   What School Could Be, Should Be, And Almost Never Is: Steve Hughes (Transcript)

And for leaders, you know you might not get head-butted or yes butted in the face, like my friend did to me. But you might, you know they might not follow through if you advice, or they might just say afterwards you know that advice that we get from that leader is always so bad.

So what alternative do we have then, if we should not give advice? What can leaders do to still help team members? What is next?

Well, let’s go back for a moment to our engineer. So he was saying, okay he has different team members and each one of them is an expert in their own area.

So it would make sense to find a technique, to find a solution that actually helps him draw out the best in all of these experts that are there. And in the context of leadership, we call this leadership coaching. And it means, instead of teaching people, you’re helping them to learn. You’re helping them to arrive at their own solution that fits best with their situation.

So maybe let me illustrate that to you how that could look like. So let’s say this part of the room you’re going to be my advice givers, you look very serious like advice givers. And this part of the room you’re going to be my coaches, okay.

Let’s use a common topic, let’s just say, let’s assume at the moment I’m eating a lot of chocolate, and in a few months time I might want to get back in shape. So what would the advice givers do?

So you probably would say, well why don’t you just stop eating chocolate right now? It’s a very bad advice to give to a pregnant woman, okay. So don’t mess up the chocolate there.

But now let’s be fair enough we’re talking about a few months ahead, a few months in time, and you say to me, okay well let’s just try it with a classical diet. What great diets are out there… let’s just take the cabbage soup diet; everyone loves the cabbage soup diet. So what would you do, you advise givers?

So you would say. okay at 8:00 a.m. you can have cabbage soup; at 11:00 a.m. you can have cabbage soup, and guess what you can have at 1:00 p.m.? Cabbage soup.

I can guarantee you that by 3:00 p.m. I will have killed my husband, killed the cabbage and stopped the whole approach of getting fit again.

Now let’s go to you my coaches; so what would you do? So you would try to let me reflect about my situation and come up with an answer that would fit best with my life.

ALSO READ:   Paul Rulkens: Why the Majority is Always Wrong at TEDxMaastricht (Transcript)

So you might start asking me some questions, so Julia, tell us when do you most often eat chocolate, or what is your motivation in getting fit again? What is maybe a small step you could already do, what fits in with your current schedule? What could work for you?

So you can see the differences here with the advice givers, you give me a direction that you think could work, maybe had worked for some crazy person I don’t know; and here on the side you let me reflect and really walk through.

So the research actually backs up this approach. So if we go back to the leadership context and leadership coaching studies have shown that benefits are associated with that approach.

So for example it can lead to more engagement, higher productivity, it can even increase customer relationships. So Google did an internal study and they wanted to find out what makes an effective manager. And on top of that list came being a good coach.

Now we solved everything right, it’s easy, everyone just coaches now and then we’re done. Well of course, it is not that easy.

Because if we look at what we know about learning that skill set of coaching, it actually gets a little bit trickier. So we wanted to replicate a common instruction that at the moment exists in organizations.

So in organizations at the moment leaders are being told, just coach with any further you know help in how to do that. And I noticed this because through my work as a management consultant working with different organizations and helping with the leadership, that this direction of just coach is a term that has been picked up and is just left there.

Now we said, okay, let’s do a research project around this and let’s figure out what happens if you just say just coach to someone.

So we put a group of participants in a room, and we said all right we’re going to have some coaching conversations, just short ones, maybe five minutes, and we’re going to videotape those conversations. And let’s see what happens.

So they’re having the conversations and afterwards, we said, okay how was that? And the coaches said yeah, I think that was good coaching, yeah.

Okay well what do you think about your colleague over there? Yeah, that was okay, there was good coaching. Some coaches were saying you know what, I had such a difficult partner there; you know I was coming up with all of these great ideas and great solutions and they were basically just yes butting me there.

Okay, well when we actually looked closer, what we saw was, what we call motivational micromanaging.

And motivational micromanaging looks like this. So when my husband and I go out to restaurants, we usually like to share desserts; he always asked me, who’s this royal we, but no no we like it, we do.

ALSO READ:   President Barack Obama’s Keynote at 2016 SXSW Interactive (Full Transcript)

So when we you know, in that restaurant, I could just ask him what would you like to have for dessert today? But I’m not doing that.

If I’m motivational micromanaging, I say something like this don’t you think that that chocolate cake over there looks like the best dessert in the whole restaurant, don’t you think we should get it? Not much option there.

And that was similar to what we’ve seen in those first videos with the coaches, they were motivational micromanaging. So they were still giving advice, just a little bit more motivation behind it.

So we then said, okay let’s leave it at that, we’re going to put you through some training, we’re going to show you how to draw out the best in other people, we’re going to show you how to let other people arrive at their own solution.

So we worked on different coaching techniques and different skill sets and really practiced that also a lot. And now we said, okay let’s have another videotaped coaching conversation and then we can compare.

And what we found was quite astonishing, because firstly, the coaches were able to say you know what, when I really look now back in what I did in this first video, that was not coaching; I was just giving advice.

And especially those coaches who were saying I had a difficult partner, they were just not taking on board my great ideas. They were saying, hmm it’s actually quite astonishing that everything is already there. All I had to do is provide the space and the room to let them reflect, to let them think it through, and then arrive at a plan on how to implement it.

And I’m now much more convinced that they will actually put it into practice and put it into action.

So what have we learned from all of this?

Number one, giving advice is not often the best way to go, and you do not need to be the expert for everything.

Number two, you should, however, consider becoming an expert in helping other people draw out the best solution and helping them arrive at their own answer.

Number three, it’s a skill set that can be learned but it also has to be learned and trained. And it will much more likely lead to higher engagement and to a more successful implementation of the solution.

And it also increases the probability of not receiving an answer of yes, but…

Thank you.

Resources for Further Reading:

Bob Davids: The Rarest Commodity is Leadership Without Ego at TEDxESCP (Transcript)

Oprah Winfrey on Career, Life and Leadership (Transcript)

The Solution for all Your Spiritual Struggles: The Exchange at the Cross (Transcript)

Billy Graham on Conscience (Full Transcript)

Scroll to Top