The Number One Secret to Successful Leadership

 Profile image of Steve Lobley From Spring Leadership

Steve Lobley

I remember always being curious why business leaders and their businesses didn’t grow and develop as effectively as they could – and in line with their stated ambitions. It was a great puzzle – despite knowing exactly what to do, nine times out of ten they couldn’t make the changes needed or make the right decisions to truly achieve the step changes required. It led me to the mantra from the Chinese Proverb ‘it’s not the knowing that’s difficult, it’s the doing’ – because THAT is really what it’s all about after all…

And as a result I reshaped my career from business adviser and mentor to launch myself fully into the world of coaching. My 30+ years in business from a shift manager in a textile mill to MD of a £15M business in the corporate world allowed me a unique perspective on the challenges people were facing, and with loads of experience on how to address them. 

That’s a bold statement. I did think about running it by someone to see what they thought, and then wondered who I could ask. And that led me to confirm very clearly what I think the answer to the question might be….. I needed a sounding board.

The Literal Origins of ‘Sounding Board’

Beginning during the Renaissance, a flat wooden canopy called a sounding board was placed over church pulpits, amplifying the sound of the preacher’s voice, carrying it to the farthest reaches of the church…..when sound bounces off a literal sounding board, not only does it reach more people, it also comes across more clearly.

Likewise, bouncing ideas off another person can lend clarity to one’s thought processes. If someone comes to you and says, “How does this sound?” and leaves with his or her mind made up (whether or not you’ve ventured a word), you have served as a very effective ‘sounding board’.

(Merriam Webster)

Do you feel like you kind of knew that already? In my experience having someone to ‘bounce ideas off’ – to help me clarify my thinking out loud – is invaluable in making sure I make the right decisions. And making the right decisions is crucial as a leader. This article by Corine goes further into the topic of boardroom decision making.

We’re facing some of the biggest challenges in business and leadership for a very long time. The Covid 19 crisis is putting pressure on leaders across the spectrum, and no doubt you’re feeling that pressure too. Deciding what to do, and how to think things through effectively to make those decisions, has never been more important. We need to chart a path through the woods.  We need a map. We need someone to talk it through with – to decide the direction we might take.

But don’t just take my word for it

“Saying the things you think yourself out loud can be the most refreshing answer you hear!”

“When we have a catch-up, some of the most valuable pieces of thought and ingenuity I find I may already hold. However, sometimes it’s the opportunity to talk or work these through properly which really spells out a clear path and strategic answer to those issues that you just needed a little more clarity around. A sounding board for me is key.” Gavin Dunleavy DVS

“In the time I’ve increased the sounding boards I have available; my company has practically doubled in size. Obviously, this could be a massive coincidence. But I very much doubt it.”

“Over the last couple of years, I’ve surrounded myself with a number of external partners – from a part time FD to business and life coaches. Along with the breadth of support and advice they bring, it’s great to have the time and opportunity to stand back and genuinely work on the business, sharing ideas and concerns and putting plans into action.” Gareth Wood Really Helpful Marketing

“Even if your sounding board just asks ‘Why?’ – your reason for action comes more into focus and can be communicated much better to others who you need on board.”

“I am pretty good at putting off making changes to improve my business, and instead default to habit type work which takes up all of my time.  Even though I know I am the only one who will instigate that change. When I decide I am going to make a change I find it loads more likely I’ll actually do it if I tell somebody else who has an interest in the business. I find it is even more effective if it’s someone outside of my immediate circle and put into an email or action notes.”  David Champs TC Consult

“Many people see having a mentor as a privilege (and I used to be one of them!), but I would argue that it should be normal for senior leaders.”

“It is critical to have that sounding board and someone who is removed enough, whilst being invested, to challenge and probe, which in turn can unearth valuable alternative approaches.  As a business leader, you naturally become emotionally attached, with your passion for your product/service and the want for your team to succeed, but that can make you blind to the obvious.  

By working with a mentor you are not on your own, you set yourself a safe place to have a “doh” moment without being judged, plus you have someone who helps you stretch yourself, which ultimately helps your business and the team around you.”  Claire Maddox Eurolink Connect

5 ways a sounding board can help you do business better

  1. It gives you space to think things through – literally, ‘a pause for thought’
  2. Communicating and describing the issue out loud forces you to sort through the elements and creates a clearer picture, particularly if you’re asked clarifying questions
  3. Having clarified, it then helps you add in other thinking, and develop your ideas further
  4. Sometimes you might need to be challenged about the way you’re looking at something – there are other points of view you may have missed
  5. You might be the problem – and you need someone to helpfully point out if that might be the case! Or not.

Be picky about finding the perfect sounding board

If you’re looking for one, what are the key characteristics of a good sounding board?

The best people to work with are the people who fall between the advice-givers (who usually don’t listen well) and the cheerleaders (who will just say they believe in you). You want the ones who will listen but will also say things you might need to hear. The people in the middle don’t take sides, they say things that are true, and ask good questions. And by doing so help you to think through your problem.

  1. They are prepared to LISTEN
  2. They don’t judge
  3. They don’t decide for you
  4. They ask the right questions – to clarify and understand, not to guide
  5. They listen
  6. They help you look at things from a lot of different angles
  7. They don’t tell you what they think unless you ask
  8. They listen
  9. They stay calm and pay attention – objectively and with no drama.

When choosing someone to act as your sounding board these probably need to be deal-breakers if they’re not in place. And there’s a very specific one isn’t there!

The biggest complaint I hear from leaders when they want to talk things through with their colleagues, is they get interrupted. It breaks their train of thought, distracts, and frankly is of no use. All they want to do is just verbalise their thinking to get it straight in their mind. And often, all the sounding board needs to do is just listen!

Here are some calls to action.

  • Do you have someone you can talk things through with – a proper sounding board?
  • Who might it be – would they do the things described above?
  • And if you asked them to be one, would they follow through and do them?

Identify someone and commit to using them regularly – short conversations, long ones, it doesn’t matter. Do it today. Be more Nike.

Maybe you could run the idea of you having a regular sounding board past someone…

PS – how about being a good sounding board for others? There’s a ‘how-to’ guide above…

Sources: Sophia Dembling; Patrick J. McKenna; Clients; Peter Hawkins

If you need help in finding a sounding board or even want me to act as one then