Leaders Should Speak Last

Having transitioned to an Engineering Management role 6 months ago, one of the biggest challenges I had to overcome was learning not to immediately share my opinion or thoughts. I had previously read articles and listened to podcasts on how leaders should speak last, or how the leader’s opinion is often taken as a directive rather than what it really is: simply another opinion. To be honest, I did not fully buy-in or relate to this concept as an individual contributor. However, this hit me hard in my new management role.

The first time I realized that this was a challenge was during a team meeting. We were all brainstorming solutions on a technical problem we were trying to solve. When it was my turn to speak up, I remember starting my sentence with “this is just my opinion, but I believe we should do XYZ.” When I was done, an engineer responded to me with “what I am hearing you say is that we should do XYZ, but I do not agree with that.”

After the meeting concluded, I took some time to reflect on what had just happened. How could I have been clearer or expressed my opinion differently, without having it seem as if I was pushing a decision onto my team members? I legitimately wanted to share my opinion and see what the engineers thought of it. I was not pushing for my proposed solution to be the right one.

I then remembered listening to an interview with Katie Womersley where she said that brainstorming as a leader without your team knowing that your brainstorming is really dangerous. She also went on to say that you have to be explicitly clear that you are brainstorming — or in creative mode — and that what you are saying does not necessarily mean that it will be implemented.

So, the first lesson I learned is that simply saying this is my opinion does not work, and that I should have been clearer that I was in brainstorming mode and that I do not intend us to implement what I say.

Another podcast that resonated with me on this topic was Adam Grant’s interview with former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara (available on iTunes). This episode had nothing to do with technology or engineering, but had some very interesting leadership lessons in it. The one that really caught my attention was Preet suggesting that leaders should speak last. In his experience through many different leadership roles, people will often lean towards the boss’ opinion. They might disagree with it or have different opinions, but they will most likely lean towards their boss’ opinion and not share their own. For that reason, leaders should always speak last.

Our mandate should be to listen first, and speak last.

Let your team members go first. Give everyone a chance to speak up. Let them share their opinion and concerns. Then, when everybody else had a chance to speak up, you — as a leader — should speak and share your opinion.

The benefit of this approach is that you will not bias anyone else’s opinion. You will hear what they truly want to say and think. You will have more information at your disposal to make an informed decision. You will have the chance to hear more opinions than if you had went first and everyone agreed with you.

This should be our objective as leaders. We should allow everyone to speak up, listen to their feedback, and use that knowledge to make the best possible decision.

As an Engineering Manager, I adapted this mantra to fit my technical field. Now, when I’m talking with my team members or when we are brainstorming solutions, I listen to the conversations and speak last. But, I also focus on asking a lot of questions instead of proposing solutions. I try to poke holes into the team’s proposed solutions to see what will remain standing at the end. I ask questions that will push the engineers to think through different edge cases that they may not have thought of. I want them to realize that the solution may not be viable because of a question that I asked, or because a question I asked made them think of another potential loophole. This will help them grow, make them practice thinking through different use cases, and learn to poke holes into solutions when discussing among each others.

To summarize, the way I have overcame my biggest challenge as a manager so far has been to speak last and let my team members go first. Furthermore, I also ask lots of questions about the proposed solutions rather than proposing a solution myself. This has worked great for me so far and has helped me improve a valuable skill: the art of listening.

Wissam Abirached

Wissam Abirached