One of the good challenges of working with and leading people is the chance to process and seek to draw out ideas they might have. These ideas might be thinking they have developed toward problem-solving a challenge or a totally new solution that can move the work of the area forward. Coaxing the idea out of them or helping them to flesh out a concept can become a key skill for a leader. Here are some steps to consider as you seek to develop this quality.
Be approachable and inquisitive. This one seems to go without saying but we need to address it. No one will come to you with ideas if they don’t see you as someone who will receive them. This goes beyond just being kind and friendly to people. It means proactively letting people know you want to hear ideas. It means intentionally asking people their thoughts on challenges. It means be willing to demonstrate you hear them by taking a chance on an idea or two from them and then praising them in front of everyone for their good work. Remember, one actually has to model the culture they wish to build.
Get them to workshop the idea with you. This can be a great chance to build trust and buy-in with a team member. Let them unwrap the idea and hold your tongue on the “but what abouts.” Instead draw the ideas out of them with good questions about how they see this might enhance the work or remove barriers. If you sense reluctance or worry while they are processing interject questions such as “what is stopping this” or “what is the worst outcome?” Sometimes some of these responses will be legitimate reasons but often you will find some of the things that concern them can be remedied with your help.
Assess the idea. When you are discussing the idea you will need to mentally be thinking through the implications. Who are the main stakeholders? Who needs to also vet this? How big is this? A key question to ask yourself is will this idea, if implemented, change the work or improve the work? If it improves the work then the stakes are much lower and something, with a lower level of inquiry, could be put into place. If this changes the work then this is a much larger piece of strategy needing the risks and implications to be more carefully thought through and weighed before considering implementation.
Affirm them and resource the idea if it merits. Sometimes ideas are just-in-time and others are strong but the timing is not right to implement. Realistically share with them what next steps might look like and make sure to follow up with them. Above all you want to affirm them for being proactive problem-solvers. Let them know they did the right thing even if it is an idea you can’t move on at the moment. If it is actionable consider these two things: 1) a limited launch of the idea to test it or 2) if you are confident this is something to move on then decide on the level of resourcing you can provide and how much of the person’s time can they dedicate toward it. You will want to communicate clear expectations on time to spent toward this and on their level of empowerment to head off any well-intentioned miscommunications.
Reaching the point where you don’t care who gets credit for good ideas is a key developmental skill for a strong leader. Being the leader does not mean you have all the good ideas, it means you know how to steward them. Having a team of people thinking on this and seeing angles you cannot see will help you move forward in building your influence and the quality of your leadership.