Every leader has their own unique style of leadership that is developed out of their personality, experience, successes, and failures. There is no cookie-cutter one size fits all how-to answer on how to lead. There are as many leadership styles as there are leaders. Leadership is not a quality; it is more of a mindset or way of interacting with the world around you.
I think the best leaders learn a variety of ways to interact with their teams. Part of what makes them the best leaders is that they are able to quickly access a situation and choose a mode that fits the current needs to move people, problems, projects and companies forward. The more tools we have in this toolbox, then the better we are able to do this. There are times (less often in our collaborative world), when you do have to act authoritatively and provide strict direction. There are times when you need to seek negotiation, mediation and/or compromise. As well, there are times when you lead by creating consensus – the focus of this post.
I believe consensus is different than compromise. They both mean coming to a group agreement. Though with compromise there is always a feeling that something is lost or conceded in coming to the shared approach forward. Whereas with consensus, there is a brainstorming of new and different ideas that the majority of the group are able to freely buy into. I believe while compromise is lose-lose, consensus is win-win.
Some teams by their nature require this to be the primary way to work. Cross-functional teams, agile teams, customer-vendor teams by their nature are often self-organizing where the leader is a facilitator that draws on the expertise and breadth of the team members to get things done. I also strongly believe it can be the best way to move people forward when things have been stalled because of some kind of log jam or crisis that is preventing progress. A log jam may be a technical or financial roadblock, a time constraint, outside pressures, or a dramatic change in scope or requirements.
So after this long preamble of what consensus is and when you might want to draw on it as your preferred leadership mode, what are some of the key dos and don’ts that you should consider in figuring out how to achieve it on your teams.
Do always remember the Higher Goal
What I am calling the higher goal, is the shared goal that everyone wants to achieve beyond their individual agendas. Sometimes you have to take the time to identify what that is for the group. Sometimes it is mandated for the team. Whichever, you need to be clear of the value that the enterprise underway is trying to achieve and measure any consensus decision against it.
I wrote a post recently that recommended one way to break the in-fighting that you see with internal silos is to remember that the customer realizing value is the higher goal. In customer/vendor collaborative projects, there may be a need to identify what constitutes project success to identify the higher goal; so that you don’t fall into traps where the vendor is always held accountable.
Do foster an environment where people can embrace new ideas and approaches.
When I speak about embracing new ideas and approaches, I don’t just mean at the start in discovery phase. People should be open to embrace new ideas through to completion.
To achieve consensus, there is a need to be able to brainstorm solutions, evaluate possibilities, and come to conclusions. It is important to setup a constructive, open environment for discussion, and at the same time make it clear that coming to consensus may mean some ideas are put aside. If you setup a decision analysis criteria, then that can remove the ego and emotions from opinions put forward.
And as with the first point, if this decision criterion is based on the higher goals identified alignment can be found more easily. When ideas are smoke tested against the decision analysis, and considered or dismissed accordingly.
Don’t forget that teams are made up of individuals.
It’s important to understand how your team works individually and as a whole. Being a person with a core value of fairness, it was a surprise to me when I learned that being fair meant that you don’t treat everyone on a team the same way. To get the best performance from individual team members, you have to understand how they function independently as well as in the team. In a group discussion, this might mean drawing some people out, while trying to temper stronger voices. It’s striking the balance so that all ideas are heard.
Do have the courage to publicly change your mind
If you are asking your team to arrive at a consensus then you have to be willing to be flexible and bend with the outcome. This may mean revising or reversing decisions you have made in the past. A leader that is willing to do this earns the respect and trust of their constituents. It is also a trait that when practiced openly provides the room of other people to do the same. Something that might be required if people have come to the table initially polarized in their own positions.
Don’t consider yourself done until all stakeholders agree
Once the team has arrived at consensus, it is time to sell it your larger group of sponsors or stakeholders, such as your executive team, customers, and other teams impacted by your decisions and outcomes. If the team that forged together the solution has done a good job at arriving at outcomes using consensus then one positive outcome is that you are likely armed with supporting information on why this is the recommended solution. Though successfully completing this pass of getting agreement from parties external to the team can mean that you may also receive feedback that can mean
Though this may sound like a lot of time and overhead, in practice the application is simpler than it sounds. It can in the long run save you needed time, energy and re-work if you had continued down a path that is not productive. Knowing how to lead a team to consensus makes us stronger leaders.