Keith Leimbach | Crain's San Francisco

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Keith Leimbach

Background:  

Keith Leimbach is CEO of LiveOpsa cloud-call center company that offers an on-demand workforce of onshore virtual agents for customer service and sales.

The Mistake
I used to sit in meetings listening to my boss speak, seeing everyone nodding and agreeing and acting as if they knew exactly what was happening. It was 1998, and I was fresh out of college, and I was clueless. I was genuinely scared — as many people are at that age — to ask what was going on.

What resulted was a sense of feeling lost after meetings and being unclear on what had transpired.

One day, I was with a group of co-workers in a meeting with my boss. A bunch of us, peers and department leaders, [were there]. We were discussing devising a new process that was to be repeatable and could save us time in the future. I was confused by a lot of the details, yet I was embarrassed to admit I didn’t understand.

I was thinking to myself, 'I’m just going to tell everyone I’m dumb and don’t get it.' So I decided finally to speak up and asked my boss to clarify. I confessed in front of everyone that I had no idea what was being said.

The reaction [at first] was an awkward pause, but a few others started nodding in agreement, and then someone else piled on and said, “Yeah, me too. What did you mean by that?”

Then we had a great group discussion and got everyone on the same page. After the meeting, at least two people commented about it. What ensued was surprising: Instead of my colleagues scolding me, they applauded me.

I’ll never forget that day; it was a pivotal moment in my career. The effect was jolting. It left a very pointed memory for me, and I knew I had discovered something really important. I [thought I had started as] the dumbest guy in every meeting, but pretty soon I realized I wasn’t.
 

As a boss or a speaker or a business leader, you need to cut the jargon and filler words. Be clear.

The Lesson
I learned that as a boss or a speaker or a business leader, you need to cut the jargon and filler words. Be clear. Get rid of generic, canned responses, such as “lean in,” from your repertoire.

The powerful point that I came to realize was that first of all, the person talking really appreciated the fact that I pushed to understand. Second, the bosses realized, 'Wow, this guy is engaged.' Third, I left the meeting knowing what we needed to do, versus faking it and hoping that I would get by later.

As an employee, an audience member or a participant, be curious. Don’t be afraid to speak up and ask questions. Get the clarity you need. If you’re lost, chances are everyone else is, too.

As a boss, using business jargon and generic responses doesn’t prove you’re smart. Be authentic, and speak as if you’re chatting with your family and friends.

This stuck with me as I focused on becoming a CEO. I recently met with the president of the United States, and during our discussion, I told him I didn’t understand something he had just said. This isn’t a political point; this is about committing yourself to being genuinely curious and applying it to drive the results someone is expecting of you.

If you really want to engage someone in discussion, really listen, then probe a point that’s interesting or misunderstood; ask for clarity. You’ll find that the other party starts to believe you’re the best listener in the world.

Follow Liveops at @Liveops.

Photo courtesy of Keith Leimbach

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