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The Shark Tank Principle: The Big Take-Away for Leaders

SHARK TANK - The Sharks -- tough, self-made, multi-millionaire and billionaire tycoons -- will once again give budding entrepreneurs the chance to make the American dream come true and potentially secure business deals that could make them millionaires. They are: billionaire Mark Cuban, owner and chairman of AXS TV and outspoken owner of the 2011 NBA championship Dallas Mavericks; real estate mogul Barbara Corcoran; venture capitalist Kevin O'Leary, "Queen of QVC" Lori Greiner; fashion and branding expert Daymond John; technology innovator Robert Herjavec. (ABC/Bob D'Amico)

If you’ve seen the popular TV show Shark Tank, you know the moment I’m talking about. The wildly enthusiastic entrepreneur starts explaining her “revolutionary” product idea with dreams of landing a big investor. But as she describes her business plan and low sales numbers, the Sharks begin circling. Pointed questions with no answers. Incorrect assumptions about the customer. Faulty logic. (Admit it. You’re probably shouting the same things from your sofa.)

So what is it that causes intelligent, highly motivated people to travel so far down the wrong path when millions of dollars are at stake?

Here’s the short answer: they blocked out any opposing viewpoints in the development process. Didn’t ask for them. Or didn’t listen. They were confident about their winning ideas, so why should they invite negativity to the party?

The truth is, successful leaders graciously welcome objections. They listen intently, sifting through the concerns and protests to filter out the kernels of wisdom that could help to drive valuable improvements. They know objections can ultimately give them an edge.

This principle was highlighted in a recent quote from American novelist and poet Wendell Berry in the Sunday New York Times Book Review. The interviewer asked Berry: if you had the power, what one book would you require the president to read? Berry’s response was brilliant.

“If we should have a president who needs to read one book, I would advise him or her to read none, but instead to find some smart people who disagree with her or him and listen to them carefully.”

The Big Take-Away

As leaders, we guide our teams to develop new products, services, processes or plans. Whatever it is, we run the risk of getting so excited and invested in our “newborn venture” that our pride of ownership automatically deflects any criticism (constructive or otherwise) that might actually be helpful. Opposing views shouldn’t just be an interesting sidebar for a team project; they should be mandatory. Genuinely considered, evaluated, and analyzed.

If the rejected entrepreneurs on Shark Tank had used that strategy before stepping on the stage, they might have left the studio with much more than a few suggestions and a selfie with Mark Cuban.

So how can you apply the Shark Tank principle in your business?

  1. Think through potential objections.

Uncomfortable as it might be, force yourself to make a thoughtful argument for the opposition. Maybe you weren’t on the debate team in high school, but you can use this concept to be proactive about uncovering any weaknesses in your project and strategy. What would a tough customer or boss find to complain about? How would a competitor poke holes in your idea?

  1. Seek out diverse opinions.

Even if you mentally review the pros and cons, rest assured that people outside your circle will have additional thoughts you need to hear and understand. Actively search for them. Talk with lots of target customers (internal or external). Ask open-ended questions and get clarification on their responses.

I love to listen to radio stations, watch TV programs, and read editorials featuring opinions and perspectives that differ from my own. This is a great exercise to broaden my thinking and gain new insights. Sometimes confirmation bias does seep in, and I find myself focusing on how much I disagree with them. (My husband may have mentioned that on occasion.) But the point is, I try. Developing the ability to open our minds and patiently listen to opposing views is a prerequisite for large-scale, leadership success.

  1. Find the value—and apply it.

As you listen to a differing opinion, suspend yourself in objectivity long enough to discover possible ideas for improvement. Instead of just being annoyed by the criticism, learn from it. Then find a way to apply that knowledge. Think to yourself: what’s the true meaning behind the opposition’s statements and actions? Should I be flexible and use their input? Is there a hidden opportunity? What steps could I take to eliminate the objection?

Seeking early feedback on an idea, product or presentation requires real courage. It does seem like an open invitation for judgment and disapproval. Just remember that it will make you smarter and wiser in the long run. Even if it initially makes you mad.

I’m often surprised that people (in business and beyond) fail to take advantage of this simple yet powerful concept. Imagine the impact on our world if you took more time each day to honestly listen to an opposing viewpoint or seek counsel from someone with a different background or perspective. Finding common ground on any subject might be infinitely easier. There’s just something transformative about maintaining a real sense of curiosity, listening emphatically, and making a genuine effort to understand someone with whom we disagree.

It could also be a real life-saver if you ever find yourself swimming with the sharks.

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Photo courtesy of ABC Television Group

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