05 jul. 2021
Bursting the bubble: how good CEOs get the information they really need.
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Listening is key to good leadership, but how exactly should you go about it?
It is often said after a business or organizational disaster: ‘he or she just didn’t listen’. All the signs and signals of impending doom were plain to see, or rather, hear. That information might have been amongst colleagues, analysts, advisers, even rivals, but it went unheard at the highest level.
The CEO, alone in a bubble, convinced of their direction, not open to others’ points of view, might sail on until the ship in their command hits the proverbial rocks.
Is it because we are too keen to praise the great speechmaker, the riveting presenter who holds the room in their hands, the person who has the best slide-deck? Maybe we should prefer the leader who genuinely listens before they speak even one word. The CEO who sticks to the 80-20 rule – yes, listen for 80% of the time, speak for the rest.
Hearing is easy, listening is hard
Of course, listening is hard, especially now when there is too much information, too much data, too many voices. (Let alone restrictions on meeting in person.) But it is exactly because we live and work in a world that is so much more connected and distributed that listening needs to be an essential skill and an everyday practice for senior leaders.
You will not understand the nuance of an organization if you do not listen to the rich variety of voices it holds. Observing the patterns in complexity to make measured, informed judgements only happens if you engage with that complexity.
The first practice of listening is to ensure that the channels of communication are well and truly open.
You can’t listen to important voices if there aren’t the forums and channels to make communication possible.
This is an active process demanding that you identify the colleagues and communities you need to hear from, and then you must ensure that regular sessions with a broad selection of individuals and groups take place.
As HBR says, “You also have to invest time and energy in walking the halls, traveling to manufacturing plants and stores, holding regular town halls, and meeting with smaller groups from various departments and ranks.”
These sessions are valuable in getting feedback on key strategic actions and directions, hearing from all parts of the organization, and listening for any early warnings of problems or opportunities.
Checking in on progress in this way is even more valuable when the CEO asks their audience ‘what can I do to help things get better?’
Further anonymous surveys looking for more detailed critiques on performance can go a long way to be a reality check and ensure that what the CEO thinks he or she is doing dovetails with what the organization thinks is happening.
My job is to listen, your job is to tell me
The one message CEOs must emphasize is the very fact that they are listening, and expect to be told things. It is not an idle invitation it is a serious demand. Emphasizing this message at every turn is the only way to ensure that people feel they have the permission to speak up. In fact, they should see it as part of their job to do so.
Breaking down hierarchical structures is part of the solution to allow information to flow upwards to senior leaders. If you don’t have a ‘my door is open to anybody’ policy, and a culture of respecting the person not the position, then people will not feel free to speak.
Bad news is a good early warning
Of course, not all news is good news. But it’s important that bad news and failures are communicated, not hidden away. Emphasizing this fact and ensuring a blame-free culture is key. Bad news can be a valuable early warning and provides time to pivot and change. Get the bad news too late and you have lost that precious reaction time, and the situation just gets worse that it needs to be.
Many have observed that good listeners share certain characteristics.
They approach listening without an agenda, they are not there to push their views, but to encourage the opinions and insights of others. If leaders are thinking of what they want, they aren’t really listening to what others are saying. Park your leadership ego at the door, please, don’t interrupt, listen. Be respectful, but don’t avoid hard questions
Listening is not passive, it is active.
It means asking open-ended questions that elicit a more thoughtful response. It means bringing knowledge to the forum. It means reflecting views back, not simply parroting what you have heard. It means not being afraid of silences (they allow quieter voices to speak up), and it also means acknowledging emotions. And, it definitely doesn’t mean fixing things there and then, or making promises that can’t be kept.
Let me know you have listened
It is important to communicate that you have listened, a quick email that communicates what you heard after a one-to-one, for example. After an important meeting with the board, write up a summary of what has been discussed, acknowledge the board’s input, and lay out the next steps. It indicates you have listened, that you respect and understand what they said, and that there is a clear plan of action in response.
Create a comfort zone
Creating a safe and comfortable physical space can often make it easier for people to open up and be more honest. Sitting together on a comfortable sofa is more conducive to relaxed and easy conversation than facing each other across a desk or table. Good listening also takes time, you can’t rush things, it might take more than one meeting to get to the real important. Make time to listen.
Listening can be upsetting, but constructively so. It can upset your view of how things are, it might challenge your assumptions, it might not feel comfortable. But it is the way to ensure that your decisions are grounded in reality, and you have the knowledge and insight to redraw plans and refocus efforts in a better informed and effective way.
If you want to discuss what we have to say about finding and developing great senior leaders, or you want to discuss your career, please don’t hesitate to get in touch. I think you’ll find we’re good listeners.