The Key To Good Leadership Today
With all the business world’s means of communication these days – think e-mail, phone, video conferencing and that antiquated standby, face-to-face meetings – you’d think we’d hear each other. So why isn’t anybody listening?
That question holds true for today’s business leaders possibly more than anyone else, where a failure to listen is a problem endemic to business management. Poor listening accounts for lost productivity, demoralized employees, angry customers and an overall inefficiency in many of today’s businesses. And much of the listening problems, experts contend, start at the top – with today’s business leaders turning a deaf ear toward staff and clients alike.
So why aren’t more leaders listening? Some blame a slew of distractions barraging us everyday in the form of social media, marketing messages, too little time in a fast-paced economy, and various market conditions. “How much listening to a customer is there when a customer just buys off the Internet?” asks Dave Regan, vice president of sales for Top 40 distributor The Vernon Company (asi/351700), based in Newton, IA. “I think listening is a lost art today.”
Are You a Good Listener?
Part of the problem may be in how today’s leaders are groomed. Most executives have been told that in order to be outstanding leaders, they have to speak, not listen, says Ken White, associate Dean of MBA and MS programs at the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland. Today’s executives, White continues, are “taught to speak, and the focus is on speaking, not on listening.”
That’s a problem when more and more of today’s business audience – from clients to vendors to employees and partners – are demanding to be heard. Suddenly, communication needs to be reciprocal, but leaders who have been groomed to do all the talking aren’t the best candidates to make that happen. “I don’t know if there’s a failure in the marketplace to listen effectively, but I do think we all can do a better job of listening,” says Ross Silverstein, president of Top 40 distributor firm iPROMOTEu (asi/232119).
That starts with figuring out whether or not you’re a good listener to begin with, says Jack Zenger, CEO and co-founder of Zenger Folkman, a leadership development firm based in Orem, UT. “My experience has been that leaders who are bad listeners often do not recognize that they are not good listeners.”
Indeed, most poor listeners don’t know they’re missing out. How to correct that? To start, experts suggest collecting feedback from groups that matter – employees or clients, for instance – to gauge how well a leader is really hearing them.
That can be tricky for staffers that don’t want to offend their boss, but there are plenty of ways to get honest feedback without putting employees on the spot. Depending on the size of a company, surveys or periodic reviews of corporate leadership can be distributed and filled out anonymously, says Abhay Padgaonkar, president of Innovative Solutions Consulting LLC, a business consultancy based in Phoenix. In larger firms, managers can be evaluated by “skipping a level,” Padgaonkar says, asking staff to review their supervisor’s boss – reducing the tension of working with someone a subordinate has reviewed negatively by not commenting on a direct reporting relationship.
For managers actively seeking advice, but sensing that their direct reports are wary of giving it, it’s often helpful to let them off the hook, so to speak, says Tracy Benson, founder and CEO of On the Same Page LLC, a change management firm based in Mount Kisco, NY. Ask, “what questions are your employees going to have that you’re not prepared to answer?” Benson suggests. By allowing a leader’s next-in-command to voice comments, complaints and suggestions under the guise of staff questions, it allows them to critique a leader’s listening skills in a non-confrontational way.
Several years ago, Regan says, “we realized we needed to do a better job at listening.” So the company began attacking the problem on three levels: They decided to listen to the customer, the employees and their salespeople.
To do that, they revamped their twice-a-year business development meetings so it wasn’t just Regan and the company’s vice president of marketing having a one-way conversation with the sales members elected to help generate new ideas. “The joke that we tell is that several years ago it would be me and one other guy in the room and we’d pat each other on the back only to have salespeople tell us it was the stupidest business development idea they’d ever heard in their life.”
Now meetings are more collaborative and Regan and his team make a concerted effort to actively listen to sellers and develop new ideas collaboratively. “They tend to be better than if we just created them in a vacuum,” he says.
Regardless of the method for gauging a leader’s listening prowess, gathering this information from staff is crucial, Zenger says. “There’s a strong correlation,” he says, “between good listening and employee commitment and customer loyalty.”
Admittedly, in today’s business world “we do too much assuming,” says Brad Akers, president and owner of Tip Top Branding (asi/344851), a distributor in Chicago. “A lot of times we sit and guess what clients are thinking,” Akers says, characterizing the industry as a whole. “If you don’t know what they’re thinking, ask them.”
For leaders intent on becoming better listeners, doing so is like most other skills, Benson says. It just takes practice. One exercise to try? “Next time you’re talking with somebody casually, be it a client, employee or vendor, ask them to pause for a minute while they’re speaking so that you can confirm what’s being said,” Benson suggests. “Then repeat back to them what you heard them saying. It sounds ridiculously easy, but most people will be challenged by it because most people aren’t fully listening.”
The problem is that leaders are too often using the other side of their brain to begin formulating a response, Benson says, before they’ve actually heard and processed what the other person is saying – even before the other person is finished actually speaking. “What research has shown,” says Padgaonkar, “is our brain is not really meant to multitask.” Which makes listening and talking (or doing anything else, for that matter) at the same time very difficult.
In fact, active listening – being able to reflect back to a person what he’s said in your own words – is one of the biggest challenges today’s business leaders face, whether they know it or not, experts say. To do that it’s often helpful to stop someone at multiple points in a conversation to reflect back what it is he’s saying. It sounds disruptive, but experts insist stopping to say, “I want to make sure I’m hearing you accurately,” does far more to enhance a business relationship than sitting across the table silently and missing half the conversation. Plus, mirroring back what someone says helps executives become more attentive by practicing their listening skills.
Of course initiating a productive conversation is key to effective listening as well, experts insist. One way to do that, Padgaonkar says, is to ask open-ended questions. Doing so “generates responses a business leader may not have expected,” he says. It also avoids one of the biggest listening mistakes in business today: Asking a closed-ended or “yes/no” question. A question of this type “assumes the person who’s asking the question” – often the business leader – “has basically solved the problem,” he says. By asking open-ended questions, a leader is essentially saying she has respect for her colleague’s opinion. Closed-ended questions do the opposite.
Slow it Down
Thanks to the spread of technology, communication today is often quick and to-the-point, leaving businesspeople without the conversational nuance that can often reveal key points. Leaders shouldn’t be afraid to “slow down the dialogue” during meetings or discussions with employees, clients and other business contacts, Benson says.
“We live in a world now – as opposed to 10 years ago – where things are moving at the speed of light,” she says. “You get about seven seconds of somebody’s attention before they tune out.”
In a landscape of rapid-fire social media posts and constant communication distractions, becoming a better listener can be difficult. So, it’s crucial, she says, for business leaders to slow down conversations to make sure they’re hearing what’s being said. Stopping clients, for example, to say, “I really want to understand what you’re saying,” then reflecting back their comments can not only better develop listening skills, but sends the message to a customer that a business executive is really trying to hear him.
“You can’t hear and know everything by yourself,” says Silverstein, acknowledging that one main reason to become a better listener is to gather more knowledge so that you can build a better distributorship. “But the second reason to listen,” he adds, “is to make the person who’s speaking to you feel heard and special and important.”
That’s critical to building more effective work processes and a more efficient company overall. Listening more intently “gives a voice to your staff” and a greater level of respect to customers, Silverstein says. In fact, Silverstein advises that executives pause after a colleague finishes speaking. That way the other person doesn’t feel as though you’re just waiting for him to stop, so that you can pounce with your answer.”
One strategy leaders can take before meetings is to set a listening agenda before heading in, says White. Think about the content of the meeting and who you’re talking to, White suggests, then set a listening goal. “What’s really helpful is setting a goal for each interaction before that interaction takes place,” White says.
It’s something that takes seconds to do before a meeting starts. For many meetings that might be 50/50, where a manager is talking half the time and listening the other half. In a client meeting a manager might talk less, while with a salesperson looking for advice, she might talk more. Ultimately, remaining cognizant of the ratio of listening to talking is an important step towards practicing better listening.
At schools like the University of Maryland, White says, listening has been deemed such a priority that it’s now a regular component of management classes, something that wasn’t always the case in years past. Ultimately, says Benson, “listening is the most critical component of leadership.”