Co-Founder, Teams of Distinction
I have coached, consulted to and trained hundreds of executives and can say quite confidently that the lack of this one skill is the basis for career problems including being passed over for promotions, demotions, and even firing.
The skill is listening. Or lack thereof. It seems like a trivial, basic skill that one would think every junior executive has mastered. One would think that a leader who didn't listen well would never be put in charge of a large organizations. Unfortunately, my experience in the opposite.
Why Most Executives Have the Odds Stacked Against Them
Leaders are promoted to executive leadership roles because they have created results: they have made good investment decisions; they have blown by their goals; they have, in essence, succeeded in their jobs.
They often learn over and over that they are the smartest people in the room. From this success, they can come to the fatal and false belief that listening is optional. Why listen when my ideas are so good? I must be smarter. Why bother to listen unless it is to simply appear caring?
At entry and mid levels of management, this top-down, directive, holder of the power approach works very well, especially in technical leadership roles.
However, as a senior engineering executive in a Fortune 500 client said to his managers,“Once I realized that I couldn't get everything done, my career took off! All of sudden I realized I was surrounded by intelligent people who can help us get a lot more done. And they did. And we soared. And so did my career.”
He had learned over time that HE was the source of his team’s greatness, until he become an executive. The he said THEY were. He couldn't do it all. He had to listen and collaborate.
How Not Listening Destroys the Team
Joseph was a newly hired executive. He hired me to get employee input on how to improve his organization. He said he thought things were going well but that bringing me in to talk to his team would give him a read on the pulse.
During our first meeting, it was very clear that he loves to talk. It was hard to get a word in. When Joseph and I met with his boss, he started off quiet but spent much of the meeting trying to get his point across. When Joseph and I met with his direct reports, again Joseph took over the meeting.
Like many leaders, Joseph likes to give speeches, give explanations, share wisdom.
Looking back, he was smart. He knew that he didn't listen. Why else would he need to hire me to “get the pulse” of the organization? He knew that without me or someone like me involved, he wouldn't find out the truth. Not because people wouldn’t tell him. But because he never gave them a chance to tell him.
When we brought the team together to hear what they had to say, I finally had the opportunity to tell him “Joseph, be quiet for a minute and instead of making statements, listen. Ask a question.” So he did. And lo and behold he heard them for the first time.
I have lived this story over and over again consulting to executives. They get promoted by having the smartest ideas but get stuck when they can't hear their team's ideas.
To Cultivate Listening, Executives Need to:
* Rethink your job – When you are an executive, yes your job is to lead the team forward in unknown waters. But this does not mean you have to come up with solution. Your job is to create a smart capable team that with your support and guidance can innovate in the face of uncertainty. The only way you can achieve that is from a foundation of listening: listening to key stake holders above you, listening to the market, and listening to your team.
* Reprogram your listening code – Many think great leaders are purely inspirers and idea people. This becomes an unconscious if/then code in our head about how to respond to people. Executives, especially new executives, need to reprogram their code. To do this, create a simple statement that answers the question “What do I need to do to be a better listener?”
One executive hired me for coaching and said that her team wasn't buying into her vision. It turned out that she wasn't listening to their input and they didn't feel a part of this vision. One thing we did was work on her listening. We created a new listening code and added it to her iPhone reminders. Every day when she arrived at work, it popped up on her phone calendar and said “wait for others to speak.” It has changed her behavior and that of her team. It increased engagement in her team with them “getting quicker to offer their views” as she put it.
Spend time today thinking about what would happen if you were a better listener. Write this statement: “I am an excellent listener at work. It helps me to __________. (Fill in your desired benefit.) It helps my team __________. (Fill in your desired benefit.)”
Create a calendar item to repeat every morning. Each morning, read what you wrote. This will focus your mind on the positive benefits of listening. You are preparing yourself to change. And you may even be surprised to find yourself improving your listening without even trying.
* Use the 5-Second Rule – When you ask a question of your team, pause for 5 seconds. One, Two, Three, Four, Five. Five whole seconds. Hard-driving, fast-moving leaders find this very hard. 5 seconds seems like forever. This 5 seconds gives introverts time to process the situation and begin to express themselves. And for the extroverts, it shows them you really want to hear their thoughts. If you are someone who has not listened in the past, you may need to wait even longer or even come back to the conversation later without sharing your ideas until your team trusts that you really care what they have to say. You can also add this to your listening code.
* Leave the room – I consulted to a new CEO and his team to help them be more innovative. I sat in one of the team breakthrough sessions we held and watched as the CEO hijacked the meeting. With his best intentions to “move things along,” he cut off a key conversation. Once the team had the chance fully explain their thoughts, a key concern about teamwork emerged. How can you innovate if you are not listening to your team? You can't! If you are a bit impatient, like many CEOs, here is a way to overcome impatience. Pose a question and leave the room. You can pretend you received an important email, tell them you need to use the bathroom, or even better, explain how you know you want to be a better listener. Let your team know you want to hear their point of view when you return. Then, come back in 5 minutes and see what they came up with. This will force them to express themselves and force you to pay attention to their input.
Listening does not mean abdicating your role as the leader to make decisions. But making decisions doesn't mean they have to be only from your mind. As one C-level executive told me, “I get paid the big bucks to make the best decisions I can for the company based on the input I get from people around me.” If you aren't listening, it won’t be long before you aren't the one making the big bucks.
To find if your leadership has created a unified team or a bunch of individuals doing what you think they should do, take our leadership quiz:http://teamsofdistinction.com/assess-your-team/
Lawrence is co-founder of Teams of Distinction: a world-renowned firm focused on creating and enhancing organizational cultures based on “Swing” – that is, teams collaborating with near-perfect synchronicity. The term and the excellence it stands for originated with Olympic medal crew teams performing at extraordinary levels. He has worked with leading companies such as Facebook, Pfizer, and NASA, to name a few. He has also been a guest speaker at Columbia Business School and featured and interviewed in publications such as USA Today, Fast Company, Chicago-Tribune, Yahoo.com, and Monster.com.