Today a lot of people are talking, but few are listening. Leadership begins with listening. If a leader starts by talking, how does he or she know if they are addressing the right problem? The right audience? Have they devised the right solution? Many leaders assume that what they are saying is important – that it is heard and that people care. However, what they need to remember is that they speak to a “captive audience” because the leader holds the position of authority. The organization may or may not care, trust or believe what the leader has to say so they may or may not actually be listening.
Listening starts with the leader. As the leader you must go first. I’ve written about Active Listening vs. waiting to talk, and that’s the kind of listening I’m talking about here. How often has repeating yourself, talking louder or getting angry ever helped anyone hear your message? Most likely never. You’ll find that if you as the leader model good listening – sincerely – others will learn from your example and it will filter down through the rest of the organization.
The first step towards becoming a leader who listens well is to be truly curious. What are others saying or feeling about the current state of your company? Your strategic plan? Your culture? Your leadership style? Much like we would do a focus group or customer survey to find out what customers think about a new product, you need to be curious about what others think of you as a leader. This does not need to be accomplished thru a 360 review, although it can be. Simply walking the four corners of your company and engaging people in conversation will likely tell you what you need to know.
It’s important to phrase your questions thoughtfully. “What do you think of me?” is not a great leadership question unless you are a narcissist. “What do you think we are doing well as a company?” is a great question as is “what could we be doing better?” Another great one is, “if you could change one thing about the company, what would it be? These are rich with possibilities. However, the good listener sits in the silence after the question is asked and does not rush to answer. When an answer is given, drill down a bit and be curious about what drove the response. Ask for examples. Do not respond with “that’s not possible” or “you’re wrong about that.” Those would both be examples of judgmental listening that will shut down a conversation faster than you can blink. Go into the conversation without an agenda. You are a listener, not the answer person.
Always end by thanking the person for their perspective and let them know they’ve given you things to think about. Encourage them to share their ideas when appropriate. If you hear from multiple people about an issue, figure out how to deal with it and let everyone know what the outcome was. If you hear about a serious issue and do nothing about it, your credibility will be shot.
Practice listening on a daily basis. Practice it at home, (your spouse will be happy), as well as at work and as you improve at it you will be surprised by how you are perceived as a good leader. Listening and leadership go hand in hand