In today’s fast-paced and competitive business climate, you don’t get to reach an executive position in a successful concern without knowing what you want, and how you intend to go about achieving it. Drive, assertiveness, and an ability to keenly prioritize your time are all essential if you are to plough through the myriad distractions and decisions that must be made each working day in order to progress, as an individual and as an organization. But we live in a vastly different age to that of our parents and grandparents, and while certain leadership skills are timeless, a new generation of business leaders are discovering that soft skills, adaptability and team playing are tools of tremendous benefit, eclipsing even the traditional assets so highly valued by those who went before us.
Central to this contemporary outlook on business leadership is the skill of listening. A vital distinction should be made here between good listening, bad listening, and plain old hearing. The latter is probably something you don’t have much time for. Hearing is a case of waiting for the other person, be it a colleague or a customer, to stop talking. You’ve probably seen folk lower down the rung doing it: indulging their colleagues and then going ahead and proceeding how they always intended to in the first place. When you reach a position of real authority, you have no purpose for this – if you don’t want to be there, you end the conversation out of hand. But if you feel there is something to be gained, you may find yourself switching automatically to bad listening.
Bad listening is a competitive, hard-edged form of negotiation. You know what you want from the conversation, and you’re not too interested in what the other party has to offer – just how you can motivate them to see things your way. Perhaps, you interrupt them to put across your own point; or hijack their ideas and twist them to fit your own vision before they’re even fully formulated. This may not be a case of tyranny, so much as poor prioritizing! Of course, it’s easiest to stick to Plan A, to pressurize for faster results, or to streamline processes to get your company where you need it. However, this is a very linear form of thinking, whose place belongs firmly in the past.
Ask yourself: why am I talking with this person? If your interlocutor is an employee, chances are that you are at least partly responsible for bringing them (and keeping them) on board. They may have an area or depth of expertise that is unique within your organization. You trust them to know more than anybody about the specific tasks with which they deal. At the very least, they have a different perspective on the company goals: because they know more about the tech, they’re closer to the customers, or their eyes are on the numbers, day in day out. Ultimately, you have the final say in the outcome of the conversation, so why wouldn’t you entertain the ‘What if?’ scenarios proposed and developed by a person or people who you’ve chosen to form the very fabric of your organization? This is billionaire Salesforce CEO, Marc Benioff: “I try to cultivate what I call a ‘beginner’s mind.’ I try to let go of all the things that have happened so far in our industry, which is a lot of stuff, and just go, ‘OK, what’s going to happen right now?’”
If it’s a customer or consumer group that you’re talking with, listening is a more important tool now than at any time in history. Customer choice is now virtually infinite. Not only do your customers have the choice to Google rival companies to give their trade to, all around the world, but they have the power at their fingertips to conduct a thorough price test, look into other customer testimonials, and far more. But perhaps most pressingly, if your business is not catering to the specific needs and requirements of your customer base, and responding as these needs change and evolve – a brand new business is ready to pop up and snatch them away. Every young entrepreneur is waiting to become the next ‘Uber, but for…’ millionaire, and the hive mind of the internet is both unearthing and exploiting previously unexpressed needs on a daily basis. Take the well-worn anecdote about Jeff Bezos always placing an empty seat in Amazon meetings to represent the presence of the customer: it is a powerful act to devolve power to unpredictable voices who can advance the competitiveness of your company. It sounds cheesy, but a carefully explored customer complaint is truly the best opportunity your business has to evolve.
So what are the practical steps you can take to become an excellent listener? First off, you need to address yourself: if you are not ready to listen, because you’re short of time or your mood is not in the right place to give 100%, you need to postpone the conversation. Of course, it will be frustrating to the person that wants to talk with you, but if you explain your position you can maintain their respect while also reassuring them that you value their opinion too highly to enter into a rushed meeting. It goes without saying, then, that when the conversation does take place, you need to fully commit to the moment. Leave the smart phone fully in your pocket. Switch off your computer monitor, or better yet, find a fresh space – be it the water cooler or a nearby coffee shop – to begin the conversation from a neutral standpoint. You might even want to take a walk, alone, ahead of a meeting that promises to be tricky, in order to clear your head and wake yourself up from the accumulated fog of the working day.
Next, address the other person. Listen not just to what they say, but what they don’t say – consider their point of view, what they know, what they want, and why they want it. This isn’t a case of pushing your own assumptions on them: rather, watch out for their body language, ask them to clarify difficult points, and give them time to formulate and express their opinions. If you are higher up the hierarchy, remember they may be nervous – and fear of looking foolish can be a major inhibitor of good ideas. If they should fall quiet, give them a chance to pick up and complete their thought, without jumping in – and if you must own that silence, try repeating back the last thing they said, in order to clarify and explore that notion.
In a position of leadership, it is common that colleagues will come to you for advice, in which case your approach should be just the same. It is likely that just encouraging them to express themselves will enable them to see the path illuminated ahead of them, and anyway you will be in a better position to advise when you fully understand the issue – and the individual – in front of you.
The methods and the benefits of applied listening are becoming clear, but it is well worth assessing your skills before leaping into the next discussion. Naturally, many ‘bad’ listeners don’t realize that they are so: they listen to every word before calmly resolving the situation in the manner first assumed, and walk away believing that an optimal solution has been reached. As you’ll have picked up by now, a big part of good listening is humility, so think back to the last work conversation you had and ask yourself: were your arms folded? Did you finish the other guy’s sentences for him? Did you guide the conversation away from touchy subjects? If the answer to any of these questions is Yes, then you may not have found the most creative and entrepreneurial way to deal with that particular issue, even if the talk ended on good terms. If you recognize that you may not be the greatest, most active (in the mental sense) listener, then you’ve already taken the first step to making the next conversation a fruitful proposition.
Many of these ideas and methods have been distilled into a useful new infographic, which it is worth running your eyes over now, and even checking back on ahead of any pending meetings you may have. It also comes with a simple test to assess your listening skills as they currently are – so you know what to work on to get the most out of that next difficult talk. Nobody ever said you have to be a great listener to be a good CEO, but becoming a good listener may be what it takes to make a truly great CEO. Only by listening to, assessing, and building on the ideas and feedback of your team and your customers, can you truly thrive as an entrepreneurial force in a changing world in which community and co-operation are quickly becoming the most critical aspects in business.
This infographic is published in collaboration with The CT Business Travel, UK’s leading corporate travel management company.