As the up-and-coming vice president and CEO candidate for a Fortune 500 technology corporation sat before the CEO for his annual review, he was baffled to discover that the feedback from his peers, customers, direct reports, and particularly from board members placed unusual emphasis on one potentially devastating problem: his listening deficit. This executive was widely considered among the best and brightest in his company, but it was evident that this issue needed immediate attention if he ever hoped to advance to the top spot.
He wasn’t alone in that regard. My knowledge from my days with FedEx and Microsoft, of corporate leaders’ 360-degree feedback indicates that one out of four of them has a listening deficit—the effects of which can paralyze cross-unit collaboration, sink careers, and if it’s the CEO with the deficit, derail the company. But this doesn’t have to be the case. Despite today’s fast-paced business environment, time-starved leaders can master the art of disciplined listening. Conventional advice for better listening is to be emotionally intelligent and available. However, truly good listening requires far more than that. As you move toward truly empathetic listening, consider these tips:
Pan for the nuggets. I saw how a former CEO did this. Sitting down with a business unit leader presenting him with information about a $300 million dollar technical investment opportunity, the CEO divided a sheet of paper about three-quarters across. On the larger left side of the paper, he scribbled detailed notes; on the smaller right side, he occasionally jotted down two or three words, capturing what he perceived to be the key insights and issues being brought to his attention. It was a simple technique that disciplined him to listen intently for the important content and focus follow-up questions on points that really mattered. Whether or not this is your method, you should train yourself to sift for the nuggets in a conversation. Then let the other person know that they were understood by probing, clarifying, or further shaping those thoughts. The benefits of this go beyond ensuring that you heard it right: first, the person on the other end of the conversation will be gratified that you are truly grasping the essence of their thoughts and ideas; second, this gratification will motivate and energize them to create more thoughts and solutions. Listening opens the door to truly connecting and is the gateway to building relationships and capability.
Consider the Source. When working with peers, in and across teams, work to understand each person’s frame of reference—where they are coming from. This is extremely important when disagreements arise. When you truly understand the perspective of others, you are most likely to reach productive solutions; further, all the participants will feel heard, whether their solution is adopted or not. Even better, it’s likely that the solution will not turn out to be one that was brought to the table by any one party; it will be a new approach crafted in the conversational environment you created. Active listening and probing (with humility, not aggression) energizes groups, encourages them to reach consensus, and helps them arrive at new and better solutions.
Consider this example of CEO of a massive tech company. Earlier in his career, as a business unit manager, he recognized that he must cut costs. But his division’s operations department was adamant it could not be done given the tremendous complexity of its processes. The CEO understood their frame of reference, which was that they were in favor of simplification, but couldn’t achieve it without the collaboration of the product departments. He got the two sides to collaborate and much better solutions were found. Not only were costs cut, but operations became more focused and simplified.
Prime the Pump. After GE achieved its goal of being first or second in several of its businesses with exceptional margins, then-CEO Jack Welch faced the challenge of how to spur continued growth. He actively listened to a Business Management Course team at GE’s Crotonville learning center. They suggested that, if a GE business had become the biggest fish in its pond, it was thinking about the pond too narrowly. The definition of the market needed to be changed based on an expanded understanding of its customers’ needs. As business unit managers prepared their next round of strategy presentations for the Chairman, Welch told them all to redefine their market in such a way that their share was less than 10 percent. This released GE managers’ energy to grow their businesses with new ideas. One of those ideas was to grow the services businesses across GE. Today, GE has a $200 billion backlog in its services business.
Slow Down. There is a reason that, over the years, you have lost your ability to listen. It feels too passive, like the opposite of action. It’s much faster to move to a decision based on the information you already have. But in doing so, you miss important considerations and sacrifice the opportunity to connect. Understand that as you begin to change your listening style to a more empathetic one, you may often feel inefficient. It takes time to truly hear someone and to replay the essence of their thoughts back them so that both parties are clear on what was said. The payback is dramatic, but it comes over the long run.
Keep Yourself Honest. No habit is broken without discipline, feedback, and practice. As well as installing a personal mirror to reflect on your own behavior, find a colleague to give you honest feedback on how well you are tuning into the thoughts and ideas of your colleagues, managers, board of directors, and others. Explicitly lay out an exercise regime by which you will practice empathetic listening every day and strengthen your skills. Make a habit of asking yourself after interactions whether you understood the essence of what was said to you, the person’s point of view, their context, and their emotion. Also ask yourself whether that person knows that they were heard and understood.
For leaders, listening is a central competence for success. At its core, listening is connecting. Your ability to understand the true spirit of a message as it is intended to be communicated, and demonstrate your understanding, is paramount in forming connections and leading effectively. This is why, in 2010, General Electric—long considered the preeminent company for producing leaders—redefined what it seeks in its leaders. Now it places “listening” among the most desirable traits in potential leaders. Indeed, GE Chairman and CEO Jeff Immelt has said that “humble listening” is among the top four characteristics in leaders.
Truly empathetic listening requires courage—the willingness to let go of the old habits and embrace new ones that may, at first, feel time-consuming and inefficient. But once acquired, these listening habits are the very skills that turn would-be leaders into true ones