Most leaders know that listening is an important skill. Yet in nationwide surveys, employees indicate that their leaders don’t actually listen to them. What’s going on? Is the problem that leaders don’t listen or that they don’t show that they listen?In reality, it is likely that you have every intention of listening to your people. Like Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, your own leadership mantra might be “listen, learn, and lead.” Yet hectic schedules, demands on your time, and pressing decisions might reduce the time you get to spend listening. It takes conscious effort and the implementation of some specific tactics to ensure that your listening activities don’t get shortchanged.One way to be sure you are both listening and demonstrating your interest in others in a visible manner is to conduct a listening tour. In mid-January, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper conducted a statewide tour to promote his economic development plan. His eight stops included public town hall meetings in Fruita, Durango, Loveland and Colorado Springs. While the press called Hickenlooper’s tour a promotion, he didn’t spend his time talking or pitching his ideas. In fact, the governor spent approximately 50 percent of the time soliciting input and listening to members of the community. As an organization’s leader, you can also conduct a listening tour. Make it a point to get out to each factory or office location. Pull people together in an auditorium or cafeteria and, if needed, in a video conference. Say a few words and then ask for questions, comments, and ideas. Most importantly, don’t feel like you have to have an answer for everything. Your job is to listen.A good example of an executive engaging in a listening tour comes from former KeySpan Chairman and CEO Robert B. Catell. In the book, “The CEO and the Monk: One Company’s Journey to Profit and Purpose,” Catell tells the story of KeySpan‘s dramatic growth from $1 billion to $6 billion in revenues. During a chaotic period when KeySpan was in the midst of mergers and acquisitions and tripling its workforce, Kenny Moore, the human resources director (and former monk), set up a series of site visits for Catell. In city after city, Catell sat on a stool and invited input and ideas from his staff. Moore insisted that Catell respond to every point with only the words, “Thank you.” Catell reports having been amazed at how many of his employees thanked him for the meetings. More than once he heard his people say, “This was the best company meeting I ever attended.”
There are many long-term benefits of listening. Ultimately, when leaders listen to employees the result is more trust in management, higher employee engagement, increased support for ideas and initiatives, higher productivity, and a positive impact on the bottom line. In addition to all of these factors, there are three concrete benefits you will gain by listening to your employees using the structured format of a tour:
Listening demonstrates respect. Henry David Thoreau once wrote, “The greatest compliment that was ever paid me was when one asked me what I thought, and attended to my answer.” When you make the time and effort to genuinely pay attention to your people’s thoughts, they feel respected and their respect for you increases in return.
Listening helps you see things from the perspective of your frontline. Michael Abrashoff, past captain of the U.S. Navy‘s USS Benfold argues that, “The most important thing a captain can do is to see the ship from the eyes of the crew.” This belief helped Abrashoff lead 311 sailors through one of the greatest turnaround stories of the modern military. As a leader at any level, it is critical that you understand your organization from the point of view of the people on your frontline.
Listening can uncover great ideas. A 2007 study by Watson Wyatt found that companies that listen to and act on employee feedback realize, on average, a 2.3 percent gain in market value. Companies that saw the highest gains did not just rely on employee surveys for feedback. Rather, they provided opportunities for employees to provide meaningful input into decisions that affected them as well as suggestions for business improvements.
Every listening tour may not result in a million-dollar idea, but every minute you spend showing your people that you are listening will pay enormous dividends.
Mack is a Woodland Park-based consultant, speaker and author specializing in leading and communicating change. She can be reached at email@example.com.