I’m the younger child of two, the only male of many cousins, and forever grateful for extended family dinner experiences we shared growing up around New York City. Like many of you, our extended family meals were a regular event. We gathered several times a month, often with music in the background. We are close, connected, and bound by the immigrant experience of our parents. We discussed politics, current events, culture, sports, and issues of personal importance. Most importantly, opinions and ideas came from everyone.
And there was yelling, lots of yelling (in a loving way), led by my late dad, uncle, and his two sisters who often refused to “cede their time” and allow others to weigh in.
I reveled in the experience. More introvert, observer, joke teller, and thinker, I was developing my listening skills at a young age. I learned that listening requires you to be present, to probe and ask questions, to process and connect ideas, to challenge points of view, and to open the door for greater engagement. All the while, listening helps the message sender appreciate your commitment to understand and relate in some way.
As a leader, the ability to listen and be present is a learned skill. Some of the best (and worst) leaders we have all worked with were horrible listeners or at best situational listeners when topics suited their needs and personal interests.
As a leader in a high-growth business, the strategic power of listening should be self-evident. On a given day, you listen to yourself, your team, your organization, or key external stakeholders. As you move faster, you might forget, “I may not have all the answers.” Thus, listening becomes a choice, a commitment, and a process, when done well, has a material impact on the success of your business.
When I coach a CEO, executive leader, or team, communication is a consistent area of opportunity. When I conduct feedback interviews, I ask about leader or team listening capability and its effect on performance and impact. And it is the power of listening that is often underutilized or overlooked.
After thirty-five years as a business leader, chief people officer, and coach, I have observed and learned that great leaders and leadership teams share a common trait: they listen to move their organization forward. And if they listen effectively (even through data, insights, and trends), they are more able to differentiate the important signals about their business, culture, and customers from the on-going noise that affects us daily.
So, what are some traits of leaders who listen effectively?
They understand their own listening strengths and weaknesses and learn to balance their head, heart, and gut approach.
They make time for their team, their staff, their customers, and their partners. In the process they do so with the intent to learn, empathize, understand, and less to test or validate their preconceived assumptions.
They listen for context, for generating new ideas, as a way to improve process or to consider better options.
They listen with an open mind, inclusivity, respect, and purpose.
They listen authentically to engender trust and psychological safety.
Like a coach, they master the ability to be present.
The next time you have a conversation with a member of your team, be committed to your listening process regardless of your state of mind or level of distraction.
Learn to stay silent and fight the urge to solve or react. Stay present and focused on the topic or the person. Try this for 30 seconds. Then 3 minutes. You soon realize that being a present listener is hard work and often inconvenient. And yet the most important action you may take to get the most out of your people or to the delight of your customer is the hardest communication skill to master.
In a recent podcast, I commented that if leaders want applause, they should keep talking. But if leaders want results, they should start listening. As Fred Dust wrote in his new book Making Conversation, leaders should apply the WAIST (Why Am I Still Talking?) concept to self-manage that balance.
There is no shortage of listening advice available for leaders, especially for our VUCA world. As you build and lead your organization through the stages of rapid growth and change, remember the power of listening more and talking less. It may increase the rate of return on your decisions and improve the lives of the people and teams you lead.
About the Author
Steve Schloss is a strategic advisor to Edison portfolio companies. For over three decades, he has built, scaled, evolved, and transformed global organizations across diverse industries, including banking and finance (Citi), digital media, entertainment, and publishing (TimeWarner/Time Inc), conversational commerce and AI (LivePerson), and non-profit services and sport. Since 2014, Steve has served as Chief People Officer and member of the executive team for the USGA. He has led the transformation and continuous evolution of culture, capability, and workplace and serves as an industry change leader focused on developing the next generation of leaders and volunteers. Before joining the USGA, Steve was the first global head of human resources at LivePerson (LPSN).