Peter Drucker, in describing eight practices of effective executives, threw in a bonus practice: “This one is so important that I will elevate it to a rule: Listen first, speak last.”
The essence of leadership is to get results in a way that inspires trust. Although there are many behaviors that create trust, none offers greater leverage than listening. Yet, remarkably, it remains something many managers fail to do well. In extensive surveys conducted by FranklinCovey regarding 13 trust-building behaviors, the ability of managers to listen was consistently rated as their least effective skill by employees.
Left to our own devices, we listen last or not at all. Especially with our own employees. In this excerpt, Boris Groysberg and Michael Slind explain how leaders can counteract this tendency by creating structured, formal processes for listening.
Of course, listening alone is not enough; it is understanding that really creates trust and provides insight. Understanding does not necessarily mean you agree; in fact, you may disagree. It simply means that you understand. The test of understanding is not when you tell others, “I understand you”; rather, it’s when they tell you, “I feel understood.” But we will seldom reach understanding without first listening.
— Stephen M.R. Covey
An excerpt from Chapter 1 of Talk, Inc.: How Trusted Leaders Use Conversation to Power Their Organizations
Many leaders, to ensure that they’re hearing from the right people in the right time and in the right way, have developed carefully structured procedures for listening to employees. Instead of talking with employees during one-off occasions or on an ad hoc basis, these leaders establish recurring events that put them in touch with specific members of their workforce. At Smiths Medical, for example, an institution called the Executive Sales Council supports key senior leaders in the company. Through meetings with this council, top sales and marketing executives keep up-to-date on issues and problems that customer-facing employees encounter while navigating the medical-device marketplace. The council consists of twelve people, all of them drawn from the company’s sales force. “Field reps only, no managers,” says Judith Rossi, who helps manage the council. “It can be anybody, from a very experienced rep to a rookie.” While all salespeople are eligible to join the group, those who sit on the council have undergone a formal selection process based on nomination by their peers. “For the average sales rep, it’s an honor to be on the council. It’s a résumé builder,” Rossi says. A clearly defined framework is essential to the success of the council: Members serve fixed two-year terms, and their meetings with executives follow a regular schedule. (The group convenes in person about four times annually and by teleconference several other times per year.) Council members, rather than executives, set the agenda for each meeting.
Understandably, some leaders in some organizations are wary of meeting with frontline employees in this way. “They’re concerned about the action that they might be expected to take,” Rossi notes. But at Smiths Medical, the Executive Sales Council has become a reliable tool for narrowing the conversational distance between top leaders and members of the company’s marketing infantry. “It is a way for the feet-on-the-street foot soldier to have a direct line of communication to the top of the house. No filter,” Rossi says. “If we’ve got a supply-chain issue, if we’ve got a quality problem with a product, that issue or problem gets raised directly with the senior leadership team and with the people who can fix it, as opposed to going up the organizational chain of command.” Through the council, salespeople out in the field are able to bend the ears of company leaders back in the home office. “Think of it like the House of Representatives. Its members each have a constituency base, and their job is to represent that constituency,” Rossi explains. “From the sales-rep perspective, it’s a chance to hear firsthand from the senior executives about what is really important.” For Smiths Medical leaders, using the council as a receiver for tuning in to the voice of employees carries benefits that extend beyond the boundaries of the company proper. “It brings the voice of the customer directly to the senior executives of the company,” Rossi says. “It’s a preview of where potential risks and opportunities are going to come from, and how big each risk or opportunity might end up becoming.” So useful has the Executive Sales Council proven to be, according to Rossi, that Smiths Medical has recently created similar groups to support regional sales executives.