Jim Rogers, now the president and CEO of Duke Energy, has followed a slightly different — but no less effective — model of formalizing the business of listening to employees. In 2004, when he was CEO and chairman of Cinergy (which later merged with Duke), Rogers initiated a series of “listening sessions,” as he called them. It was a way for frontline supervisors and other company managers to engage him in direct, open, and uninhibited conversation. Meeting with groups of ninety to one hundred managers in sessions that each lasted three hours, he invited participants to talk about issues of pressing concern to them. Topics ranged from “any burr under their saddle in terms of HR policy, all the way to the grand visions of the future,” Rogers says. Through these discussions, he gleaned information about Cinergy, its people, and its day-to-day operations that would otherwise have escaped his attention.
At one session, for example, he heard from a group of supervisors about a problem related to uneven compensation. “You know how long it would have taken for that to bubble up in the organization and to fix that?” Rogers says. In this case, having heard about the problem straight from those affected by it, he was able to instruct the company’s HR department to implement a solution right away. Getting things done for employees in that way helps Rogers to get closer to them — and closer to the work that they do. Holding sessions in which he can speak intimately with people throughout his company brings other advantages as well. “It allows me to get smarter about what’s really going on in the company,” he observes. “And as I go up the food chain, I go, ‘Well, you know, supervisors are worried about this. What’s your answer to that?’ So it allows me to move the ideas back and forth across the organization.”
Rogers, in his listening sessions at Cinergy, did more than merely listen to employees. He turned those sessions into a forum where employees could put him on the spot. He put himself on the line, in other words, allowing participants in these conversations to address the strengths and weaknesses of his own leadership performance. He listened, and learned, as people at Cinergy subjected his managerial decisions and his management style to an open and honest critique. True listening, after all, involves taking in the bad with the good. It means absorbing criticism, even when the criticism is direct and personal — and even when those who deliver critical remarks happen to work for you.
That next phase of Rogers’s story began during a second annual round of listening sessions. At one session, a Cinergy supervisor suggested to Rogers that he ask employees to grade him as a CEO — to mark him on a scale of A through F, as if he were student and they were his instructors. Rogers took up the challenge. At the very next session, he invited each attendee to enter a grade for him on an electronic voting device. The results, which the voting devices recorded anonymously, appeared on a screen for Rogers and everyone else to see. Over the course of three sessions in the spring of 2005, nearly four hundred Cinergy managers registered their marks for him, and he announced the totals in a memo: 39 percent of listening-session participants awarded him an A (the highest grade), 52 percent gave him a B, and most of the remainder assigned him a C. (There was one D.) At first, Rogers recalls, he “had some trepidation” about this form of listening to employees. Soon enough, though, the value of overcoming such doubts became evident. “I really do believe that trust is built when you are unafraid to be vulnerable,” he says. “When you put yourself at risk, you and they [employees] find out what kind of person you are.”