Several years ago I was working with a business leader in a new role and I was invited to attend the dinner where he would meet his new team for the first time. It was one of those three-hour meals with way too many forks and I was amazed at the way the new executive used that opportunity. While I didn’t time him, I’m pretty sure he talked for at least two and a half of those hours. His team learned his life story, his management philosophy, his prior business successes and every detail of his hike through a rain forest.
At the end of the dinner, he pulled me aside and asked, “how do you think it went?” I asked him what he knew now about his team, his business, or the challenges he would face tomorrow morning that he didn’t know before dinner. He responded that his objective was to let them get to know him and his leadership style so that they could be more productive in their new environment under his leadership. I asked him how he even knew what his leadership style needed to be yet if he knew nothing about the people he was leading or their views on the business and what it needed to be successful. He had squandered an opportunity to learn, to build trust, to understand the things that would help him lead. He was also gone in less than 18 months.
Too many leaders focus solely on the message they want to deliver, with no regard to what they need to learn. Rarely do I encounter a leader who understands how to truly listen to the people who will ultimately determine the success or failure of the business, as well as their own success as a leader. When I use the word “listen”, I don’t just mean hearing the words. The leaders I’ve been around who are successful do more than hear the words; they listen for the mindset and the motivation of the person delivering them. Its not just about what people say, it’s about why they say it and what’s causing them to choose the words they do. Learning how to listen for all of those things gives a leader the opportunity to understand what the people in the organization think, feel, believe and want.
When leaders meet with anyone in their organization, it’s a precious opportunity to find new ways to solve problems, shift their own perspective with new information and hear new ideas that could drive business growth. The preparation for any kind of meeting should consist mainly of coming up with great questions that will cause the conversation to flow and bypass all of the pleasantries and “managing up” that is sometimes rampant in those encounters.
If you want to become a leader who consistently gets flooded with new ideas, new solutions, new ways to tackle problems then become a leader who listens. The people you lead will soon learn that you want their ideas and their input and you will get more of it, and have a more satisfied and fulfilled team in the process.
There is no vehicle that helps you learn about the people you lead more than asking good questions and then intently listening. If you ask good questions and help people explore their own thoughts a little they will tell you how to be the leader they need to help them reach their potential. They will give you every idea they have on the best ways to run the business and they may even tell you about the mistakes that you are getting ready to make.
Great leaders understand that they don’t have to have all of the answers; they just have to know where to find them. The leaders job is to take all of the available information and use it to create growth, not to arrive on the scene with a monopoly on creative ways to make things happen. More importantly, leaders who listen the right way will begin to understand the people in the organization and what they care about. That will unlock the secrets to getting them fully engaged and keeping them excited about showing up and fulfilled when they leave. When you find an organization with people like that, you find a business that is thriving. And if you look around in there, somewhere, there’s a leader who learned to listen.
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