The importance of listening.

One of my friends was describing to me an experience that they had with their General Manager recently.  They have just received a new Regional Manager and were asked by them to prepare a presentation on their business.  Obviously at any level being asked to prepare a presentation for ‘management’ is a big deal.

We did something similar when our CIO visited last month and I was both impressed and appreciative of the effort that my team put into ensuring their presentations we’re professional, consistent and appropriate.  I did my best to help them prepare for the event and they took my comments and advice on board, I had people practicing their timings and polishing their content, it was a very gratifying experience to see such a practical demonstration of the quality of people that choose to work for me.  I know of course that I do the same thing when I present.  Each opportunity you have to present on your area of expertise reflects on you as an individual and on the value of your operations to the group as a whole.

So I can only imagine that my friends boss took this opportunity the same way (in fact knowing them as well I am sure they did.) So the presentation was prepared, the content was reviewed, the timings were rehearsed. Shoes were polished, ties straightened, breath mints in pocket and they went in to sell their contribution to the business with the same enthusiasm and professionalism that they would do to a million dollar account.  A tip for people new to the game, I’ve done quite a lot of public speaking.  My military experience saw me getting up in front of large groups of people constantly and while you get used to crowds and feel more comfortable speaking publicly with practice, you never really decrease the amount of effort that you put into preparing if you want to be good at it

The the time came and the Manager stood up and said their piece and the Regional Manager divided his attention between the things on the desk, his phone, his diary and the person presenting.  Now hes a smart guy and probably thought he could multi-task.  He asked smart questions during the process and honed in on the areas he was interested in.  The question of course in my mind was why did he waste this managers time asking them to prepare something if he just had a series of questions he already wanted to ask.   The manager was understandably quite disappointed by this and expressed this disappointment to my friend after the event.

As I sat and listened to this I couldn’t believe that someone in such a senior position had made such a fundamental mistake as asking for something from someone and then demonstrating to them that they didn’t think the deliverable was worth anything.  For me this is right up there with ‘asking stupid questions‘ The net outcome of this event is of course that the talented manager giving the presentation has lost respect for the regional manager in question.  He has just made his own position harder by showing the people that are putting in effort for him that he doesn’t respect them.  The General Manager is of course professional enough that the event will never be relayed directly, but I don’t think there’s any of us out there that wouldn’t resent being treated like this and resent it.

Shannon Adler says that  “Resentment … doesn’t change the heart of others– it only changes yours.” It’s very hard to say what the intangibles of a rebuke like this will be down the line in this particular situation.

So the take away for  us is to consider how we can avoid placing ourselves in this situation.  The main thing we can do of course is start to listen. One of the people I look up to the most in the tech world, Dave Kerpen (@DaveKerpen) lists Listening as the first  important concept for a leader in his article 11 Simple concepts to become a better leader Dave even suggests “Listening is the foundation of any good relationship.

When we get a new boss most of us are keen to impress.  I like to think most of the world go into an opportunity keen to do the right thing.  The amount of effort that we put in is going to be based off a number of things in our background, but on the whole most people want to do the right thing.  As a leader if we recognize this we can provide those working for us with someone they would want to follow.

The Navy Seals have a saying “Individuals play the game, but teams beat the odds.”  for any of us in a position of responsibility we need to decide which we prefer.

Steven Sinofsky (@stevesi) covers this as well in his article on skip level 1:1’s  “Your role as a manager is to listen, perhaps ask a few guiding questions, and to learn by listening. Now I’m just a GM of I.T. A lot of you probably have bigger budgets or larger head counts, I don’t necessarily expect you to believe everything I throw out there, but Mr Sinofsky, I think he has some credibility in these matters and that’s why I am always interested to learn from those playing in the big leagues.

I realized early on in this role that I was not always a good listener and tried to address this with the interactions within my team.  It takes some effort but when someone comes in with a problem I make a conscious effort to lock my PC and put the phone onto “Do Not Disturb” and make eye contact.  If you take the time to treat people like they are important they will do the same to you. If they have a problem they are explaining, make the effort not to try and solve it for them but lead them to their own conclusion by asking leading questions when they are done.  Don’t interrupt them and don’t shut them down.

If you take the time to show them that listening is a skill that is valued in your business then they are more likely to adopt it themselves with their peers and their customers (your customers.) The net benefit for your business becomes an environment where your team feel valued and want to contribute.  You also show them the importance of listening to problems and becoming solutions oriented.

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