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Are You Listening

The other day I was listening to a lecture by Professor Warren Bennis, one of the foremost gurus in the field of leadership.

He was talking about the three most fatal failures of leader. Examples he used include Julius Caesar, Margaret Thatcher, Howell Raines (former chief editor of the NY Times), and Eckard Pfeiffer (former CEO of Compaq Computers). The top three fatal failures Bennis talked about were:

  1. Not listening
  2. Not knowing, or paying attention to others
  3. Not knowing, or paying attention to yourself

At the end of the talk, a man named Mike Farrell stood up to ask a question. Mike was a student at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and a long time City Manager of towns such as Georgetown, MA; Lebanon, CT; Hooksett, NH; and Littleton, NH.

The question Mike asked was: Why am I always the last to know? Why is it so difficult for me to listen?

I have a very good executive assistant, he said, and one day she told me: Mike, tonight at the council meeting one of the councilmen will try to get you fired. I really try to connect with the people I serve, I have an open door policy, I lead by walking around, and yet I had no idea that there are councilmen out there trying to get me fired. How come I missed that?

Professor Bennis did not really have an answer for Mike, so he re-directed the question back at Mike: Why do you think that is, Mike? Why are you hearing but not listening to what is going on around you?

Mike paused for a moment and then he said (and I paraphrase): Perhaps it is because my mind is so pre-occupied with all the stuff I have to do, that I do not have mind-space to really listen and connect with what is happening around me.

Did this ever happen to you?

Professor Bennis’ lecture continued to unfold but my mind drifted away to reflect on my own career: the time I served as Consulting VP at Oracle Corporation.

I was new to my job, having recently arrived in the USA from South Africa, where I was partner with the consulting firm Accenture (then Andersen Consulting). I was clearly very naïve, thinking that what worked for me at Accenture in South Africa will also work for me at Oracle in the USA. So I got into my head and continued the same management approach and behaviors that worked for me there, completely ignoring the different business culture in the USA and the fact that I had to earn the respect and trust of the people I worked with.

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People tried to tell me in their own words where I was going wrong, but I failed to listen. I also assumed that my boss was happy with my performance, but I did not take time to listen and really understand what he was telling me, not always in words. Until one day I was called into the office of the Senior Vice President who told me, to my complete surprise, that I was not doing a good job, and that I will have to find another position, hopefully within Oracle.

As I was listening to Prof Bennis’ lecture 20 years later, I asked myself: what advice can I offer my coaching clients who may be suffering from the same ailment?

Developing your listening ability:

Some people are more naturally tuned to their environment. They are better connected, they listen better even to words that are not spoken, and they are better at processing signals that their environment sends to them. Other people do not have sensitive antennas, they tend to live in and operate from their head.

They tend to be driven more by their To-Do List than by their ability to connect with the world around them.

Improving your listening ability is definitely possible, but in order to achieve a meaningful change you have to be absolutely committed to make the daily effort involved in becoming a better listener. Below are some steps you could take:

  1. Self-awareness.
    Like with all other personal development endeavors, it all starts with developing an acute awareness to your tuning and listening ability. Asking yourself every single day: “Are important things happening around me, which I am missing? Are people sending me signals or telling me things that I am not hearing?”
  2. Seeking feedback.
    Actively seeking feedback from people who are willing to be open and candid with you, is one of the most important tools at your disposal. But it requires courage and willingness to place yourself in a position of vulnerability. It also requires the ability to prudently decide which corrective actions you are willing to implement and which advice you are prepared to ignore.
  3. Adopting a trusted mentor or coach.
    This is perhaps the most effective strategy. But you have to make it a regular and focused topic of your coaching conversations, reviewing the events and interactions you experience every day, dissecting them with your mentor or coach, understanding what they mean to you, and deciding what you need to do about them, if anything.
  4. Measuring your progress. 
    Over time you’d want to get a sense of the progress you are making in being in tune with your environment. If your company holds periodic 360 degree reviews, the organizers can include questions about your ability to listen and understand the messages that are being communicated to you. Alternatively you can initiate your own informal 360 review, in which case you would need someone to receive the ratings and comments so that the respondents can submit them anonymously.

If this topic resonates with you, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Please do not hesitate to write to me at [email protected]. 

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