CEOs often pride themselves on their communication skills. Many I have dealt with are great orators and persuaders. What they lack, however, is the ability to listen—and it’s killing their business.
In the boardrooms of companies worldwide, people lay out strategies and plan tactics in official meetings. In our practice, we call these “foreground conversations.” Generally speaking, these involve the leadership of companies getting their team members to agree to a course of action and setting deliverables related to the execution of their plans. It’s official stuff.
There is another kind of conversation, however; those post-meeting conversations staff have at the water cooler, during smoke breaks and at the pub after work. You know these conversations. They are filled with complaining, blaming and, yes, idea creation that people don’t bring up at the meetings. Those we call “background conversations.”
These background conversations are the more influential of the two on the behaviours of the employee base and, ultimately, on the overall success of your company. Believe it or not, your team may not be buying what you are selling. The background conversations about their doubts, their concerns and their ideas are the conversations that actually shape the results of your organization. The results you are not getting.
Background conversations are happening within your company—whether you like it or not. Your employees, your customers and your suppliers are speaking about you and your strategic vision. When you cut yourself off from feedback, it weakens you as a leader. If you are not listening, you are assuming. And it’s not very often that leaders assume their way to audacious results.
So, what can you do to get in on the background conversations (other than inviting yourself along for post-work drinks, that is)?
Bring your team members together for a town hall and ask them for their real feedback on your vision, strategy and tactics. Then, shut up. Practise listening to understand; remember, there is no need for you to respond. Your goal is to have your entire team experience being heard. You do not have to solve all the issues, but at least you will have heard them. And that will go a long way toward eliminating any assumptions.
Effective CEOs are true listeners. They seek first to understand, then to be understood. Instead of jumping in and getting their hands dirty, they first ask questions such as “What is missing?” and “What do you think?” In so doing, they become wisdom-sharers. The most effective CEOs declare a future made better because of their company and then develop their teams to take on the challenge of achieving the results. You can’t do that with closed ears.
The simple act of listening will strengthen your leadership, and your team will flourish. By bringing background conversations to the foreground, all team members focus on results—not on complaints. This positions the CEO as a steward for growth. In other words, a true leader.
Does this sound like your leadership style? Are you prepared to listen to what your people have to say? If not, are you willing to accept the consequences?
Darrell Kopke is the founder of institute B, a Vancouver-based accelerator for entrepreneurial businesses that put profit and societal value on equal footing. Formerly general manager (and the sixth employee) ¨at lululemon athletica, Kopke currently is part-owner of several growth companies and a board member with The Gratitude AEffect Foundation, a Vancouver-based charity devoted to ending homelessness. He founded iB in 2010.
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Have you ever struggled with listening to your employees or customers? What did you do to improve your ability to hear their feedback? Share your experiences below.