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Leadership Thought #467 – Leaders Should Listen More Than They Talk

Over the years I’ve noticed that it is inexperienced or mediocre leaders who feel like they have to dominate all conversations.  It’s almost as if what anyone else has to say has limited or no value and it is only their opinion that counts.  We’ve all been in meetings where there is that one person who simply will not be quiet and yield the floor to others.  They are also often prone to interrupting their colleagues before they can finish their thoughts and using obvious body language when the center of attention isn’t focused on them. This is bad enough when it is a peer but even worse when it is the actual leader of the group.  Nobody likes a “know it all.”

I have a colleague who is fond of saying that “most people are preparing to talk rather than listening.”  I must admit to catching myself in this mode more often than I would like.  You start to block out or only partially listen to what others are saying and wait for your chance to interject and share your thoughts on the topic at hand.  As a result you often miss important information, repeat what someone else has already said and de-motivate the other party to the conversation to continue engaging.  It is a vicious cycle and ultimately you end up providing a monologue to a disinterested audience.   When people check out on what you are saying as a leader, you are in trouble.

Leaders have the responsibility to foster rigorous debate and dialogue not inhibit it.  Your goal is to make the right decisions and come up with the best solutions.  The more people who participate in this process the better.  The only real way to do this is to ask good questions and listen intentionally to what other are saying.  You need to facilitate the conversation rather than just lead it.  No one person has the market cornered on good ideas.  The loudest person in the room is rarely the most intelligent; they just crave attention.  In my experience, a major reason why businesses don’t grow is because the leader feels he/she has to have all the answers rather than building a team of competent professionals and leveraging the skills/experience of those around them.

When I was a kid my mom used to often say, “Less is more.”  It took me way too long to figure out what she meant.  It’s not about how much you say, but what you are actually saying.  And, if you want people to listen to you, you need to listen to them.   The best leaders I now pick their spots.  They do their best to take it all in and only contribute when they feel they can add value or need to move things along.  If you are thoughtful about when you speak, people tend to pay attention.  If your ego pushes you to dominate conversations, then don’t be surprised if you find leadership to be a lonely place and continued success a hard nut to crack.


Leadership Thought #463 – You Need To Have Thick Skin To Lead Others

Leadership is not for the faint of heart.  It certainly has its ups and downs and can test anyone’s emotional fortitude.  However, this is the very reason so few people can do it well.  If you take every small slight and failure personally, the job will eat you alive.  Whenever you assume a position of responsibility, you automatically also assume a roster of critics and malcontents who aren’t always aligned with your leadership vision.  Since you can’t realistically fire everyone who disagrees with you (nor is this advisable), then you need to figure out other ways to handle the pressures and scrutiny.

I’ve found that the best leaders I work with welcome the criticism.  They don’t always like it, but they accept that a key aspect of leading people is harnessing disparate points of view and feelings.  I don’t care how smart you are, no one person has all the right answers.  And, since we are all human, we will inevitably make mistakes.  To some extent, your critics keep you on your toes.  They help you maintain your ‘A game” and not take your position for granted.  If you are willing to listen to and embrace their feedback, you will definitely make better decisions.   Of course, there will always be points of diminishing returns, but don’t be too quick to assume you’ve reached this level of dysfunction.  Getting better often involves hard work.

In my life I’ve found that if you can navigate the rocky waters of professional disagreement effectively, then  you actually end up building new advocates for your point of view.  Sometimes the people who were most resistant initially end up becoming your most loyal colleagues.  Give me someone who is up front and honest with their opinions over someone who is more passive-aggressive any day. Healthy relationships are only ever possible if people can be authentically honest with one another.  I’ve also found that much of the initial angst and tension between two people is often due to poor communication and misunderstandings.

Leadership means embracing the spotlight not withering under it.  The very act of putting yourself out there and assuming others will follow is an act of unusual self-confidence.  Most people are hard-wired to follow not lead.  However, everyone can be a critic.  So be it.  As they saying goes, “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.” As a leader you will have good days and bad ones.  You will make great decisions and have many others you would like to take back.  You will trust people who disappoint you and lose good people to your competition.  You will be forced to make decisions with imperfect information and sometimes fail as result.  Many external market forces will be beyond your control to predict and/or influence. Some of your employees will make your life easier while others will require more work than you’d like. Not everyone will always think you are wonderful.

However, when all is said and done, leaders are in the minority people in this world who get to actually influence the future.  They ultimately reap what they sow as a business and individual.  Leaders have the opportunity to make a real positive difference in the lives of their family, employees and community. Maybe even this world.  Leaders get to stretch their personal capabilities in ways others will never experience.   Theirs will be a life of their own making.  Aren’t the benefits of leadership worth a little scrutiny and criticism?  You need to have thick skin to lead others and it is almost always worth it!

Leadership Thought #399 – Seek Out Mentors/Experts and Listen To What They Have To Say

I chair two CEO/Business Owner peer groups for Vistage International.  It is a great work that I truly find rewarding on many levels.  One of the many benefits of this experience is listening to a wide variety of subject matter expert speakers and having a vast pool of knowledgeable colleagues to tap into.   A few stand out from this exceptional crowd including the speaker we had yesterday – Pat Murray.  I have a learned a great deal from him about leadership and group dynamics over the past 9 years.  When you are in the presence of an expert, make sure you listen to him/her.

Leaders aren’t supposed to know it all, but they should be exceptional learners.  There are ample opportunities to learn and grow every day.  There are some things that will come easy to you and others that will take a bit more effort.  You may not even know what you don’t know.  The key is to keep working at it.  Learning as you go can be a valuable exercise, but it also helps to seek out the best and brightest thought leaders in a given topic area and learn from them.

We are all a work in process and if you are smart, you will appreciate that the work will never be completely finished.  I’ve had many mentors and teachers who have positively influenced my life. While I tend to be a verbal person who likes to share my own opinions and experiences, I strive to be smart enough to know when to solicit the input of others and enhance my own understanding. The struggle for many leaders is differentiating what they think from what they actually know.  It is expected that you will have strong opinions, but leading solely based on opinions is a slippery slope that will ultimately lead you to confront head on the gaps in your own knowledge.

If you make the effort to seek out wisdom from those who are more experienced and better informed on a topic than you, it will literally change your life for the better.  You will uncover shortcuts to happiness and success.  Life will seem less arduous and more manageable.  You will become a better leader who has enhanced his/her own capacity to handle whatever challenges/opportunities come your way.

Leadership Thought #346 – Are You Listening?

Most people I know aren’t good listeners. They are more focused on what they think and what they have to say about something rather than actually listening to what’s being said. I have a colleague who states that as a leader you need to “listen until it hurts” and I completely agree with him.  It’s basic human nature that the level of satisfaction any of us have with a given conversation is directly related to how well we feel the other party was actually listening to what we had to say.  Except when we are in a classroom no one really enjoys being lectured to or talked at.

The number one complaint I get when I interview employees is the general sense that there is a lack of good communication.  When you drill down on this issue it’s not so much that important information isn’t being communicated but more a case of the dialogue being a one way street from the top down. For people to feel fully vested in something they need to feel that their voice has been heard in the deliberative process.  They need to feel like their opinion matters in the wide scheme of things.

The best leaders learn how to master the art of effective listening.  They fight their impulse to always dominate the conversation.   Instead of seeing themselves as the go to person on all significant decisions, they learn to ask really good questions, listen to the answers and facilitate constructive dialogue among the affected parties.  They make people feel like their opinion matters.  They also leverage the expertise/talents of others to make sure the best possible decisions are being made weighing all the important variables and other relevant considerations.

Never limit your organization’s capability to what only you know or feel about an issue.  Always strive to broaden your feedback loop and tap into the collective and unique talents of your people including your clients.  I’ve met some very smart people through the years who have only ever gotten so far in their careers because of their inability to listen and learn from others (who they often deem less intelligent than they are).  Life rewards people who listen well and build consensus. It inevitably frustrates people who think they know it all and have the market cornered on good ideas.

Leadership Thought #240 – Eight Questions Leaders Should Be Asking All The Time

As a company grows a leader’s role because less tangible and more symbolic. You graduate from the world of constant “doing” and need to move towards more conscious “being.”  Others will take their lead from you.  You will always be an important role model no matter how big the company gets or how many layers of management exist between the front line and you.  If there is a disconnect between what you say and what you do, then everyone will pick up on it (and more quickly than you think).

As I’ve covered many times in previous blogs it becomes less and less and about you working harder or having all the answers and more about you diligently asking the right questions and letting others guide you. You need to become an expert question asker and never miss an opportunity to interact with all employees in this manner.  There are eight questions that when asked on a regular basis will encourage your people and ultimately the company as a whole to learn and grow:

  • What did you learn today that other people in the company should know?
  • Is there a better more effective way of doing this?
  • How can we improve upon what we are already doing well?
  • How can we make it easier for you to do a good job?
  • What are we currently doing as management that makes minimal or no sense whatsoever?
  • How well are we living our cultural values as a company (note: they should know what these are)?
  • What are you hearing about us or the market from our customers, vendors or partners?
  • If you were me, what major changes would you make in the company and why?

Don’t ever get defensive about the answers. In fact, encourage people to speak up and acknowledge their honesty and candor when this happens. You certainly don’t have to act on everything that you hear but if there is an obvious quick fix that makes sense that act on it right away.  On the bigger issues, use the information you receive as fodder to drive productive discussions amongst your leadership/management team.   Asking good questions and actually listening to the answers is one of the best skills a leader can develop.

Leadership Thought #221 – Ask Better Questions

A weakness I often see in leaders is a belief that their job is to supply all the answers.  They tend to dominate discussions and almost always want to have the last word.  The problem is that no matter how smart and capable you are, you will always be limited by your own thinking and life experience.  In addition, if you create an environment where everyone looks to you for answers, then you will hinder the growth and development of your employees and enable mediocre effort (and commitment).

Two traits I always see in exceptional leaders are an above average ability to listen to what someone else is saying and a great aptitude for asking follow-up questions.  The best leaders intuitively know that success most often lies in identifying and asking the right questions rather jumping to quick conclusions based on personal hunches or faulty assumptions.  You never lead a high performing company by using “seat of the pants” or “gut level” decision making.  A business is only as strong as its collective ability to make sense of and act on reality.

Asking good questions doesn’t come easily to everyone.  Sadly, our educational system prefers memorization and force feeding information over Socratic dialogue.  We build and reward confidence in “knowing” rather than “learning.”   However, young children from a very early age understand the importance of the word “Why.”  Every parent will tell you that this can get a bit tiresome at times, but it is just young minds trying to make sense of the world and understand how it works.  They aren’t burdened with the belief that they should already know everything.

Whatever your role in your organization I encourage to make a concerted effort to ask better questions.  Don’t take intellectual shortcuts or cover up a lack of knowledge with simple head nodding and acquiescence.   Don’t let your pride or ego get in the way of fully understanding what you need to know to be successful in your role. Never allow yourself to get to the point where you think you know it all because you don’t and never will.   Make it a habit to learn from other people by asking them what they think and actually listening to their response.  Leaders will inevitably have to take responsibility for making the “big” decisions but they should only do so after consulting with and learning from others affected by the decision.

Daily Leadership Thought #89 – Listen Until It Hurts

You ever notice that when you meet someone who is a good listener it is a fairly unique encounter.  In fact, the experience is so rare that when it actually happens you can’t help but acknowledge it and be attracted to the other person.  Most of us, and I’ll put myself in this category, are usually preparing to talk not listen.  We are thinking about what we are going to say before the other person has even finished what they want or need to say.  Sadly, we usually know what we want to say before they are even halfway through their thought.  Duplicate this mindset with the other party to the conversation and you can see why there is so much confusion and misunderstanding in the world.

When you are a leader or manager part of your job is to listen until it hurts.  You need to force yourself to pay full attention to what the other person is saying and then ask clarifying questions to make sure you fully understand them.  It is also critical that you pay attention not just to what is being said, but also the body language and tone of voice.  Both provide clues as to what is important to that person.  True listening is a skill and requires practice, commitment and hard work.  It also is becoming increasingly difficult in this fast paced, technology driven, attention deficit inducing world.

Too much valuable information is missed in everyday conversation.  Ironically, this is especially true with verbal people who tend to talk instinctively rather than listen.  When people don’t feel heard they give up on the conversation and look for an exit cue (either passively or aggressively).   We’ve all been impressed many times by others who although not known as great communicators suddenly inject some profound wisdom into a situation.  Their wisdom was always there, they were just waiting for the opportunity to talk and for someone else to listen.  The loudest people are rarely the brightest.  They just naturally demand the most attention.  Just imagine how much value is lost every day due our inability to listen well, ask good questions, and actually think about what’s already been said before talking.

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