Last week I had the privilege of working with an amazing group of emerging leaders getting their first real taste of professional leadership development. The focus of the week long workshop was an integration of Business Acumen and Business Leadership skills all centered around a customized business simulation. In the business simulation, teams of emerging leaders took control of their own company and were responsible to setting and executing the strategy of their business over three simulated years. As important as the business drivers, outcomes and financial metrics were as part of the learning experience, so were the business leadership and interpersonal skill lessons and opportunities for development gained through team dynamics, creating alignment in their simulated teams, and making decisions that impacted the “employees” working in their simulated companies.
As part of our coaching and feedback process, a group of industry experts observed the participants in their simulation workshops and then provided highlights of what they saw for additional learning.
During one of the group feedback sessions, I was surprised by one of the industry expert’s assessment of the cohort and the raw feedback he provided:
“To be very honest with you all, I didn’t see a lot of listening. In this day in age, what I saw in your simulation teams was very much what I see in the real-world workplace where others are just not interested in what you are saying, or they are too focused on their own stuff to care what you are saying. There was way too much talking over each other and not enough active listening.”
The focus and attention of the next 15 minutes was on developing better listening skills as a leadership trait which prompted me to think back and revisit some of the work by Steven Covey in “7 Habits of Effective People” and some of the work by Jim Underwood and Les Carter in “The Significance Principle: The Secrets Behind High Performance People and Organizations.” Even though both books are from the 1990’s, I feel they still have significant relevance today given the infinite amount of information and distraction everyone deals with every waking moment we have.
In the Significance Principle, the authors suggest that the most effective leaders in the world are the ones that listen past where the person speaking has finished and then take a moment to pause, reflect, and engage in asking questions so the speaker’s complete story and perspective is out in the open for you understand the what, why, and how of what they said.
In Covey’s game changing book, he suggests that it’s critical for effective leaders to seek first to understand, then to be understood. That is something to remember the next time you are in a meeting and all the participants are playing with their smart phones and texting with their friends instead of listening and participating.
The research and data show that when leaders actively seek real understanding it affirms the other person’s value and the value of what they have to say. Which is all anyone in the business environment really wants; to be listened to, understood, affirmed, and valued.
But what if as a leader you seek to truly understand, but others around you don’t? What can you or should you do? There are two best practices we teach in our core business leadership simulation called Fundamentals of Business leadership; one person listening and engaging is better than nothing, and most importantly; if one person is actively listening and seeking to understand, there is a good chance that the other will follow suit when that person realizes what is going on. But that best practice requires patients and you can’t get frustrated or emotional. Just stick with it and listen effectively…it becomes contagious.
In summary, I was reminded that being a better leader means being a world-class listener. Stop talking at the other person and stop talking over the other person by really listening with the intent to understand and value what they have to say. Anyone can talk over anyone else. And anyone can pretend they are hearing someone else. Only the best will embrace listening as an effective leadership trait.