“The ability to listen, and the willingness to stick your neck out and ask the obvious question, are criminally under-rated business essentials.
Sir Richard Branson
Last month we discussed the importance of listening to our customers in ways that were active and purposeful. The importance of listening “to understand” instead of listening “to reply” cannot be overstated. When we take the time to ask the right questions, pay attention the details, and keep focused on “data” instead of “deadlines” we give ourselves the best possible opportunity to get it right the FIRST time, and provide the customer experience we all are striving for.
Listening to our customers, and understanding their needs is important. Business leaders must focus on the customer, his needs, and how we can use our efforts and resources to solve his problems. As critical as the voice of the customer is to our success, as management professionals, it is equally important to focus on another important voice. This is the voice of the employee.
In order to run an effective, efficient and safe business, it takes more than policies, procedures, initiatives, and planning. It takes PEOPLE. All the best strategies that we work so hard to assemble, are useless unless we have employees are that can execute the plan. An employee’s level of commitment, engagement, and personal buy-in to the goals of the department and the processes that help us meet those goals is in great part determined by the following factors:
- Our skill in constantly communicating both the goal, and the importance of adhering to our processes.
- Our ability to keep that messaging clear, and CONSISTENT.
- Our willingness to relentlessly enforce the policies and processes we have committed to.
- Our willingness to accept feedback from our team, and draft CHANGES based on that input if we discover new and better ways to operate.
- Our willingness to respond to feedback every time we receive it.
This is a collaborative leadership style that does not suit everyone, but there are benefits to embracing it. A true open door policy will set a tone and a posture in your department that promotes the idea that “none of us, is as smart as ALL of us”. If you can be successful in establishing this environment, you will be surprised at the results. When they really feel that their contribution to the team is appreciated, and their input is respected, employees many times cross the line from “making a living”, to “making a difference”.
The constant feedback and response model of leadership comes at a cost. Communication will increase to be sure, which will mean that you will have to commit extra time and energy to increasing face-time with your team members. More communication is a given, but all of it won’t be meaningful, and you will have to develop the unique skill of rejecting a bad idea, but supporting the team member it came from. If you have that interaction focus on the appreciation you have of the willingness of the employee to participate, (regardless of the actual content) it can help you avoid the ideas that won’t work, while not squelching the process of active engagement.
It is also extremely important to dedicate yourself to follow through. Failing to follow up and follow through is a momentum killer. When you commit to any team member that you will “think it over” or “consider it” or “bring it to the management”, you MUST circle back to that team member, and (good news or bad) to let them know the outcome. Managers say “I’ll consider it” many times just to avoid having to say “no”. So there it dies. All the while your team member is wondering what happened, and finally gives up contributing to the process because they feel that their input was ignored, or dismissed. It’s much better to say “no” today while expressing appreciation for the input, than to deflect the issue and put your progress at risk.
Active engagement is of paramount importance when dealing with the subject of SAFETY. There is no better subject for meaningful communication than creating and maintaining a safe work environment for your employees. Active engagement, conversations, suggestions, and consistent feedback are all keys to making changes to your workplace that actually make a difference in the safety arena.
Whether it’s safety, efficiency, or problem solving, all leaders must understand that you can’t “fake” or “shortcut” this process. Employees will see right through it. Communication never chooses a “convenient” moment to occur. I have been there myself when the phones were ringing off the hook, 2 people just called in sick, and the computer system just went down, then a team member pokes their head around the corner and says: “Got a minute?” In these moments you may feel compelled to “multitask” in the name of efficiency. I learned through experience that although multitasking is a skill that may serve to make you more efficient in the short term, it loses its luster in situations where you need to give your full attention to interfacing with your team.
Earlier in my management career, employees would come to discuss something with me, and for most of the interaction, I would rarely make eye contact with them. I would “listen” with one ear, nod approvingly, and glance at them occasionally, while my fingers kept pecking away the keyboard. I justified my actions in the name of efficiency. I failed however to see that the practice (in addition to being just plain RUDE), failed to give the team member the confidence and support they were seeking in coming to see me directly.
Reflecting on my career, I remember the people who listened to me. They made an impact on me. When I entered the room they put their pencil (or phone, or tablet, or laptop) down, or pushed their keyboard back and turned to face me. It made a difference.
I remember in the mid 80’s I was working as a rental manager for a large Caterpillar dealer in the San Francisco Bay Area. Our division manager (Ernie) amazed me with his ability to focus on each person’s individual concern. One afternoon I was standing outside his office, wanting his opinion on my “crises of the moment”. While I was there, I couldn’t help but eavesdrop on the conversation he was having with the service manager from the power systems division. This service manager was delivering very bad news. The disaster that he was describing was very likely going to cost the company tens of thousands of dollars, and a potential lawsuit!
As I listened to this sad tale, my “crises” seemed less and less important. When it was my turn to go in, I was almost embarrassed by my little issue, and made a comment that it looked to me like he had bigger fires to put out than mine. Ernie waved that off immediately, invited me in, organized and put away the file he was dealing with, got a fresh pad of paper and a pen, then he looked at me and said…You deserve to be heard just like the last manager that was in here. His problems are no more important than yours. So David, what’s on your mind?
I will never forget that moment. Ernie had every right to dismiss my issue in light of what seemed to me to be incredible problems, but instead he chose to exercise his listening skills. He did give me his FULL attention; rendered the opinion I needed, and then went on his way, ostensibly to deal with the catastrophe at hand. What he did however made an indelible impression on me. I felt important, needed, and significant. From that day forward, if Ernie had asked me to go to hell and back, my only response would be “what time do you want me there?” He earned my loyalty, and my commitment because he LISTENED to me.
It was an important lesson that is still difficult for me to replicate in my own life. But I’m making progress. Listening makes a difference.