The Number One Weapon in the Arsenal. Listen Up!

CEOs seem have it all: power, status, salary and all the minions you can shake a stick at in carrying out world domination. Playful comment aside – certainly hoping that there aren’t any Steve-Carell-villain-esque CEOs out there – the grass does appear greener at the top of the pile and it’s a deserving place for a lot of the executives and technology professionals I have had the privilege to work with; indeed, they’re some of the most hardworking, forward thinking and unique people with what they bring to the table so it probably begs the question as to the reason I’ve written this article in the first place if they’ve got everything sussed. As much as this might serve as enlightenment for those worried about slipping back down the pole, I hope my work serves as a small reminder to those busy guys and gals at the top to keep utilising their key weapon in the war for business value. What’s that? The power of listening.

It’s not a head spin that the ability to listen well enhances all aspects of life which is why I wonder why some big corporates don’t have the right means in place to bolster communication channels; having said that, this idea might come as no surprise considering that, as an example, “23 percent of Americans who work at companies with more than 500 employees are unsure of the name of their CEO”[1], never mind as to how they might contribute potential ideas apropos reconfiguring business ventures for the future. On the other hand, I know some companies which have really nailed what ex Amgen CEO Kevin Sharer has coined as “Strategic listening”[2]: the idea of “Seek[ing] out [information] signals actively and us[ing] every possible means to receive them”[3]. These companies have achieved great success by cottoning on to the same idea as Sharer’s in that they believe in “Regularly visiting with, and listening to, people in the company who don’t necessarily report to [exec teams]”[4].

In the first instance of which I know this to happen, the company’s CEO likes to walk the building from 7:30 a.m. onwards in order to have informal chats with staff, aiming to pick their brains on how happy they are with their working environment and also any ideas that could drive value or improve the company’s ecosystem. The informality of these chats means there is no added pressure on employees, better relations are forged between management and staff and all those great ideas from those not traditionally listened to by exec teams are absorbed into the company’s brain, ready to be put into action. Last week, the CEO even told me he’s excited to pursue one avenue suggested by an intern so this certainly puts into perspective the value that quality listening can have on output.

The other company I know which is fantastic for listening, I feel, goes one step farther in their approach as they have decided to set aside one day a month for the CEO to work with a different employee. The idea of this ‘coal face’ experience is to expose top ranking management to the everyday challenges faced by each department in order to take away ideas on developing strategies to solve such issues. So far, the engagement with this program has been incredible with the telling sign being that every member of staff involved so far has volunteered to work extra hours to suit the CEO’s schedule of 6:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. just to make the most of this important opportunity.

Am I suggesting that every business need take on board this information and immediately adopt similar schemes? Yes and no. As much as I think these are brilliant examples of how much taking the time to really listen to not just exec teams and boards of directors but all members of staff, every company is unique and thus needs to find their own approaches to maximising strategic listening to match resources and needs. For now, it’s about at least simply engaging with the idea that listening more equates to greater success.

Exploring this avenue of greater listening then, one must understand that a Chief Executive Officer needs to be a “Chief Listening Officer”. Michael Hoppe, a once faculty member of the Center for Creative Leadership, suggests that there are six processes which can enable better listening; these being[5]:

· Pay attention: make sure you are able to give full attention away from distracting elements such as phones, e-mails and so forth. If the ideas don’t go in to start with, the whole system fails.

· Suspend judgement: wait for whoever is offering their ideas to fully explain their thinking. This time is about listening so is therefore about using empathy. You may not agree with all someone has to say, but put yourself in their shoes.

· Reflect: take the time to double check points. You might have misunderstood or missed something. It pays to check!

· Clarify: get others to expand on their points. They’ll be happy for the face time and opportunity to be so open and you might even learn something.

· Summarise: make sure you’ve understood and that the person you’re talking to has remembered to share everything they wish to.

· Share: conversations are a two way process so don’t forget to give your ideas too. Listening begets discussion and discussion begets more thought out ideas and that’s how you end up with success.

It’s no surprise that CEOs that listen do well and those that listen the most achieve the most. With listening however, the real question is not whether or not it’s happening, but whether you’re listening in the right way. Do others really have an opportunity to contribute and do they feel their contributions are being heard? If you’re not sure, ask! It’s all about understanding the thinking and motivations of the people who help you achieve so you can help them to be more effective; give them your best so they can you their best. Once you’ve got the choir working together, the harmonies will really sing; when all cogs in the machine are meshing because they’re listened to, the business will soar.


[1]Anonymous, America’s Invisible Bosses: Many U.S. Workers Don’t Know their CEO’s Name or Face, (New York: Apprise Mobile, 2017). [2]Anonymous, Why I’m A Listener: Amgen CEO Kevin Sharer, McKinsey Quarterly, (New York: McKinsey & Company, 2012). [3]Ibid. [4]Ibid. [5]John Ryan, Every CEO Must Be A Chief Listening Officer, Forbes, (New York: Forbes Media, 2009).