If you are a CEO or founder, you’ve likely gotten where you are today because of your ideas - you are probably passionate about your company or industry and have gained a lot of experience and wisdom that make your insights incredibly valuable. Which is why what I am about to suggest can be so difficult for many top executives - as the CEO, your most important job may be to stop talking and just listen. I’m not suggesting that you should sit on your best ideas forever or that your contributions aren’t the most important ones in the meeting. Perhaps they are… but that’s missing the point.
As the CEO, you are the ultimate decision maker in many of your company’s most important areas. If you aren’t listening, you aren’t making the best decisions for your company. According to an article in McKinsey Quarterly, "Good listening—the active and disciplined activity of probing and challenging the information garnered from others to improve its quality and quantity—is the key to building a base of knowledge that generates fresh insights and ideas. Put more strongly, good listening, in my experience, can often mean the difference between success and failure in business ventures (and hence between a longer career and a shorter one).”
Without deep understanding of the needs of your customers, employees and other stakeholders, you can’t hope to make decisions that will move your company forward in the right direction. So, while it may be a challenge and go against the natural inclination of many CEOs, cultivating better listening skills is imperative to your success.
Here are some characteristics of effective listening:
- Maintain eye contact. Give the speaker your focused attention by looking at him or her while they are speaking. Use your body language to convey that you are listening opening. Head nodding, relaxed posture, leaning slightly in are all ways to give non-verbal indications that you’re listening, but eye contact is probably the most important. Plus, if you are looking at the person who’s speaking, you aren’t looking at your phone/computer.
- Show genuine curiosity. If you approach the conversation from an attitude of exploration, you will be in the right mindset for listening well. Ask clarifying questions if there is something you don’t understand. Use questions to expand the ideas the other person is sharing and gain a deeper understanding of what they are communicating. But, be careful not to use questioning as a way to manipulate the speaker into agreeing with your point of view. A good rule of thumb is that if your internal monologue shifts to what you are going to say next, you’ve stopped being an effective listener. I love a quote from an interview with Dave Kerpen: "Be interest ed instead of interest ing; listen actively instead of thinking about what you want to say next; and validate other people's thoughts and emotions after they've spoken."
- Validate your understanding. Periodically, restate what you are hearing and verify that you’ve got it right. Don’t make judgments or agree/disagree with the speaker necessarily - just summarize what you think the main points are along the way to ensure that you’ve listened well. The person will likely add something you’ve missed or clarify a point that you may have interpreted differently.
- Ask permission. Once you’ve heard everything the person has to share, it’s a good idea to ask permission to share your thoughts. You might say, “Thank you for helping me understand your perspective. Is it OK if I share some of my ideas with you?” Now’s your chance to make some suggestions; chances are if you’ve listened well to the other person, he or she will be eager to return the favor and may be more receptive to your ideas.
Even those of us who think we are doing a pretty good job already often have a lot of room for improvement in this area. I have a Masters’ degree in counseling and have been trained as a professional listener… but, I frequently find myself slipping into bad habits and letting my expertise in this area get rusty. Every time I catch myself looking at my phone when my husband is telling me about his day or glancing down at my 15 unread emails during our weekly team meeting, I’m reminded that my listening skills need honing as well. It’s a discipline that takes work. Like any skill, you can improve with practice. In a Forbes article, John Ryan says, "Leadership is like a muscle. The more you practice the right skills, the stronger you get. The same can be said of listening.”
If you are trying to get better, challenge yourself to a few simple exercises:
- Don’t speak. Challenge yourself to sit through 3/4 of your next meeting without saying a word. Just sit back and really listen to what the team is saying. This isn’t practical for every meeting (like the ones you have to facilitate) but you’ll probably be amazed at how much you can learn when you let others lead the discussion.
- Ask more questions. When you do speak, challenge yourself to ask more questions than you make statements. As a leader, deeply understanding challenges and empowering your team to solve problems rather than jumping in to solve them yourself will only catapult you to further success. You don’t need to make statements to do that - using questions is a more effective tool to coach your teams to solve problems for themselves.
- Establish some ground rules. In your planning and strategy meetings, set the expectation that everyone will share and allow time for deeper discussions. Agree to follow a framework to discuss, debate and agree on your company strategy, and then trust the process.
- Benchmark yourself. If you are very serious about getting better, Dave Kerpen even recommends tracking KPIs around listening. He suggests enlisting the help of your administrative assistant to measure the number of minutes you spend listening compared to talking in your meetings and the ratio of questions to statements you make. You may be surprised at what you learn about yourself!
The good news? If you invest the energy to get better at listening, you’ll not only see the benefits in better relationship-building and decision-making at work, you’ll also reap the benefits of being a better listening in all of your personal relationships as well. People love feeling heard, and if you can give them that gift, you’ll be surprised by the return on your investment.
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