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A seminal moment to do with my own listening

I want to tell you about a moment in my own career, a moment that was seminal for me on the subject of listening. It made me realize that, sometimes, simply listening is the most inspiring thing a leader can do.

The Atomic Energy Research Establishment was formed and based at Harwell, near Oxford in the United Kingdom, in the 1940s. It was the main centre for atomic energy research and development in the UK from then to the 1990s. Pressures on government spending resulted in the Atomic Energy Authority UK having to redirect its research efforts to the solving of scientific problems for industry by providing paid consultancy and services. After several years, the UKAEA was divided into two parts – the first retained ownership of all land and nuclear infrastructure, and remained in government control. The remainder, made up of the scientists and engineers providing consulting services to business, was privatized as AEA Technology and floated on the London stock exchange in 1996.

In 1992, in the run up to privatization, I was appointed as director of corporate affairs for AEA. My job was to lead the communications and change programme that would enable successful privatization of AEA Technology. My CEO, Dr Peter Watson, himself a foremost engineer, appointed me as site director of Harwell.

The irony did not escape me that I had never done particularly well at science at school, nor done any science since leaving school – and now I was director of one of the foremost scientific facilities in the world. I was to act as ‘point man’ for all AEA Technology employees on the site, and ensure our best interests were met by our landlords.

Harwell was a vast and sprawling site. To me, the site had the feel of a university campus, complete with offices, laboratories, nuclear testing facilities, lecture halls and playing fields. On those playing fields, employees enjoyed lunch-time sports activities from rugby to rounders.

I discovered that rounders (a game like baseball for those who don’t know it) was really big at AEA. The employees had a league championship. The Harwell site newsletter reported regularly on the progress of the different teams. In one edition, the newsletter gave offence to the captain of one of the teams, by apparently insinuating that there had been an element of ‘gamesmanship’ during one of the matches. This so upset the captain that she made representations first to the editor, then her line manager, then the head of communications, and went as high as the then head of the Harwell site (before I took up the position).

No one was able to satisfy her, in spite of a retraction in the newsletter, and she continued to express her dissatisfaction to senior management for some time. This was such an issue that she featured in the briefing note to me when taking up my new role. It became such an intractable problem that even the most senior managers began to fear having to meet with her.

One of my first duties as director of the site was to attend that year’s rounders final, when it fell to me to present the trophies to the winning team. I stood watching the match from the table that contained the gleaming silver cups. Chatting with some of my colleagues, I did not notice the approach of the ‘infamous’ aggrieved rounders captain. My first inkling came when I realized that I was suddenly standing alone at the trophy table, wondering where my colleagues had gone.

She confronted me and asked if I knew who she was. I said yes and asked what I could do for her. She asked whether I knew about her grievance. I said I’d heard about it but did not know the detail. Would she please tell me?

Part of me feared that I would meet with the same failure that had befallen every manager before me. Another part of me empathized hugely with her plight. She had, in her view, been maligned in the newsletter and felt that her reputation had suffered as a consequence. My empathy showed, as I related to her pain, and I kept asking her about what happened next and how she felt about each stage of the process.

Out on the field, I could see the final was drawing to a dramatic close, and that I would soon be required to hand out the trophies. After much questioning, and a lot of tears (from her) I said that I understood what she had been through and asked what I could do to make her feel better. She thought for a while, consulted her husband (who also worked on the Harwell site and who also attended many of the grievance meetings with her) and then surprised me with her response.

She said: ‘You’re the first person who’s really listened to me. Others before you have cut me short, or suggested things before I’d finished, or defended the status quo. I don’t know if there’s anything you can do but I feel better because you listened. I’ll let you know if I can think of something.’ With that she turned and left, in time for me to do my official duty.

Months later, when I had still not heard from her, it finally dawned on me that I had managed to resolve the problem no one else had managed to fix. By listening to her with empathy and respect, not defending and not trying to provide solutions, I had at last made her feel understood. I had been concerned about her feelings, and not just the facts. That was all she wanted.

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