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Listen up, down and all around

Great leaders listen up, down and all around their organizations. They listen to individuals. They ensure that they meet with people in small groups, and have informal listening sessions with them over breakfast meetings or in the evenings. They hold town hall meetings with larger groups of employees, and encourage open debate and challenging questions.

(Most of the leaders I know, are always better and more convincing as speakers during the question and answer sessions of town halls. They may have delivered a brilliant opening talk, but it is when they answer questions that people see the real leader. They see the person who has strong views and can respond to questions with passion and knowledge. Or, they see the leader who is humble and says ‘I don’t know’ when asked a question for which they do not have the answer. They can see the leader committing to finding out or committing to sorting out a problem, and they are more inspired during these sessions than by any formal speech.)

Even if they can’t attend them themselves, leaders often systematically organize focus groups in order to hear employee ideas. They listen to employee surveys and pay close attention to what people are saying about the organization. They worry about poor engagement levels and are constantly tuning in to the mood of employees in order to make sure their organization is working optimally. Many even use the systematic listening techniques I outlined in the previous chapter, making listening routine in their organizations, checking that feedback is moving rapidly from the front line to wherever decisions need to be made.

These leaders do not only listen to people inside the organization. They listen to all of their stakeholders – customers, commentators, competitors and communities of interest. They bring what they learn back into the organization to encourage the conversations that improve performance.

Wherever they are, whoever they are listening to, great leaders use big, powerful, evocative questions. The five most powerful questions I know are:

· What do we do around here that we should keep on doing?

· What should we stop doing, and why don’t we?

· What should we do better or do more, and why don’t we?

· What should we start doing, and why haven’t we?

These ‘4 x Do’ questions are incredibly valuable, because they enable leaders to find out about strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats without sounding like a management consultant. The questions are straightforward and extremely productive. However you phrase them, they are easy to ask and get people engaged in talking about the key behaviours that impact on your business. When you ask the questions consistently at all levels of the organization and in different parts of the organization, you can quickly build a view of key actions you need to take. They work because they reveal unknown barriers and stimulate inspiring ideas. (These questions are also closely linked to the engagement ladder explained in Chapter 7, as well as the communications planning process explained in Chapter 8. Both of these are about the communications necessary to change behaviours and improve results.)

The fifth powerful question to consider is: ‘What would you do if you were in my shoes?’ I have often seen leaders use this question, and it provokes some very thoughtful responses, often surfacing ideas for action that might not otherwise have been considered. It forces the speaker to put themselves in the shoes of the leader and give a very considered response.

One of my favourite quotes is from Doug Larson, a United States newspaper columnist. He is widely quoted on the internet, but this one is a gem: ‘Wisdom is the reward you get for a lifetime of listening when you’d have preferred to talk.’

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