Leadership: talk little, listen much?

Many senior executives take listening skills for granted and focus instead on learning how to articulate and present their own views more effectively.  In coaching these leaders, we therefore consistently run into the theme of listening.

The strategy consulting firm McKinsey just published an interesting article (download here: 2012_03_the executive’s guide to better listening) describing the role of listening in leadership.  The article positions good listening, which describes the active and disciplined activity of probing and challenging the information garnered from others to improve its quality and quantity, as the difference between success and failure in business ventures (and hence between a longer career and a shorter one).

Why should that be so?  Listening is the surest, most efficient route to informing the judgments that senior executives must make. Good listening can ultimately mean the difference between a longer career and a shorter one.  By showing respect for conversation partners, spending less time speaking, and challenging the assumptions that inform conversations, senior executives can improve their own listening skills and those of their organization.

McKinsey goes on to delineate three kinds of behaviors of great listeners, which I am listing in order of increasing difficulty for typical successful executives:

Challenging assumptions: good listeners seek to understand and challenge the assumptions that lie below the surface of every conversation.  Although many good executives (even exceptional ones who are highly respectful of their colleagues) inadvertently act as if they know what’s most important, we have found that successful leaders typically understand the importance of challenging assumptions, particularly their own.

Showing respect: conversation partners often have the know-how to develop good solutions, and part of being a good listener is simply helping them to draw out critical information and put it in a new light. To harness the power of those ideas, senior executives must fight the urge to “help” more junior colleagues by providing immediate solutions. Leaders should also respect a colleague’s potential to provide insights in areas far afield from his or her job description.  Still intuitive, but more difficult in our experience with successful clients.

Keeping quiet: This is the big one.  The article advocates an 80/20 rule, which limits speaking time to 20% and thus leaves 80% of the dialogue for the conversation partner to speak.  This is difficult for most executives we coach, particularly when combined with the idea of using these 20% primarily for questions rather than statements.

These are three simple rules.  Our work at North Of Neutral suggests a fourth, which is listening with empathy: seeking to understand the underlying motivations, gauging what has not been said and why, to understand the fears and aspirations of the person you are listening to.

As the proverb says: you don’t learn anything when you are talking.  So why not listen?