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3 Reasons Great Leadership Starts with Listening

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by: Todd McCormick (@TMcCormick2011)
17 March 2014

"Big egos have little ears."
— Author Robert Schuller

 If you’re a leader, chances are you’re smart, strategic and great at your job. There’s a reason you have a corner office. But the greatest executives know their employees have even more valuable insights and ideas to offer: They’re the ones who talk to customers on a daily basis.

Do you really live that belief out, though? One in three U.S. employees say their bosses rarely or never listen to their work-related concerns, according to research from DDI and Harris Interactive. And nearly half say their bosses rarely or never ask for their ideas about how to solve problems.

What a waste of valuable brain power!

If you’re not listening to your team, and even asking for their feedback, you’re throwing away opportunities to better engage your customers, make more strategic decisions and inspire higher levels of performance from your team.

I see this management mistake all too often, and I wish I didn’t. These non-listening leaders are missing out on incredible potential, for three reasons:

1) Your team knows your customers better than you do.

My wife once met Gary Kelly, CEO of Southwest Airlines, in one of the last places you’d expect to see a business mogul: checking in customers at LAX. Gary often steps out of the boardroom and onto the front lines to help his team greet customers, load bags, and hand out peanuts. As a winning business leader, he knows it’s much easier to hear from customers when he’s on the front lines, rather than isolated in the C-Suite.

How often do you interact directly with your customer pool in the way your employees do? When you talk to customers, you hear their complaints and their praises. They can help you identify challenges and create solutions you never even considered.

2) Your team knows things you don’t.

Often executives make decisions without fully understanding their organization’s pulse, which makes them miss critical nuances. In contrast, front line employees live in these nuances every day: They know customers intimately. They also know how competitors are positioning themselves, where gaps exist in your team’s sales process and marketing campaigns, and what changes would most positively impact customers.

This kind of insight could be yours, if only you asked. What are you scared of? We all have blind spots, no matter how great we are at what we do. We can’t know what we don’t know … until we ask. So, ask. Then, listen up.

3) Your team will work harder for you when you listen.

When asked what makes “the best leaders the best,” respondents in the DDI survey ranked “listened to me” as one of the top attributes. It’s comfortable to talk about how great and right you are, but that cuts your team’s potential off at the knees. Ask for help, listen, collaborate — and you’ll inspire transformational teamwork and ridiculous results. In the process, you’ll earn your team and customer’s respect and deep loyalty.

One of the ways I try to apply this principle is with regular, one-on-one meetings with my high performers. I ask questions. We discuss their challenges and how I can support them. I can’t tell you how rich these meetings are for me in terms of the insights I get. My team’s also told me these meetings reassure them that I have their backs, which I do. My only regret is that I didn’t start having these meetings sooner.

Tell your team your door is always open. Invite them to your office to chat. Take someone different out to lunch every week. Or, take a page from Gary Kelly’s playbook and spend a day in their shoes. Knowing your team and your customers better than most is a powerful advantage for any leader.

In my next blog, I’ll share other secrets for finding out exactly what your customers want from your company.

Related Resources:

1) Blog: “Listen to Learn, Learn to Lead

2) TED Video: “5 Ways to Listen Better

3) Blog: “3 Pieces of Advice for Growing a Company

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