In the first of our trio of leadership blogs, we discussed the need for organisations to immerse ourselves in customer feedback. Click here to read our previous blog.
In this blog we move onto the importance of listening to colleagues.
There are hints that the worst of the pandemic are over, but uncertainty remains. We may hope that the vaccination programme will soon move us on from the cycle of lockdowns and mass hospitalisations, but, for us as leaders, the hard work of recovery has barely begun. It takes no great insight to know that the business environment we now face is dauntingly unfamiliar. Not just the pandemic, but Brexit, digital disruption and the climate crisis.
Perhaps one of the hidden benefits for leaders is that we feel no requirement to ‘know it all’. No point stressing that we might show a lack of clarity at times. It will happen. It’s a given. Hardly a ‘phew’ realisation, but important.
But ‘if not me…then who’?
Here at Equal Talent our central tenet is that inclusive organisations have the greatest chances of success. Inclusion is not a ‘nice to do’, it’s a proven way to get better results. Greater uncertainty makes this truer than ever. Uncertainty offers opportunity, the diverse organisation is more likely to turn opportunity into success.
‘If not me…then us’.
Perhaps that rather overused but ever flexible William Gibson quote is for once, genuinely relevant now… ‘The future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed’. There is knowledge of the future distributed amongst your colleagues …but how to harness it?
Of course, the size and structure of an organisation will determine its precise approach, but we can offer a few pointers. There are three areas we might consider.
- What should the behaviours of the leader be?
- What should the organisation do to constantly share knowledge?
- How should we capture and benefit from shared knowledge when undertaking strategic thinking?
Being a leader that listens
A good start point is to consider who is supporting whom? Historically, leaders might have considered that the rest of the organisation ‘below’ them should act as the leader’s support network. The team in service of the leader. Is this true today? Isn’t it more useful to assume that the leader is working in the service of the team?
Humans are poor listeners, especially those with busy digital lives and short attention spans. According to research from the University of Missouri the average person retains just 25% to 50% of what they hear. Passive or distracted listening by leaders is bad for productivity and morale – a team that feels unheard or undervalued will not work cohesively. Active listening is just that: it’s active, it is a deliberate act. It is not distracted or judgemental, nor is it pre-emptive or interrupting. It is mindful and it is empathetic of your conversational partner.
Listening skills take practice. Active listening requires device free full attention – drop the multi-tasking and engage. Try very hard to not interrupt, and to not just be waiting for your ‘turn’. Try to walk in the shoes of your interlocutor – engage with their thoughts and feelings, not just words. Look interested, pay attention to body language.
Being an organisation that learns from each other
It makes sense for an organisation to embed active listening into organisational behaviour through a programme of ongoing feedback. Diversity itself is not enough – the Harvard Business Review notes that cultural and ethnic diversity can make listening more difficult. It’s not only diversity that makes somewhere a good place to work, inclusion is the key.
360 reviews (not just of leaders, but across teams) and reverse mentoring (where juniors pair with senior colleagues to provide cultural and strategic insights) can help to create a sense of trust and openness, if follow up is undertaken and signposted.
Cross functional ‘boards’ and focus groups help here too. We have discussed in other blogs how the new remote ways of working can either help or hinder such work (link to blog on online meetings). Some organisations have created ‘Millennial Boards’, where young, diverse professionals tackle the same issues as their board of directors and share insights.
It seems obvious, but it is worth noting, that such initiatives will most likely succeed when part of an overall atmosphere of inclusion, feedback and clear communication.
Inclusive Strategic Thinking.
Of course, the size and structure of an organisation will determine its precise approach, but we can offer a few pointers.
As noted above, clarity will be in short supply right now. But, an essential requirement for organisation success is clarity of objective and a shared commitment to reaching it.
Lots of what follows is about storytelling. Stories help us understand ourselves and others, to make sense of the world.
One way to break through the fog of uncertainty is to use ‘future back’ storytelling. This is where we create a ‘postcard from the future’ for ourselves. A ‘proud Story’ of our future. We describe where we are in, say, three years, and (importantly) how we got there. This frees us from the confusion of the present, allowing us to be creative about our possible futures, and making choices. In turn, this then guides us along a path to that future, helping us frame decisions.
So, how to go about this?
We can conduct a series of individual and team exercises that give us a sense of what makes us proud of who we are, what we do, where we excel, and where we have a shared view of what ‘good’ looks like. In the light of recent events this could take the following form.
- Each person in a team is asked to prepare a ‘story’ of when they think they/we did something well, pre-pandemic. Something from ‘before’ that we want to hold on to.
- Each person is asked to prepare a ‘story’ of what they/we did well during the pandemic. Something we can feel proud of from our ‘present’.
- And each is asked to prepare a story about an experience where they think a business (preferably not a competitor) did something during the pandemic that feels like it was an enduring change.
These three exercises, well moderated in a team session, can be used to create a shared sense of the activities, values and behaviours that look and feel ‘good’ to the whole group.
The next exercise, then, is for each individual to take this shared learning, and create that ‘postcard from the future’ – to take the best from the past and the present, and project forward to a ‘good’ future.
Once again, the team can share these, and shape a shared vision for the future. Care must be taken at this point – some of the ‘futures’ might be somewhat too visionary. So an exercise in separating what is possible (but perhaps unlikely), and what is plausible (and therefore more achievable) is sensible.
And finally, then, the team starts to create a practical plan towards achieving this plausible future.
We are going through highly uncertain times.
Complexity and uncertainty require our best thinking.
There is a compelling case that the most successful organisations will have a leader that listens, in an organisation that harnesses knowledge from across a diverse culture, and frames it’s objectives clearly based upon deep and wide insight.
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