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Financial Times: A quiet word in the ear for leaders who like to listen

EXTRACT: Had Lord Browne only listened to a couple of people on safety matters, things might have gone differently at that refinery in Texas.

By Lucy Kellaway
Published: October 1 2007 03:00 | Last updated: October 1 2007 03:00

Tony Hayward, the attractively boyish-looking new head of BP, was quoted in the Financial Times last week as saying he has a “leadership style that really listens”.

There are three things wrong with these five words. First, if you have to resort to telling people what your leadership style is, you are failing to exhibit any particular style at all. Second, styles don’t listen. Third, and most fatally, if you think the biggest part of leading is listening you are either disingenuous or deluded.

Mr Hayward isn’t alone. In fact, listening has become the biggest and most fashionable of all modern leadership fads.

Every new leader promises that this is what he is all about. Gordon Brown arrived at Number 10 in June and talked and talked about how much he was listening. Three times in his speech last Monday he commended himself for how much of it he was doing. “I have listened to and I have heard the British people,” he said, bafflingly implying that plain old listening isn’t as good as listening plus hearing.

There is nothing wrong with listening per se. In fact, some listening is vital – but it has to be the right sort. If you are PM or CEO, it is not a good idea to make up policy alone in the shower without ever talking to anyone and, if you do this, as Mr Hayward’s predecessor, John Browne, did, you will come unstuck eventually. Had Lord Browne only listened to a couple of people on safety matters, things might have gone differently at that refinery in Texas.

Yet just because some listening is essential, it does not follow that listening is what sorts out successful leaders from the rest. Neither does it mean that leaders should ever stand up and declare themselves to be good listeners.

The reason they make this foolish declaration is they feel it makes them look the very image of the democratic, approachable, modern leader. Yet there are five reasons why they should desist.

* Listening is really easy. Any old fool can do it, so it can’t therefore be a key skill for CEOs. In my experience some of the best listeners are dogs. They have a way of putting their heads on one side and cocking an ear. Sometimes CEOs turn out to be dogs, but that is different.

* Listening is only the first of four increasingly hard things leaders do. After they have listened, they must think. Then make a decision. Then implement. The fourth one is always the hardest.

* To promise mass listening is phoney. CEOs usually don’t have the time or the inclination to do lots of listening.

* To say that you are listening can sound weak. It suggests that you don’t have the foggiest idea of what to do, which isn’t a good trait in a leader.

* It encourages cynicism. It implies your CEO will not only listen to you but do what you say. In fact, your CEO doesn’t really want to hear you whining on about why you are so underpaid, and (appropriately) doesn’t want to listen to you at all.

The very word listening encourages people to say some remarkably silly things. Here is what Peter Senge, the management thinker, has to say on the topic. “Generative listening is the art of developing deeper silences in yourself, so you can slow your mind’s hearing to your ears’ natural speed.”

This sounds a little over-complicated. So do all the varieties of listening that managers get trained in: active listening, empathetic listening and something called deep heart listening. In the US there is an International Listening Leadership Institution which teaches you a 10-step programme on how to be a listening leader.

This, surely, is six steps too many. Here, for nothing, is my four-step guide to listening for leaders.

1. Take anything out of your ears. 2. Dispel as many worrying thoughts from your mind as you can. 3. Try to concentrate on what the other person is saying. 4. Look at the person. This is optional, though advisable as it makes the other person feel better. When listening to a staff member who is distressed, then it might be good to look sympathetic and to put one’s BlackBerry down for a second.

That’s it. Easy. It is never necessary to hold your head at an angle, it just makes it look as if you have cricked your neck.

What isn’t so easy is the next bit, which is about exercising judgment. The good leader needs to know who is worth listening to and when to listen. More important, they need to know if they are being told flattering lies and convenient truths or not.

I once had a boss who used to hold periodic “listening lunches”. Small groups of employees would meet him and were invited to voice their concerns. Some would make sycophantic comments. Others would complain about the air conditioning, cutbacks to expenses, understaffing and so on. Our CEO would sit there nodding uncomfortably. He listened. Nothing happened, though, except that no one enjoyed the lunches and they were discontinued. What went wrong here wasn’t the listening. It was the judging, the sorting and the doing that were pear-shaped.

There is only one good reason for saying “my leadership style is to listen” and that is if you want to belittle your predecessor. As often as not, those who say they believe in listening are saying – in a super-polite way – that the old guy was arrogant, out of touch and nothing like the new one.

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