In my experience…effective communication starts with listening
Leaders have a natural tendency to be problem-solvers. This is part of what makes them leaders. Their ability to manage a multitude of challenges at any one time, let alone the rest of their responsibilities, is why they’re valuable to an organization. Issues arise for any number of reasons, and while it would be great if one leader or a leadership team always had the solutions immediately at their fingertips, that’s rarely the case. When problems are solved there’s relief, celebration and congratulations (sometimes), but resolution isn’t the end of the story.
I’ve noticed that an explanation of the how and why problem-solving happens is far too infrequent. This leaves open the possibility and likelihood that the issue will 1) reappear and 2) go through the same resolution process over and over again. In order to progress as an organization and learn from the past there must be communication. This includes communication about strategy, priorities, goals, operations, lessons learned, etc in order to ensure all leaders and employees are engaged and aligned.
In my experience, effective communication starts with listening, particularly when it comes to issue resolution. Listening allows the leader to validate and understand the problem and explore the root cause(s). Attempting a solution without listening injects a significant amount of risk into the process because assumptions must be made, and if those assumptions are incorrect, resources ($’s and time) will have been burned unnecessarily. Good leaders are willing to listen and then communicate with those impacted. If there is no post-solution communication, there is no learning, which means there is no progress and the issue could re-occur.
Following are three examples of organizational challenges I see regularly, and the insights gained when leaders listen, solve and communicate.
Leadership development is a hot topic and includes everything from training to career management to succession planning and more. In many organizations, leadership development is left to the devices of the individual senior leaders (i.e. the silos) to deal with because there’s no formal program corporate-wide. This results in a wide variance of practices across an organization and wildly different expectations from those the program is intended to benefit.
When this happens, discord is sown, and employees are distracted from their purpose and the organization’s purpose. I’ve seen instances where senior leaders recognize this and throw money at it in the form of bringing in leadership guest speakers or a specific curriculum. The positive here is a willingness to address the problem. The negative is the blind assumption that guest speakers or curriculum will solve it.
With fairly minimal effort a better solution is to simply ask employees what their needs and expectations are with regard to a leadership development program. It may be that the solution is simpler than assumed. If not, it’s likely that a program can be implemented in phases as resources become available. When employees feel they have a voice in the resolution, they’re happier and more engaged, and the solution addresses the problem effectively.
Marketing / Sales / Product Management
I’ve listed Marketing, Sales and Product Management here, but it really could be any function in an organization (i.e. strategy, talent management, etc). When working with lead teams I frequently and unsurprisingly find functional areas that are under-performing. The feedback from leaders is that the area lacks strength and / or isn’t aligned with the organization’s goals. From a big picture perspective this usually stems from accountability, or lack thereof.
There are two scenarios. First, low performance or goal alignment but accountability is clearly known, meaning everyone knows who’s accountable for the weak area. Second, low performance or goal alignment and there isn’t an accountable individual.
In the first case, my inclination is to dive deeper before crucifying the person accountable for Product Management(for example). We start by asking questions and we listen. What challenges is this leader having? How are they approaching those challenges? Have they communicated their product roadmap or strategy to the rest of the team? Is this a matter of misperception because other stakeholders simply don’t know what’s going on with Product Management? Once we know the answers to those questions we begin to work on a solution and the associated communication. It’s possible these answers lead to the fact that yes, Product Management is a problem and yes, the Product Management lead is ineffective. We can quickly assess the situation in order to arrive at reality with a few simple questions.
The second case is slightly different because there’s either confusion about accountability or there is truly no one accountable for Product Management. In either case questions need to be asked, answers provided, and decisions made. Again, the communication that goes along with this must happen so lessons learned are understood by all stakeholders.
Achieving diversity is a challenge and a goal I’ve observed in many organizations. Diversity is not always a quick and easy area to address. I’ve worked with leaders who have diverse workforces, yet when the feedback is provided, they’re hearing that diversity is an area of concern. This is something we immediately dive into with a listening-ear because of its many facets.
Interestingly, the answers leaders get when they listen are usually very specific. For example, in several organizations the feedback was that while the workforce was in fact perceived as fairly diverse there was a noticeable lack of women in leadership positions. This may not be able to be changed overnight but it certainly resulted in increased awareness and a concerted effort to address that aspect of diversity as soon as possible.
Obviously, there are many other examples that could be used to prove the point that effective communication starts with listening. It sounds simple but the pushback I hear is that it takes time. That’s true and I’m not saying that there aren’t times where issues or problems can be addressed without listening and communication. Rather that we tend to make assumptions that could be (should be) validated by some basic listening, which would go a long way toward organizational progress.
Special thanks to Harry Campbell, whose Get Real books are a treasure trove of strategic and tactical leadership and communication lessons, and to Andy Schmitz, whose insightfulness and ability to effectively communicate serve as a model for me.