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Leaders are Listeners

By Bob Priest-Heck

There are countless books about how to establish effective business communications, but I sometimes think George Bernard Shaw got it best when he wrote, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

It would be nice to think that any time an official memo, blog, video post, or website article is published, everybody rushes to hear it and totally absorbs the information.

Nice, but unlikely.

The truth is, not everyone is as fascinated by corporate missives as leaders might like to think, and even those who do receive the communication filter it through the lens of their own experience and current situation. An email about long-term strategy isn’t as relevant to people who feel they are treading rising flood waters, even if the plan includes a state-of-the-art flood management system.

Communication implies a back-and-forth, talk-listen-respond cycle through which meaning is layered on, like house paint, until everything is thoroughly covered. It takes patience. It takes time. And it takes going over more than once.

Most companies rely on surveys to understand what’s top of mind with their employees, customers and business partners. I’m sure many of us procrastinate when we get a company survey, but in a large enterprise with offices spread all over the globe, it is often our best tool. At the very least, a survey helps set the agenda for a plan to address the points raised, along with a supporting communications plan.

At Freeman, we have been going through an organizational realignment, there is a greater need than ever to understand what our people understand and identify those points where there is still confusion. It is literally true that the things that are top-of-mind with our people are the very things we want to focus on as leaders. In just the past few months, based on surveys, we’ve issued official position papers and posted (on our internal website) articles, FAQs, and even videos addressing the most common questions. But it’s still not enough.

Recently, top Freeman officers and I held smaller meetings — Freeman Exchanges — with people in field offices to understand what’s top of mind with them. Although this takes a while to get through, it’s my favorite way to communicate. Nothing beats face-to-face. Nothing is as satisfying as being able to answer a question directly and know, by watching the person’s face, that they have heard and understood the answer, even if it’s not what they wanted to hear. And even more important, I value the opportunity to hear what people want to tell me — even if it’s not what I want to hear.

If I’ve learned anything from the many wise people it’s been my privilege to work with, it’s that leadership is listening. That comes first. Only then can we work together to find a solution, build a strategy and execute the plan. There’s an inherent reciprocity here, too. As leaders, we need to ask people what’s top of mind and listen to what they’re telling us. And as members of the larger team, we need to voice our concerns in a constructive way that helps formulate the plan.

That’s the trick with communication — it only works when it’s two-way. We all need to contribute. And we all need to stop talking long enough to listen.

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