Business Leaders: Are You Listening (Or Just Talking)?

by Dave Kerpen

Listening is an essential, yet often overlooked aspect of business communication. Entrepreneurs and senior executives are naturally filled with ideas, and it’s our nature to want to share those ideas with others. But great leaders over time learn to talk less and listen more.

There are many benefits of listening. Listening allows the executive to:

  1. Better understand customer and employee needs. By listening to what your team thinks, without your own agenda, you’ll be able to understand what they want and need.
  2. Help stakeholders feel heard, which makes them more committed to the mission at hand. Everybody wanted to feel heard, and valued. Even if you never use a single idea your staff or Board share with you, they’ll feel better about you and the organization just from your listening.
  3. Gain a better understanding of what’s really going at your organization. Sometimes the only wait to get insight is to sit back and focus on paying attention. The higher up in your organization you are, the more important this is.
  4. Get access to new ideas and perspectives. Who knows – the intern or woman in the mailroom just may have an idea for your next product line that you’ve never thought of!

But can you actually measure how well you’re listening? For my recent book, “Likeable Business,” I had the honor of talking with Verne Harnish, the founder of Young Entrepreneurs Organization (now EO), the author of “Mastering the Rockefeller Habits,” and one of the great business leaders of our time.

Of the 11 principles of a likeable business, he believes listening is far and away the most important. Verne told me he’s seen a direct correlation between the experience level of listeners and their ability to listen. He’s even used data to prove this, tracking time spent listening by young entrepreneurs compared with time spent listening by more senior entrepreneurs.

As leaders mature, two specific key performance indicators (KPIs) can be used in any important meeting with a customer, supplier, or internal team: First, measure the number of minutes you spend listening compared to talking. Use this to calculate the Listening-to-Talking Ratio (LTR). As you mature, you’ll see a rise in your LTR, or ratio of minutes listening to minutes talking.  Second, measure the ratio of questions you ask versus answers you give. The more questions you ask, the better you’re listening. Try starting a meeting with a question or two and then committing to going a certain amount of time without speaking at all. My first silent meeting was several months ago, and it was amazing how much I learned from my business development team and about what our strengths and weaknesses were, in just 45 minutes of listening.

If you’re serious about improving your listening, you’ve got to measure it. Obviously, it’ll take an administrative assistant or intern to track these KPIs, so that you can focus on the meetings at hand – and on listening! But you’ll find this is a worthwhile experiment, and over time, you will be able to increase your listening capacity.

Verne left me with a lasting analogy: Every time a leader talks rather than listens to his or her team, he or she is creating monkeys, destined to carry out orders rather than to create, innovate, and problem-solve on their own. The more you talk, the more monkeys you get on your back. The more you shut up and listen, the fewer monkeys.

Do you consider yourself a good listener? Why or why not?

Dave Kerpen is the co-founder and CEO of Likeable, an award-winning social media agency, and author of New York Times Bestseller, Likeable Social Media and the new book Likeable Business.

Photo Credits

The YEC | Quinn.Anya