Leaders who listen – Part 1
I recall a disconcerting meeting with a Government Minister some years ago. It wasn’t because he rushed off to other (more important) business before we had the opportunity to advocate for our cause. Rather, it was because he spent most of our allotted time head down, writing notes on his yellow legal pad.
When we address a meeting, a class, or a conference, we gauge the attention of our ‘audience’ – whether they are listening to us – by how long and in what way they look into our eyes.
The Minister’s way of listening to us was not the way such meetings are usually conducted. Mostly, they involve conversations, albeit more formal than a chat in a cafe. Eye contact is a key element of how we listen to others, and how we, in turn, assess the impact of our words on them. The Stephen Covey quote in the header image above highlights the importance of effective leaders listening with more than their ears.
Being present – paying attention
Having served as secretary to statutory boards, associations, and charity boards, and learned how to sustain concentrated note-taking for hours at a stretch, I understand the habit of focusing on capturing the key points of the deliberation. I also recognise that in that role, I was not meant to be part of a conversation (for most of the time anyway).
When participating in board or other meetings, one of the ways we can be present for the contributions of others is to look them in the eyes as they speak. Even when there are large numbers in the room, or the table layout makes this difficult, it remains important to find a way of connecting with the speaker using both your ears and your eyes.
Of course, if you are the speaker, reading from your notes will not encourage others to pay close attention to (i.e. understand) what you have to say. You need to engage them with eye contact as well.
Listening – for decision-making
Leaders on the way up tend to think they must be the key source of initiatives, problem solutions, and strategic direction. This means they see themselves as speakers rather than listeners.
To some extent, this belief is true. However, as one takes on leadership roles, the importance of listening to colleagues, stakeholders, and the community in which one works, grows over time.
Board Chairs who want to chair every working party or committee sometimes deny themselves the opportunity to promote the creativity of the group. The belief that they need to drive change takes them into a ‘command and control’ mindset, which stifles innovation and the engagement of others.
It also denies the leader an opportunity to listen to each of the perspectives and ideas that others have to offer, before synthesising or distilling these sometimes disparate contributions into an approach that most participants will actively support.
As suggested in Complexity: the view from the chair, there are many dimensions to chairing a meeting. Most of these require the chair to listen with their eyes. These include:
- Time management – negotiating time budgets, especially for significant agenda items
- Monitoring and adjusting participant engagement and behaviour
- Strategic Focus – how does the discussion serve our purpose, and relate to our strategic priorities?
- Record keeping – what needs minuting?
- Risk management – ensuring that the question ‘What could go wrong?’ is addressed
- Compliance – Is the proposed action within our authority/power? Is it legal?
- Facilitating deliberative processes – consensus building, conflicts identified, moving the debate or discussion towards a decision – ‘What’s the motion?’
- Decision framing – ensuring precise wording that permits translation into appropriate action
A chair who wants to lead the discussion with their preferred solution is no longer an impartial facilitator of the deliberation, but an advocate for their predetermined position or solution. This approach impedes consensus building, and shared ownership of the decision. Adopting a facilitative style of chairing is much more conducive to achieving that consensus.
Also, freeing the board chair from chairing working groups and advisory committees allows them to concentrate on listening more fully to the flow of discussion and ideas, to read the room, and to ultimately offer a synthesis that best represents the agreed ‘way forward’.