Apr 10th 2022

Hear, hear: Listening is the star of the CEO skill set

I have spoken before about how the best exECUTIVES share an ability to influence those around them to make positive change in the workplace.

But I want to highlight a skill that underpins influence: listening. It’s an attribute that enriches leaders, giving them the knowledge and emotional awareness they need to be truly inspirational stewards.

We’re now a far cry from the profile of the stereotypical business boss – red-faced and barking instructions, intent only on boosting the bottom line. These days, you’re more likely to find the C-suite walking the floor, rolling up their sleeves and helping out. This is because the modern CEO leads by doing, not by decree.

“They stay in touch with how the work really gets done in the organisation by getting out of boardrooms [and] conference centres…to spend time with rank-and-file employees. [It’s] not only grounding for the CEO, but also motivating for all involved,” says Mckinsey.

Of course, the CEO must still take a starring role in strategy, but leadership behaviours have changed markedly, not least because businesses have become larger and more complex, operating in multifaceted environments.

As technology has broken down barriers, we find ourselves in a global business community. Senior figures must be entrepreneurial in their approach to industry problems, able to coordinate diverse teams to harness collective power and build exciting, innovative solutions.

Understanding the workforce

Modern leadership thrives on building healthy, productive relationships, which in turn are founded on listening.

One of the best indicators of success for CEOs is whether their colleagues consider them good listeners, says Randall Peterson, professor of organisational behaviour at the Leadership Institute, London Business School.

Through demonstrably listening – whether through a watercooler conversation or formal meetings – employees are given a voice. Acting upon these messages shows people that they are being heard – two vital components of the respect that the stand-out chief commands.

The more we progress, the more our success needs the stanchions of fresh perspective, honest opinion and feedback from those around us.

The power of empathy

“Executives who listen empathetically, welcome input, and rally the workforce around a common goal”, says Jay Fitzgerald for Harvard Business School.

Agreeableness – that innate ability to get along with others – runs hand in hand with empathetic listening. The skills put leaders in good stead to facilitate collaboration to overcome more delicate issues.

Managing conflict, for example, calls on a CEO’s aptitudes to harmonise, finding that sweet spot between keeping others focused on what’s important, while being sympathetic to concerns, and finding outcomes that are satisfactory for all. Such an approach has played a crucial role in keeping staff safe, engaged and motivated, as workforces have decentralised.

"Top executives who demonstrate this kind of interpersonal prowess are more likely to be in high demand, particularly at large, multinational, and information-intensive organisations", Harvard Business School research suggests.

The heartbeat of the market

The consequences of failing to listen are all too plain. Blackberry once controlled 50% of the US smartphone market but stayed loyal to its iconic mini keyboard at a time when touchscreens were on the horizon. By 2016, the telecoms giant had 0% market share, and announced it would stop making phones.

Blackberry were surely guilty of not listening to the data – a major pitfall today as business strategy becomes increasingly technology-led.

As the economic recovery continues, CEOs cannot simply delegate tech responsibilities, but must listen to their IT chiefs to spot new opportunities and plot informed pathways. Indeed, we have all turned to tech to help us through the health crisis, a period which tested the digital capacities of business teams the world over.

“A good CEO will not only understand the function and potential of technologies; they will also have a broad enough understanding of the wider business to know how the data produced by those technologies will be used by the organisation’s core functions,” says University College London’s James Berry.

The authentic leader

In his book, A Curious Mind (Simon & Schuster, 2016), Brian Grazer states: “If you’re the boss, and you manage by asking questions, you’re laying the foundation for the culture of your company.”

Through curiosity, top employers can keep pushing forward in ways that turn up the volume on listening.

The result will be a business culture of healthy exploration that thrives in the change-driven marketplaces of today.

At HR Spectrum, we know that through collaboration with individuals and companies who you know and trust, you can achieve smoother, more effective workflows and lasting success. 

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