A leader's guide to better listening

Wine (or coffee) can be a potent management tool, says Rachel Forde, UK CEO at media agency UM.

by Rachel Forde
Last Updated: 09 Mar 2020

A good leader always gets things done, we’re told. 

Yes, but also no. I wonder if this preconception is down to old-fashioned cultural chauvinism: a good leader should embody the (perceived) masculine trait of ‘commanding’, while listening is all-too-often denigrated as a passive (i.e. feminine) activity.

But nothing could be further from the truth. In the contemporary business landscape, any good leader – regardless of gender – must be empathetic.

Shortly after I joined UM, I created a leadership council, just below the board, to be the ears of the agency and understand what we can do to help our people perform better. We carry out employee surveys, of course, but I also wanted to build a culture where we listened first and ‘did’ second.

It led to some immediate changes. For one, our monthly all-agency meetings had become a huge, unwieldy beast. So we listened and discovered they needed to be shorter and that our people wanted more involvement in new business and to see the work our teams created for pitches.

We created a more formal and focused structure, with responsibility for each session rotated around our teams so these meetings became more about sharing insights into the work rather than senior leadership presentations – a show-and-tell rather than tell-and-sell.

And that’s the point: modern leadership has to make the shift from commanding employees to engaging with teams.

As leaders, we’re having to revive the art of conversation – making the time to talk; caring enough to listen at multiple levels (what experts call focused, contextual or 360-degree listening); and taking appropriate action on what you hear. 

The changes we’ve made might be small, but they’ve had a disproportionate impact on us all as a unified team. Every team now sees and appreciates the work that’s gone into our client pitches and can use that thinking in their own efforts. 

Never underestimate the power of a spontaneous coffee (or glass of wine)

Listening with empathy is a compelling tool when it comes to development too. Every business has formal appraisals, but we’re finding that a more informal chat over a coffee (or some vino, after hours) between a line manager and a direct report is far better at teasing out what’s really going on.

This often involves contextual listening: not always looking for a quick fix, but helping employees understand how similar situations from their past experience could help them. That could mean identifying how a past success fits their current dilemma, or how a past failure informs what they’re facing now. I’m aware this sounds suspiciously like therapy, but it’s an effective business tool too.

And active listening in an informal setting isn’t just about employees. A more casual one-to-one with a client can help to tease out the personal issues that often underlie sometimes unfathomable business considerations. I’ve found repeatedly that asking open questions like ‘how can I help you?’ or ‘what’s keeping you awake at night?’ is just as valuable with a multi-million-pound client as with a potentially unhappy member of staff.

Listen and learn

In a world where the role of good leaders is to empower their people, I’ve found that leadership is about being the soundboard they need. Sometimes it’s about listening to what’s not being said – body language and behaviour as much as words. You keep an open mind, you don’t interrupt and you shouldn’t be afraid, no matter how alpha-male you might think you are, to ask how something made that person feel.

Above all, I’ve found that listening is a business skill. It needs to be honed and practiced in much the same way as developing strategy and understanding a balance sheet.

Rachel Forde is UK CEO at media agency UM

Image credit: UM


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