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The Art of Listening

July 13, 2021 by Twan van de Kerkhof

Hilarious: Kevin Sharer recalls how he behaved when he was a senior leader at biotech company Amgen: “My approach was: ‘I’m the smartest guy in the room. Just let me prove that here, in the first five minutes’. I would even interrupt people and tell them what they were going to tell me, to save us time so that we could get to the really important stuff, which was me telling them what to do.” He got away with showing off his inflated ego until Amgen got in trouble, big trouble. Then he realized that he needed to listen more than talk.

The anecdote comes from an article in Harvard Business Review of March-April 2021, written by Sharer himself and Adam Bryant, a managing director of Merryck & Co., an executive mentoring and leadership-development firm. They write that the art of listening has two key components. “One involves listening without distraction or judgment, purely for comprehension. The other involves creating systems and processes that not only make listening active but also elevate it on all fronts to a state of hypervigilance.” It is about “being alert to the whole ecosystem”, seperating the signal from the noise and being aware that information flows to the CEO are always “suspect and compromised”.

Sharer and Bryant offer six tips to listen more effectively:

  • Protect against blind spots. Invite to be challenged.
  • De-emphasize hierarchy.
  • Give permission to share bad news.
  • Create an early-warning system.
  • Acknowledge progress to encourage problem-solving.
  • Listen without judgment or an agenda. Remind yourself to WAIT: Why Am I Talking?
  • Actively seek input.

Listening “requires commitment and constant attention, and leaders cannot survive or thrive in their work until they learn that fundamental lesson”.

Are You Really Listening? Senior leaders can become isolated from early signs of danger and opportunity. Here’s how to overcome that. Harvard Business Review, March-April 2021