Listening: The Attribute Every CEO Must Possess

Large and in charge. That’s the persona of the average CEO. They are the eloquent ones, with the power to reach and move others. Some might even be called good communicators. Yet, this may be an inaccurate moniker.

After all, effective communication means more than just talking. It means listening, too; and often better than you’re able to talk. Lee Iacocca, Former CEO of Chrysler Corporation, once said, "I only wish I could find an institute that teaches people how to listen. Business people need to listen at least as much as they need to talk. Too many people fail to realize that real communication goes in both directions."

Unfortunately, according to a recent Harvard Business Review article, author Ram Charan says 25% of feedback received on CEOs during 360-degree reviews reveals a listening shortfall, “the effects of which can paralyze cross-unit collaboration, sink careers, and if it's the CEO with the deficit, derail the company.” Before you ask, it is that big of a deal.

Listening to those around you has significant benefits. It helps build critical relationships with clients, customers, and employees. That in turn, builds trust. That trust encourages loyalty and productivity. And, of course, this all equates to increased profitability.

Then there is the can’t-be-overlooked benefit of listening: the opportunity to discover and understand more than you ever could otherwise—about your employees (what they want/need and what makes them produce greater results) and about your clients/customers (what they want/need from your company). So, it’s easy to see why, when you don’t focus on developing this attribute, you get the negative results identified in Charan’s article.

Here are 3 ways to build your listening abilities and help ensure you’re able to reap the positive:

1. Clear your mind.
M. Scott Peck, MD, American psychiatrist and best-selling author, once said, “You cannot truly listen to anyone and do anything else at the same time.” This includes thinking about your own position and what you’re going to say next. You must clear your mind of everything and be ready to truly hear what the other person is saying so you may benefit from their thoughts, opinions, and positions.

2. Forget about you.
Peck was a wise man. He also once said that “an essential part of true listening is the discipline of bracketing, the temporary giving up or setting aside of one's own prejudices, frames of reference and desires so as to experience as far as possible the speaker's world from the inside, step in inside his or her shoes.” So, in addition to clearing your mind so you can hear, you must also learn how to “bracket” your personal thoughts and opinions in such a way that allows you to address the needs of the other party without having your own interfere.

3. Remember that it’s more than words.
Peter Senge, American scientist and director of the Center for Organizational Learning at the MIT Sloan School of Management, said, "To listen fully means to pay close attention to what is being said beneath the words. You listen not only to the 'music,' but to the essence of the person speaking. You listen not only for what someone knows, but for what he or she is." Look beyond what’s being said and learn to read nonverbal cues like body language (eye movement and contact), posture, and proximity.

To be a truly great listener, the key, in essence, is to become selfless in the conversation, giving all attention to the one who is offering you an opportunity to reap the benefits that come from doing so. As Karl Menninger once said, “Listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force. The friends who listen to us are the ones we move toward. When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand.”