Sunday, July 12, 2009

In the beginning…Listen

At the end of the series titled Joshua’s lessons on leadership, I asked for input on topics. A friend and colleague, Mike S, wrote me this in response, “I enjoy reading your thoughts on leadership and know you have dealt in the past with how a leader sets an example, acts and lives, but I was wondering if you have considered the topic I will call ‘how a leader starts’.  This topic intrigues me because I am about to start something new and the timing is appropriate.

Mike S, your timing is impeccable. I am starting a new role as well so this is a great moment to explore the subject of ‘In the beginning’. In a series of posts I will outline some of my thoughts as I start this new role including what is effective and what is a dud. Mike thanks for the idea – this series may turn out different than you thought, but let’s go on a journey together. I hope others contribute; you all have plenty to share about your own individual ‘In the beginning’ experiences.

Napoleon said, “Take time to deliberate; but when the time for action arrives, stop thinking and go in.” When you start a new role folks around you expect immediate action. Chaos will reign. There is new terminology to learn, decisions are waiting for you, people will use your arrival to advance their agenda, meetings to go to, trips to take, people to meet and all sorts of pop-up crises. Breathe deep and know that ‘In the beginning’ is a rare moment when you are most in control of your calendar. Heed Napoleon’s advice and take time to deliberate. In amongst the cacophony you must answer four simple questions:

What needs to be done? How will it get done? Who will get it done? When will we know it is getting done? With these questions answered you will be far more effective at ‘go in’.

Your most potent tool to discover the answer to these questions is the art and skill of effective listening. If I do a Google search on ‘effective listening’ I get 1,940,000 responses. Cleary a popular subject, yet not one I can cover completely in a blog post. However, I would like to share a few lessons taught to me by my friend and mentor, Margreet van de Griend, senior partner at the consulting firm Axialent (

Margreet counsels us to think about interpersonal interactions in the context of a 2x2 matrix where the vertical axis is level of advocacy (low to high) and the horizontal axis is level of inquiry (low to high). This provides four different modes:

  1. Low advocacy/low inquiry – observing
  2. High advocacy/low inquiry – asserting
  3. Low advocacy/high inquiry – listening
  4. High advocacy/high inquiry – influencing

In order for us to take advantage of Margreet’s framework, we have to exercise effective advocacy and inquiry skills. Effective advocacy requires that we clarify our intentions, remain centered, express ourselves, support the expression of others and persist with our perspective through the objections of others.

Effective inquiry requires that we park our agenda, attend to the other person through body language, amplify their ideas through encouragement and clarifying questions and reflect the other person through effective summarizing and paraphrasing.

In addition to learning, practicing and implementing these skills we have to determine which mode to operate in given the situation. It should be a purposeful decision to be observing, vs. asserting vs. listening vs. influencing. Think back to the key questions we need to answer; what, who and how. Can we get these questions answered by merely observing? If we spend our time asserting our position, can we discover what we need to know? The answer to both questions is a resounding ‘no’. We need to be either in an influencing or a listening mode. Both call for a high level of inquiry.

Look back at the list of skills under inquiry. If we could pick only one to execute it would be ‘park your agenda’. Here is a challenge. Pay attention to the next five conversations you have. Notice how often during the conversation you are timing the other person; trying to determine when they are going to take a breath and formulating your point or counterpoint to whatever they are saying. If you are like me, the only way for someone to finish a thought sometimes is for them to never breathe. I find myself waiting to pounce on any moment of silence. When that is happening, I am not truly listening. Park your agenda; it is likely the most important action we can take to improve our ability to listen and influence.

In the beginning we are likely more objective than at any point in our tenure. We probably have more control over our time than we will ever have. Objectivity and time are critical ingredients for effective deliberation. There will be a moment to ‘go in’. Take a moment now to deliberate, discover, inquire and park your agenda.

In the beginning…Listen

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