June 03, 2019
Leadership and the Value of Listening
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Leadership is challenging. We are not all born to be leaders, but we can acquire the necessary skills if we put in the time and the effort. In my opinion, there are three critical skills we must possess if we want to be a high-quality leader. We must devote time to
I was recently told that we were born with two ears and one mouth for a reason.
The absolute first thing any good leader learns to do is to actively listen. Listening seems to be a lost skill. We all want to be heard, but to be heard means that there are one or more persons who are willing to listen to what we have to say. I learned very early in my career the value of listening.
I am an accountant by trade. I have worked in healthcare exclusively since 1986. My first job was at a home healthcare company. We had a lot of things to clean up and fix. The company was a startup and a mess. I learned very quickly that there were a bunch of really smart people that worked at that company, but they did not have the same skill set that I possessed. They wanted to be successful and they wanted the company to be successful. I started my career by listening to what each person had to say. The time I invested in listening allowed me to learn about the details of the business and how it operated. Once I knew how the company operated, I could make changes that improved efficiency and gave us the records and record keeping systems we so desperately needed.
Learning to listen was critical to me. I learned this skill early and I have used it in every job I have held. I am an accountant by trade, but I have spent the bulk of my career in business development and executive leadership.
When asked, I tell people the single greatest skill I possess is the willingness to listen to anyone and everyone around me!
My entire career has been spent in healthcare, but my college degree is in accounting. I knew from the start that I did not want to be a partner in a CPA firm. I wanted to own or run my own business. I have done both. The high point of my career was the first position I held as Chief Executive Officer of a large medical company. We more than doubled the size of the company in my eight years as CEO. When I left the company, we had over 900 employees and more than $200M in annual net revenue. So how did we have the success we enjoyed?
We learned a lot about how to grow a healthcare company. I had spent a significant amount of time throughout my career listening to others talk about success and how to drive companies to even greater success. When I became CEO, I spent time inside the company listening to everyone who would talk to me. I listened to the staff, to my managers and directors, to the executives with whom I worked, and to the surgeons who owned the company. I learned what was important to each person. I maintained an open-door policy. I would listen to people who came into my office, I invited people to my table at lunch, I even stopped and talked to people in the hallway.
What I learned was invaluable. Within 60 days of taking over as CEO of the company I hosted, what turned out to be, the first strategic planning retreat in which my executives had participated. At the end of the day, they thanked me for taking the time. And then they told me something I will never forget. They told me that the reason they had been so quiet is that it was the first time anyone had ever asked their opinion! They are really smart people and no one had ever asked them for their thoughts and ideas.
After that day they became engaged in the company and many of their ideas formed the strategies for the success that we would achieve over the next 6 years. We more than doubled the size of the company during the worst economy in recorded history.
My strategy when I became CEO was first to listen to those with whom I worked. Then I took all the information that was provided to me during the time of listening, and I learned much. I learned about the people with whom I worked. I learned what was important to them. And I learned what they thought about how we could improve and grow the company. Once I listened and learned, I was positioned to lead.
I firmly believe that a good executive cannot properly lead unless and until he or she listens to their staff and learns everything they can about the organization they lead.
My job as CEO was to then take what I knew about the healthcare industry and combine that with what I knew about the company and those who were running it. I was able to take what I had learned over decades in healthcare, combined that knowledge with what I was learning about the company, and only then was I able to effectively lead the company into executing the strategies that ultimately fueled remarkable growth during a very difficult economic market.
Together we took our collective wisdom and created winning strategies. We executed those strategies and experienced explosive growth.
Sure, I received a lot of credit for our growth, but I could not have done it without the help and support of those around me. A true leader is only as good as the people around him or her. Listening and learning positions us to lead effectively. I firmly believe that true leaders can only reach their full potential when they:
The order is critical. We need to use both ears to listen and our mind to learn. Only when we have done these two things can we open our mouth and lead. Listening and learning give us the credibility to open our mouth and lead. It is a continuous process. We never learn or know so much that we can stop listening. Active listening informs the decisions we will make in the future. And active listening builds confidence in those around us. When those around are heard, their commitment to the organization and its leaders grows as well.
Those we lead will respond to what we have to say only after they know they have been heard.
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