Why Leaders that Listen Develop Cultures that Thrive

Jul 9th, 2018


Conventional wisdom dictates that executives are paid to have the answers, and no more so than in today’s fast-paced, disruptive environment. Column inches have been devoted to the need for speed, agility and action if your business is to survive and warn of career implosion should you not be an expert in your field. It is not surprising therefore that some of my clients find the most challenging part of their role is to take the time to ask great questions and truly listen.

One client is what I call a ‘pace-setter’ – he is incredibly good at his job and has succeeded by making fast decisions, driving teams and, when his teams come to him with a concern, proposes solutions. Yet when I recently interviewed his key stakeholders to gather insights and feedback in relation to his coaching programme, a common request from his team was to be listened to – not only to improve the one-to-one relationship but the decisions being made. “Can you assist me in learning patience?” my client asked.

For clients who seek clarity on the benefits of better listening, I ask three questions: What if by questioning and listening, important insights you had not thought of emerged? What if you could detect the weak signals, the things bubbling that you’re not aware of? What if, by listening you could develop people and have a more committed team of people, who were brave, creative, and resolved complex issues independently freeing up your time.

Listening creates a pathway to really powerful questions that provoke, challenge and expand the conversation, often way beyond the original intention of the discussion. As Elon Musk said “Once you figure out the question, then the answer is relatively easy.” Marc Benioff travelled worldwide, questioning and listening to a great diversity of people and situations before finding his question: “Why aren’t enterprise software applications built like Amazon?” This led to the creation of Salesforce, the rest, as they say, is history.

As a leader, ask yourself: when was the last time you asked a question that really made people think and changed the direction of a meeting?  Or the last time someone asked you a question which took your breath away? Great leaders know they cannot have all the answers. How then can you encourage curiosity and discovery? Here are some practical strategies to consider:


  1. Let go of the need to show your knowledge.

A useful reminder to carry with you is that the words Listen and Silent are spelt with the same letters. Think back to the last conversation with your direct report.  What percentage of the conversation were you talking and what percentage listening? Contrary to what many people think, the person who asks the questions is in control. Alison Wood Brooks in her recent HBR article ‘The Surprising Power of Questions,’ describes a conversation as ‘a dance – a mutual push and pull that unfolds over time.’  Try out these simple techniques to encourage better listening: When in a meeting, count to three and let others answer a question first before giving your opinion. If someone asks you a question in a meeting, open it up to the floor. And remember you can answer a question with a question – with true listening you cannot predict the questions in advance – allow your curiosity to take you on a path.


  1. Escape your bubble

The more elevated your position, the harder it can be to find opportunities in which you are truly challenged – often called ‘lonely at the top’ syndrome.  Ask yourself honestly – “how many barriers do people have to cross to talk to me?” As Jeff Bezos said, “When you’re in a box in an office, you’ve got to invent a way out of the box.”

Once out of the box, however, ensure you create conditions for successful exchange.  Another client, a CEO with a very strong character yearns to be challenged more, but was astonished to learn that his response to people was often perceived as dismissive, so people were intimidated and did not challenge again. He is learning the art of the ‘conversation’ to build trust, to set aside assumptions and ask questions to draw people out.


  1. Embrace diverse conversations

People can be selective with who and when they listen, particularly with those who may not speak with confidence or need encouraging to open up. Don’t make assumptions about who is worth questioning and listening to. I recently ran a strategy workshop for a board and was very aware that some individuals tended to dominate the conversation, and that one executive in particular, let’s call him John, was often quiet and had to be asked for his opinion. Knowing the power of questions, as preparation I asked each of them to send me in advance the most important question they wanted to be answered in our off-site strategic review. When we came to John’s question, there was an audible intake of breath. His question provoked tremendous discussion and the foundation of a new strategic direction took root. Imagine if John had never had the opportunity to ask his question?


  1. Ask shorter, open questions

A highly competent and results-driven female executive I am currently coaching is one step away from board promotion but has been told she needs to ‘listen and be more empathetic’. I am working with her on some simple techniques, for example, to focus on short, open questions and to leverage the power of why? Instead of diving into solutions, she asks, “Why do you think that?” or “Why did you come to that conclusion?” A simple “And what else?” expands the conversation. Or “Tell me more about that,” “What are the pros and cons of that idea”. She has discovered in a very short space of time that people come up with solutions that are better than her own. By developing people’s ability to think creatively, she is as a result freeing up her time because people are no longer dependent on her for solutions.


  1. Create a question-based culture

As well as embracing questioning in your one-to-ones with your team, does your company culture value questions? Are you rewarding the behaviour you want to encourage? One client, instead of rewarding ‘best ideas’ has instigated a ‘best question’ of the month. Do you create ‘spaciousness’ in your organisation – enough space and time for individuals to think – including yourself in order to make better decisions?  Just the simple practice of leaving enough time to reflect after one meeting before going to another allows reflective thought and the ability to be far more present for the next meeting.


  1. Manage your manager

For all noble intentions, sometimes your manager will need help from you if you want them to listen. First, prepare the person for your conversation by sending them a short email telling then what you want to discuss; secondly, make sure you begin the meeting by repeating the objective and saying, succinctly, what you want to review. Link the conversation from the start to something they feel strongly about so you engage their attention from the beginning. If the manager begins to dominate, say, ‘That is an interesting point, can I ask you a question?’ and use that question to bring the conversation back on track.


A powerful question can change the direction of a meeting, a decision, a strategy and being able to elicit such questions is increasingly looked for in emerging leaders. As Andy Stanley has said: “Leaders who don’t listen will eventually be surrounded by people who have nothing to say.” To conclude with a quote from John Ciardi, the Italian-American poet;

 “A good question is not a bolt to be tightened into place but a seed to be planted and to bear more seed toward the hope of greening the landscape of idea.”


Provocative Questions provoke actions and creative thought. For a selection of provocative questions that might assist you to expand your conversations, contact Oona Collins at www.potentialplusinternational.com