Beth Comstock, CMO for GE had a great post regarding listening that inspired this follow up. When you are finished reviewing this, I urge you to read her post as well. I have never had the privilege to meet Beth, but her reputation as a leader is well respected. In fact when I was with Comcast I was approached by a GE headhunter about a social role with them. I was very interested in the opportunity to work with Beth, but within days of the first phone call, Comcastand GE announced the partnership for NBC Universal. I did not think it would be appropriate to further our talks. I have paid close attention to GE ever since; Beth and her team have been doing outstanding work leading GE.
Listening has been a favorite topic of mine throughout my career. It is something we all want to say we do well, yet often we struggle with actually doing it. I am sure my wife has accused me of not listening once or twice! Businesses like to send messages to their Customers stating they listen, yet I have seen little evidence that they do. Today we see surveys galore from virtually every larger business we deal with. I used to fill these surveys out religiously providing very direct positive and negative feedback. Have I ever heard back? Have I seen changes based on the feedback? The trouble with the way many companies approach these surveys is they look at overall numbers, with very little attention to the verbatims. If my feedback is so important, why wouldn't you listen or acknowledge what I had to say?
Social media is a great example of how businesses struggle to listen. As I have studied companies social media efforts, I have seen many companies who like to say they listen but little evidence with how the company operates. This is very evident when you watch many companies who perform social media Customer Service. How often are they addressing identical problems over and over again. This lack of action sends the same message to me as not responding to survey comments. Of course Customer Service has been built on that same issue for years, so I am not sure why I would expect it to change.
Years ago (way more than I would like to admit) I was interviewing for my first management role in the financial services industry. The manager asked me what I thought the most important attribute of a leader was. I did not hesitate and said "listening." In my view a leader will never have all the knowledge they need to make decisions. The key is listening to those in the know, including employees, business leaders, Customers, regulators and so many others. In my view information is power, but not in the way many people look at that statement. I do not need to hold all the information, but I do need to listen to all the information I have around me.
My background in business is within Customer operations. I have found that the best people in the service operations are also the best listeners. The reason this occurs is they deal with upset Customers every day and sometimes call after call. They are not listening to the cursing or yelling, but instead they go deeper to understand the reason for the frustration and strive to find a solution within their own toolbox. These skills are so relevant throughout the organization. The struggle for ops is they have not been able to get the right leaders in the organization to hear what the Customer is saying. The service employees, just like the Customers, struggle to be heard.
Leaders are often proud of their own accomplishments and they should be. I do wonder if this sometimes impedes their ability to listen. Could some leaders view listening as a sign of weakness? Possibly, but I think the reality is more that they think they are listening when in reality the proof points within the organization same differently. Of course there are many exceptions to this. For one, entrepreneurs have always been among the best listeners. They hear more than words and are then able to translate this into opportunity. We need to bring this same entrepreneurial spirit to all layers of business.
As I look across the various parts of the organization, I have found marketing and communication departments do an amazing job at telling the story of their successes. Since I now sit in marketing, I am often amazed at how well they tell the story of their piece of the business. This of course is probably because of the strengths that marketers bring to the table in telling the story of the brand. I think it is time we better connect these departments. Imagine marketing's art of storytelling connected to the art of listening from the Customer operations department? Now that would be a powerful, game changing, combination. This would be a way to lead the story of the brand instead of trying to simply tell one.
Listening is so much more than words but with the right people working together we can make it part of the DNA of any organization!
(Frank Eliason, Director Global Social Media at Citi, LinkedIn, February 2013)