Jan 20, 2012

Do You Have a Minute—Oh, Make That 14 Seconds—For This Post?

Who’s got time to listen? Not me, not you. Goodbye to the 90-day listening tour for new executives. Cut it down to 21 days.

At least that’s the idea proposed by Katie Smith Milway and Shazeen Virani of the the Bridgespan Group, writing recently for Harvard Business Review. They put forwarda plan to get “90 days of insight in a just a few weeks.” Their approach involves three steps: conducting an automated, anonymous survey of managers, doing in-person interviews and hosting a workshop to talk things through and come up with a set of initiatives. “We call it a smart start,” say the authors. [EXPAND More]

No doubt, executives sometimes need to get cracking right away. But, from our vantage, Milway and Virani would have been wise to note this as well: Listening and soliciting feedback aren’t just 90-day or 21-day processes. They must never stop.

Indeed, as we’ve noted, Peter Drucker felt strongly that “informal but scheduled and well prepared” conversations between executives and their subordinates had to be built into the normal, continuing operations of any large organization.

“Wherever knowledge workers perform well,” Drucker observed, “senior executives take time out, on a regular schedule, to sit down with them, sometimes all the way down to green juniors, and ask: ‘What should we at the head of this organization know about your work? . . . Where do you see opportunities we do not exploit? Where do you see dangers to which we are still blind?’”

Such ongoing interaction is crucial because listening is hard, and things change fast.

How hard is listening? In a 1969 essay on communication, Drucker found it to be an effort that failed as often as it succeeded. “Of course, listening is a prerequisite to communication,” he wrote. “But it is not adequate, and it cannot, by itself, work.” He added, “There is no reason . . . to believe that listening results any less in misunderstanding and miscommunications than does talking.” Yes, listening is crucial, but it’s just the starting point.

And how fast do things change? Unless a leader “accepts, as a matter of course, that he or she had better go out and look at the scene of action, he or she will be increasingly divorced from reality,” Drucker warned. “Reality never stands still very long.”

That, of course, is a danger that doesn’t subside after 90, not to mention 21, days.

What do you think: What are the most effective techniques that executives can use to get out and really listen to the troops? How important are such interactions? [/EXPAND]

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