Leadership Development and the Art of Listening (Part 1 of 5)

What do Douglas Baker Jr., CEO of Ecolab, Fred Rogers (Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood), and former US President Barack Obama have in common?

Doug Baker became CEO of Ecolab in 2004. At the time, the 80+ year old company was selling industrial cleansers and food safety services to the tune of $3.8 billion annual revenue, with 10% annual growth. In 2011, Baker transformed the company which resulted in $12 billion annual revenue.

Fred Rogers, aka Mr. Rogers, cared deeply about those on the other side of the television screen—their needs, concerns, struggles and joys. He was an advocate for children, public television, and a voice for the unheard.

Barack Obama served as the 44th President of the United States from 2009 to 2019. Prior to that, he served as a US senator, a state senator, worked as a civil rights attorney, law professor, and community organizer for low-income residents. In a recent conversation at the Obama Foundation Leaders: Asia-Pacific program he spoke about his experiences and values-based leadership.

So, what do these three leaders have in common? They point to listening as the key to forward progress.  After listening to clients, Baker refocused their efforts to help save the planet and attained 133% of their projected growth. Rogers listened to children, changed the face of television, and transformed the lives of young children. Obama spent countless hours listening to others, inspiring trust, pulling people together, and improving innumerable lives.

Although the art of listening is frequently the difference between leadership success and failure, it is often taken for granted, and rarely taught in schools—at any level. We have an urgent need for leadership development in the art of listening.

How Well are You Listening?

Listening well has been found to distinguish the best managers, teachers, and leaders.” ~ Psychologist Daniel Goleman, Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships (Bantam, 2007)

The art of listening is essential for leaders. The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that we spend 22% of our time reading communications, 23% talking to others, and 55% listeningBut how well are we hearing?

I encourage you to test yourself with this simple exercise, suggested by Marshall Goldsmith in What Got You Here Won’t Get You There (Hachette Books, 2007): Close your eyes. Slowly count to 50 with a concentrated focus on counting only; don’t let any other thought enter your brain.

Most people admit that after counting to 20 or 30 they become distracted. (Some maintain the count, but are also thinking of other things.) While this may sound like a concentration test, it’s actually a listening assessment. After all, if you can’t listen to your own voice as you count, how can you listen to someone else?

Practice this listening exercise. Track your progress. By sharpening your ability to focus on your own voice, you’ll find that you are better able to focus attention on another.

What do you think? How well are you listening? Practice the exercise and let me know if it helped you.  You can reach me here and on LinkedIn.