Listen and learn

It has always surprised me that consultants seem able to find out things about businesses which come as a surprise to the management. Of course larger businesses suffer more from this than smaller businesses, but not really in proportion – small businesses suffer more than you might think from lack of knowledge of what is happening at the coal face so to speak.

So why is this? Well it is actually quite simple. It is because of the difficulty most of us have in really listening.

Whenever I join a company I spend the first few days sitting down with people at all levels in the organisation and asking them questions. I keep the notes I take close and every few months I refer back to them. It always surprises me how much I picked up in those first few days.

Then as time goes on the questions start coming my way. When are we going to do about this problem or that situation? Why do we do that? And of course the worst of all of them – ‘Shouldn’t we be doing that differently?’ and you explain why we do it that particular way. You have fallen into the trap and ceased to listen.

So what can you do about it? Well I have a couple of tricks I like to use – and I am as bad as anybody in adopting various company habits, so I need them – badly!

The first one is to have a chat with anybody joining my company, no matter what their position. During that chat I ask them to write up what they think is good and bad about the company at the end of their first 6 weeks. Also I ask them to ask me any questions they have about the how’s and whys of the company. Why do we do such and such and how does whatever get taken care of?

The notes people write up are for my eyes only, unless they want me to spread them around a bit – generally people don’t. Those notes are for me to learn and find new ways of improving what we do. I tell them that and you would be surprised what I get out of it.

The second thing I do is talk to people at all levels in the company a lot. The car cleaner in a rental company knows more about the day to day workings of the company than most managers. Talk to the person writing code in your software development department, not the Chief Technology Officer – though you can talk to both of course, but separately please – and you will learn more.

This third trick I learned from a Chairman I once had. He always arrived early for board meetings and went to the tea room to make himself a cup of tea. In the tea room he would chat with whoever was there and as a result he knew of issues we might not have brought up at the meeting, or he knew background on various agenda items. Never be too proud to make a cup of tea – it will enhance your information flow no end.

Last but not least: simply listen! Do not react with answers, just ask more questions. Ask why they think things are a certain way. Ask what they think would be a better solution. Just keep asking. This achieves two things – you will learn more and the person who is talking to you will feel they are listened to better.

Next time you listen to a politician, watch what they do – they are processing the questions and calculating the votes, not the real problem being put to them. Their eyes are usually looking around to see who to talk to next.

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