Leadership Starts With Careful Listening and Observation

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in Rules of Thumb

Getting the best out of your team starts with careful listening and observation. This is especially true for a startup or a product team where you to want leverage input from a variety of experts around the table. 

Leadership Starts With Careful Listening and Observation

By leadership I just don’t mean effective personal leadership but the ability for a team to create a product or services that establishes a leadership position in the market. The key to either is to integrate perspectives and insights from a variety of disciplines. This requires you to recruit people with different but complementary expertise to join the team, to incorporate their insights, and to blend them into a workable design and a plan of action to effect it.

One Example I Benefitted From: John Morgridge CEO of Cisco

“When you are a leader that is open to listening before talking, you hear information that would have been otherwise lost.”
Connor Gillivan in “5 Principles of Sound Startup Leadership

The ability to listen is often overlooked in many portraits of leadership. It was not until I had attended several executive staff meetings in the early 1990’s at Cisco when John Morgridge was the CEO that I realized his willingness to listen and allow for a lively discussion was a very powerful approach. He would frame the issue for discussion and then listen, asking a few questions, to let all of the VPs have their say. He would offer his summary to close the conversation or sometimes suggest that further review was needed. But his ability to listen allowed for a working consensus to emerge even in the face of strong disagreements along the way. One phrase he would use to describe Cisco’s strategy was to be “early if not elegant.” It’s useful advice for entrepreneurs as well.

A Contrast: Kevin Kennedy at Cisco

I took part in the Service Provide Line of Business staff meetings in the late 90’s that would gather two dozen or more General Managers for the different Business Units in the line of business. A high stock price in the years from 1998 to 2000 fueled many acquisitions by Cisco, the majority of which were for the Service Provider Line of Business. Kennedy would gather the leadership for multi-hour meetings that became in essence a series of two way colloquies between himself and whoever was presenting. The effect was to foster very little collaboration or teamwork among the various business units and in fact many had competing products and competing visions.

Customers would come to the Executive Briefing Center and hear three distinct visions for how they should evolve their networks: other business units presentations were sometimes disparaged or treated essentially as competitors. Kennedy’s executive meetings stood in stark contrast to the free conversation and direct–if not sometimes heated–conversations in Morgridge’s staff. But my sense was that Morgridge hammered out a working consensus where Kennedy essentially encouraged competition between business units in front of the customer. When the dotcom crash hit, Kennedy and many of the leaders in the Service Provider Line of Business were let go.

If your team meeting looks more like a sequence of one on one conversations held in front of an audience you are probably not making effective use either of your one on one conversations or your teams time in group meetings. The effect of a team meeting should be a shared situational awareness and a working consensus on a plan of action that requires coordination and collaboration among some or all team members.

Write Things Down and Build Models with Numbers

When I suggest it’s important to listen first I don’t mean to discourage preparing written briefings. It also useful to build models that put numbers behind your hypothesis and assumptions. The reality is that a leadership team will find it difficult to scale an conversation beyond eight to fifteen active participants. Your team may not exceed this size but your organization almost certainly will if you are successful. As you scale beyond being able to have everyone in the company take part in a single conversation a well written briefing can keep several hundred people in the loop. There is also a role for peripheral participation in executive meetings: there may only be a dozen active participants but you may have two or three times that number as observers to maintain a shared context for when subteams meet.

Don’t Forgot About Future Participants

If you want the future version of the team to be able to “listen carefully to the past” you must leave good notes and discussion minutes. In addition to tracking actions items to get a sense of the team’s ability to set and hit deadlines and documentation of the primary product or design it’s also extremely useful to document alternatives considered and why they were rejected. If you only document the finished product you risk revisiting past issues when the “future team” asks “Why didn’t they considering doing X?”

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