Listening becomes more critical for leaders to ensure a successful 2021

Already have a communication plan? How about a listening plan?

As we wind up the fiscal year and set our sights on our goals for 2021, one of the things we do in our group is review our communication plan. Our communication plan focuses on the key things that we need to communicate, who we need to communicate them to, how we are going to get our message across and how often we will do it. It’s a standard program management tool and a useful exercise.

The other thing we do at the end of the year is reflect on the prior year. What did we do well and where do we need to improve? When we held our lessons learned this year, we often found ourselves asking, why didn’t we hear that? Did our data corroborate what people were saying? Did we take silence as an indication that everything was okay?

In my years as an executive, I have had a lot of training in communications and it is universally acknowledged that good communication requires a healthy dose of listening—at least 50%. As I looked at our communication plan, I was struck by the absence of purposeful, mindful, listening activities.

And so my resolution for the year is to encourage myself and my team to go through the exercise of outlining a “listening plan,” where we specifically focus, not on what we are going to say, but how we are going to listen our way to a successful 2021.

  • What do I need to hear to be effective? Executives, managers, and staff need to know what people think: Are you doing a good job? Are customers satisfied with your services? What risks are people worried about? How can you and your team improve? Is the team healthy or getting burned out? I encourage you to develop a list of not only the concrete things you need to be listening for, but the soft issues that that are important to your teams’ success and reputation.
  • Who can provide that input? Clearly identify the people, communities, and data sources that can provide perspectives regarding what you need to hear. Don’t limit your input on important matters to one source. Multiple sources are encouraged and invaluable.
  • How am I going listen? During the pandemic, I think this has become an important question. When interacting with people in person, a lot of what we unconsciously hear is body language or other patterns of life like when somebody comes into the office vs. their norm. Unspoken communication is actually a large part of how we listen and it is particularly encumbered during telework. List out your ideas for how to effectively listen, one-on-one calls, skip meetings, surveys, group conversations, metrics like utilization and surveys for satisfaction. The more channels you have to listen to on important matters, the less likely you will be caught failing to listen.
  • How often do I need to be listening? The short answer is probably more often than you think. But having a basic plan to check against is a good place to start. In my world, I have some people who brief me on important matters and I feel woefully uninformed if I don’t get at least 15 minutes a day with them in one-on-one conversation. For many of the key people I need to hear from, I have a weekly call. You can also build listening into how you operate. If you have a 30-minute meeting, keep the agenda to 20 minutes and leave 10 minutes for feedback working listening into every interaction. You can also take the open-door approach; if you think it’s important, my door is always open.

The biggest challenge in executing an effective listening plan is to actually be an effective listener. Think clearly about what good listening looks like and how are you making sure listening is really happening. During COVID, one of the biggest challenges we have seen is multi-tasking or “listening while distracted.” Are you really listening to what is happening in a virtual meeting or are you reading e-mail? It’s important to know when to silence distractions and ensure you are really focused and listening. Our natural reactions to bad news can also interfere with effective listening. How you avoid getting defensive or discounting feedback that is not flattering is something everybody needs to think about. Making people feel safe is also critical to effective listening. People, whether in person or through surveys, are not particularly forthcoming or truthful if they do not feel safe and respected for their candor. How will you make people feel safe? Your listening plan needs to operate in an environment of effective listening skills.

So if you have a communication plan, look at it and ask if it gives listening it’s due. If not, consider adding a listening plan to your communication strategy as a great way to improve your performance in 2021!

Howard Spira is the chief information officer at the Export-Import Bank of the United States. He also served at the Treasury Department, where he led the technology team for the Office of Financial Stability — the team that ran the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP). Prior to his federal service, Howard was a senior IT executive in the financial services industry with an extensive background in international and domestic commercial finance.

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