Listen to learn who you really are as a leader

I wonder how many of us, at some point, believed there was such a thing as a “typical” CEO? How many of us, believing this to be true, tried to fit that role? How many of us struggled because who we thought we needed to be conflicted with who we are? And I wonder how our organizations performed while that happened?

Authenticity is key to being a good leader, but it’s difficult to be authentic if you’re trying to fit a mold. We have our own strengths. Some, for example, are great salespeople, while others are more strategic, financial or operational. We also have our own weaknesses, which hopefully we recognize and build a team of people around us who can fill those gaps.

Leading a business requires knowing yourself, your tendencies and your blind spots. And that requires listening. Kevin Sharer once led Amgen, a publicly traded biotechnology company that today has revenue of more than $26 billion and more than 25,000 employees. In an interview years ago, he talked about discovering that for most of his career he was a terrible listener. He was arrogant, he said, and thought conversations were about intellectual winning, requiring that he convinced people of his point of view.

He took a lesson from the former CEO of IBM, Sam Palmisano, on the importance of listening, and its one objective, which is comprehension. Sharer said that was an epiphany.

Companies are complex. It’s important, Sharer said, to get a picture of “what reality is right now,” which means listening to those in your ecosystem to get the information you need to make decisions. Doing so might allow you to “hear danger” and guide the company away from it. An inability to do so, he says, leads to trouble.

“The failure may happen rapidly — the danger signal came, you didn’t react, and it got you,” he said. “Or it may occur in a more gradual way, when an accumulation of all your bad listening practices erodes personal relationships, causes you to make lower-quality decisions, or leaves you unable to monitor implementation. Eventually, executives who don’t listen lose the support of their teams and colleagues. And once you’ve lost that support, it’s almost impossible to get it back.”

You can’t fake who you are. One way to get to know yourself better is to listen to what those around you are saying. And by learning more about yourself, you can get more clarity on the organization you’ve built. Have you built the company to amplify your strengths and support the areas where you are weak? Or is it built based on the idea of a leader? ●

Fred Koury is President and CEO of Smart Business Network Inc.

Fred Koury

President and CEO
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