How Good Are Your Listening Skills?

Management styles differ, but one thing is certain: Learning leaders need to listen to their employees to run a successful learning organization.


When Warren Buffett released his annual letter to shareholders in February 2015, it was filled with praise for his employees and managers. The Berkshire Hathaway CEO highlighted key executives, citing their integral contributions to his company and its success over the past year. Buffett professes a hands-off managerial approach, trusting his executives to understand his expectations and perform well.

In contrast, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is often characterized as a control freak. The New York Times published an article in August 2015 saying that Bezos had “an instinct for bluntness” and “an eagerness to tell others how to behave.” In 2015, Amazon.com Inc. dethroned Wal-Mart Stores Inc. as the United States’ most valuable retailer, showing there’s no one way to lead to success. Whether a company’s chief learning leader is more Buffett or Bezos, it is important they have one skill: the ability to listen.

Control vs. influence — it’s a constant tug-of-war for learning leaders to decide when and how to exert their authority. Because chief learning officers cannot be responsible for every problem or scrutinize each employee, it is important for them to know when direct intervention is necessary and when to trust the learning systems in place to motivate individual learning.

Instead of looking at these approaches as opposing choices, leaders can use them in tandem to manage effectively, said Cory Bouck, former director of organizational development and learning at Johnsonville Sausage.

“There are times for direct control once you’ve made the influence,” Bouck said, who is now the company’s regional business director for Asia-Pacific. “Part of the influencing process is painting that picture of the future and saying this is the new way.”

Set the Example

This method of thinking is part of the Situational Leadership Model, developed by professor Paul Hersey in the 1960s. This model divides leadership into four quadrants based on their degree of supportive or directive management. On one end of the bell curve, there is delegation, which largely relies on a hands-off approach where executives divvy up tasks among their subordinates. The other extreme is directing, where an executive controls all of the decisions themselves. Most effective managers fall somewhere in the middle, Bouck said.

As a senior executive, individuals are expected to fill different roles that will require different management styles. During his 11-year tenure as chief learning officer for PricewaterhouseCoopers, Tom Evans commanded the respect of his colleagues by including them in the decision-making process. “It’s about how you are present within the structure of the organization to enable you to be an authentic leader,” he said. “It’s not about indirect influence or direct control.”

For Evans, who retired in 2015, authenticity comes from passion for the work and trust among his team. When leading a project, he said his goal is to get each employee invested in the end result by asking for their input and listening to suggestions. Throughout his five-decade career, he said getting team input was always a priority, even when organizing events such as a leadership retreat for PwC senior executives. The experience was expensive and new for the company, so Evans said it was critical he put aside preconceived ideas on how the event would go. Instead, he was open to all ideas, which he said contributed to the event’s success. It’s about “giving recognition and celebrating someone’s idea on an individual or group level,” he said. “The idea of recognition and celebration is critical if you’re going to mobilize your organization.”

Bouck reinforces the importance of trust among senior executives and employees. “If people believe that you’re earnest, that you’re smart and working hard, they can forgive things as you experiment.”

To nurture that relationship even further, Johnsonville’s learning leaders directly communicate with its operational team on the ground. During his time in organizational development and learning, Bouck sat in on monthly and quarterly meetings with the operations team to gather information about their most pressing learning needs. He said this “belly to belly” relationship improved his ability to implement policies with the greatest positive effect for the company.

Build a Learning Culture

It may seem strange to equate company culture with animal behavior, but Johnsonville’s corporate philosophy aims for the company to be like a flock geese, not a herd of buffalo. The mindset comes from former Johnsonville CEO Ralph Stayer’s book, “Flight of the Buffalo.” “If the head buffalo goes off the cliff, the whole herd goes off,” Bouck said. “When a flock of geese flies in a v-formation, everyone takes a turn at leadership.”

At Johnsonville, leaders are called coaches and employees are called members. The purpose of this is to foster an environment where people aren’t afraid to speak up, Bouck said. But for employees to contribute their ideas and for this hands-off approach to succeed, learning leaders must create an environment where self-learning is not only encouraged but also expected.

Experimentation and collaboration are two ingredients in Johnsonville’s recipe for success. If an employee comes up with a fresh idea, leaders often praise their insight and give them a budget to go explore it. This creates an atmosphere where every employee feels capable of grinding out fresh ideas, Bouck said.

To earn the leeway to try new things, it’s important for organizational development and learning teams to know where they can afford to experiment, said Bob Mosher, Apply Synergies’ chief learning evangelist and Chief Learning Officer columnist. A critical skills analysis is one way to determine the areas where a more laid-back approach can work or where strict control is necessary. Learning leaders have to let go of things that are not critical, he explained. They can still provide help systems, but teach employees how to use them and let them go on their own.

One type of critical skills analysis ranks employee performance tasks on a scale from one to seven. Lower numbers indicate tasks that, if not performed well, will not have dire consequences for the company. The higher numbers indicate “life or death” tasks that are hugely important to company success and security, Mosher said. Using a metric like this can help learning leaders determine which tasks to fuss over and what not to stress about.

E-learning is another medium that bolsters employees’ capability to learn on their own. Johnsonville employees go through online training seminars that focus on soft skills such as communication, problem-solving, accountability and how to deal with behavioral issues that might arise.

Although technology is more prevalent in the workplace, it is important to know how to use it. Otherwise, those resources will go to waste. “It starts with us being able to understand the environment and performance needs and performance gaps that exist within the organization,” Mosher said.

Incorporating self-learning tools such as e-learning into the workday is important for them to be effective, Mosher said. Workers may believe these tools take them away from their work, which makes them unwilling to use them. “So many of the learning assets we build are perceived as extras,” he said. “If we build support assets that are seen as intrinsic to the workflow, the learner consumes it readily.”

Put the ‘I’ in Team

From top to bottom, Johnsonville employees and executives are required to complete monthly “personal development commitments,” which outline areas each employee would like to improve. Every month, employees need to report on the steps they took to fulfill those goals. Every personal development commitment is available on the company’s intranet, so everyone is held to the same standard of accountability, Bouck said.

Similarly, at PwC, Evans stressed “honest, open and frequent feedback” between him and his team to cultivate a culture of accountability.

While a team-based approach might be ideal for organizational learning, it isn’t always practical. There are a few key signs that executive action is necessary. For instance, deadline-oriented or high-risk tasks are not the time to solicit opinions, Evans said. It is also important for learning leaders to exert control whenever a company is trying to adjust its business strategy or is instituting a paradigm shift. It is critical for the learning function to remain in tune with changing business objectives, and having self-assured learning leaders is important to make this a smooth transition.

“You want to ground your team in your vision and what you want to achieve, but encourage them to participate in the ideation and problem-solving that will be necessary to get there,” Evans said.

Onboarding is one area where learning leaders should exercise tighter control because of its effect on company culture and workplace efficiency, Mosher said. He said acclimating new employees to company expectations needs to go beyond PowerPoint presentations and executive lectures to emphasize a new employee’s professional development path, their role within the organization and how that role will help the business achieve its goals. “So much happens and starts there for the success of the organization,” he said.

Even seasoned learning leaders will run into problems or employees who don’t agree with their management style, so it’s crucial to know how to deal with workplace issues. To solve most problems, it all comes back to listening. It’s difficult to mitigate every workplace issue with a single leadership style, so learning to adapt is essential for senior-level leaders, Evans said. “Trust is a big factor,” he said. “You have to always be able to demonstrate the importance of empathy, demonstrate the ability to listen and be interested in what’s going on.”

Regardless of the approach a leader decides to take, gaining an understanding of the learning tools at a leader’s disposal is essential to determine how to manage most effectively, Mosher said. “With all of the technology that has emerged, the toolkit is richer than it has ever been,” he said. “But I think it’s one we don’t understand well enough.”


Joe Dixon was a Chief Learning Officer editorial intern. To comment, email editor@clomedia.com

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