How Almost Losing My Team's Support Opened My Ears

Posted by Elise Mitchell on May 23, 2017


This article was orignally published on 

A few years ago, my company was in the middle of an important strategic shift.  I was in danger of losing my team’s support — all because I didn’t listen.

I was running so fast to reach our goals that I didn’t realize my teammates had slowed down and started questioning my direction. Finally, I had to stop and really listen to them to understand what was going on. After hearing their concerns, I realized I hadn’t shared everything I could have to win their full commitment. If I’d been listening, I would have seen this sooner, and we could have reached our goal faster.

If you’re serious about leading teams, you must make the time to listen to them. This seems so simple, but if you’re a driven leader like I am, it’s much harder than it sounds. I’ve discovered three things that are helping me become a leader focused on listening.

1. Collect Input From All Sides

To be the most capable leader, you must also be the most diligent student. Don’t act like you know everything. No one expects you to have all the answers, anyway. If you’re genuine in seeking others’ advice, your employees will mirror your behavior, and if you’re a lifelong learner, the people who follow you will be more eager to learn — both alongside you and from you.

During a particular stage of our company’s growth, I found my role changing. I wanted to be the leader others deserved and expand my own capabilities. That meant getting some honest feedback about where I could improve. I had a 360-degree assessment done to solicit input from all sides: my direct reports, my peers and those I collaborated with outside the company.

Once I received the results, it was hard to resist dwelling upon areas where I didn’t score as well. But I learned that by understanding my strengths, I could leverage them to overcome my weaknesses.

For example, although I’ve handled plenty of conflict through the years, I don’t like it. Few leaders do. But because my team views me as an honest, fair leader, I know I have permission to deliver hard truths. Drawing upon this strength empowers me to become more proactive about leading through conflict.

In gathering feedback from every angle, I collected specific insight about my growth opportunities, learned how to use my strengths to surmount my weaknesses and gained valuable perspective about my leadership capabilities.

2. Listening Doesn’t Equal Agreeing

By soliciting different ideas from the people around you, you’ll increase your chances of making better decisions. However, just because you listen doesn’t mean you have to go with what others want. It’s still your decision.

When we moved from being a startup to a more established business several years ago, I knew I needed to create more structure. We instituted more formal processes, established an additional level of management and hired senior-level professionals to help us launch new services over time.

We needed this, but I knew it would be hard to gain buy-in from my team. More structure would detract from the entrepreneurial spirit that had fueled our agency and long-standing employees might feel they’d been overlooked for promotions. I had to fully listen to their concerns to help them work through these feelings and communicate how these changes would help us get to the next level.

The shift required ongoing, intentional communication to help everyone recognize the opportunities these changes could bring — as well as how they could grow within the new structure. When people struggle with accepting change, you must be willing to engage with others to help them understand, but start by listening.

3. Let Your Inner Voice Guide You

So much of leadership is about amplifying others’ voices, but you mustn’t forget to cultivate and listen to your own voice, too. I remember a time when my inner voice said, “Focus on what only you can do. Give the rest of it away.”

This was during a time of rapid growth in our company, when I knew I needed to step back from working so much in the business so I could work on it. There were far more important things I could be doing to drive value as the CEO. I didn’t have the luxury of a million hands and a million minds, but I did have talented people around me whom I could trust to be extensions of my vision for the future.

So I decided it was time for me to hand over some valuable resources, relationships, power and recognition — all the things I’d worked so hard to get. It was tempting to keep those things for myself, but fortunately, I listened to my inner voice and got busy giving the good stuff away. I formed an executive team and increased the roles and authority of my peers. In the process, I redistributed many of my favorite responsibilities.

My teammates rose to the occasion and blossomed as leaders in new ways. They dove deeper into things I could never really give my time and attention to — and we became a stronger, more successful company. This experience empowered me to continue listening to my inner voice, especially on the most difficult decisions that only I could make. Doing so helped me lead at a whole new level, and it can do the same for you.

I used to believe I didn’t have the time to listen — that doing so wasn’t really necessary to drive change. But I was wrong. Through the simple art of listening, you’ll make better business decisions, you’ll gain greater buy-in from others, and you’ll become a leader of leaders.