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Working and Career

Senior Management Doesn't Listen

April 4, 2013 9:34am (EDT)
(Photo Courtesy of Andrea Kratzenberg via stock.xchng.)
(Photo Courtesy of Andrea Kratzenberg via stock.xchng.)

Is senior management at your organization guilty of not listening? Playing deaf in the senior management ranks is not an uncommon dysfunction but the price that leadership pays today is higher than ever. Let me give you an example. Not too long ago, in the days of overflowing corporate coffers and first class seats on the fast-growth train, it wouldn’t be uncommon for me to hear the complaint that “senior management doesn’t really listen.” While this particular dysfunction was probably fueled by an unhealthy level of narcissism, the sin was usually forgiven because life was good. After all, pay increases and promotions were usually just around the corner for everyone. Today, however, I rarely hear the comment, “work life is good.” Don’t get me wrong, people are thankful for having employment, but with increased workloads and flattened compensation, work life is stressful to say the least. As a result, the sin of senior management refusing to listen is not quickly forgiven today. As one mid-level manager put it, “If you are going to increase my workload and refuse to give me a raise or a promotion, then you better damn-well listen to me.”

Ways Senior Management Doesn’t Listen Today

What are the unique versions of this nasty dysfunction today? Consider the following:

  • “My ideas have ALWAYS worked before” – Why should I listen to anyone else? My ideas have always worked before. This is a dangerous trap that many senior leaders fall into. They assume (incorrectly) that because they’ve been successful in the past, they will be equally successful in the future simply by making similar (if not the exact same) decisions. They fail to consider that the context has likely changed (Ex: the state of the economy, changes in customer behaviors, technology, destabilization of their industry, etc…). Take the story of Bob Nardelli at The Home Depot as a perfect example. Bob came from GE as a heralded leader to take over the helm from founders Bernie Marcus and Arthur Blank. Bob insisted on doing things the “GE way” nearly his entire tenure at Home Depot. He banked that efficiency and low price were what customers really wanted. The problem? At GE, the businesses he ran all were successful with that formula. But in the world of home improvement retail, service and convenience trump low cost in nearly every case. After several painful years, Bob was shown the door, leaving a culture catastrophe in his wake.
  • “I know what customers REALLY want” – A seductive trap that is all too common. When management begins to assume that he or she is actually the customer, bad things begin to happen. They assume that their needs and wants are in fact what the real customers actually desire. As a result, the entire marketing function and, frankly the customers themselves, become irrelevant. We look at the recent story of J. C. Penney for a perfect example. Ronald B. Johnson’s stint as the CEO of J. C. Penney was a brief 17 months. In that time, he rolled out change after change based on what he wanted refusing to listen to marketing or do any customer research. The result? Customers left and soon followed Ron (for the full article, go here).
  • “I want uniformity, simplicity and standardization” – What senior management team hasn’t been preaching this over the last 4-5 years? The challenge with this mantra is that there are always necessary exceptions to grand plans of simplicity and standardization. The trap comes in refusing to listen to those necessary exceptions. If the leadership team labels those exceptions as “resistance to change” and “excuse-making” rather than listening for real risks and concerns, the team runs the risk of shooting the entire organization in the foot. Consider the story of a large global financial services corporation. Several years ago, the CEO announced that all divisions, without exception, were to implement a 10% headcount reduction. The problem? The mature divisions could pull off the headcount reduction without missing a beat. After all, their business was mature and wasn’t growing any time soon. But there was one division in the company that was an exception. This particular division was only a few years old and was on the cutting edge of the industry. It was riding the emerging wave of technology and as a result was doubling every year – in both revenues and people. A 10% reduction would kill its progress and allow competitors to catch up. The CEO refused to hear the argument. The rising rock star division had to make its cuts. As a result, it went from first in the industry to middle-of-the-pack overnight.

Why Don’t They Listen?

“But Brandon,” you say, “this has got to be rare. After all, what kind of person does this and still becomes successful enough to be part of a senior management team?” I hear ya. There are several reasons why senior leaders don’t listen. Some are well-intentioned, some are a result of how they were trained and some are simply the result of “bad eggs” in senior roles.

Reason #1: Attempting to simplify an ever-increasingly complex world – Sometimes leaders don’t listen because they are trying to make the current situation less complex. They see confusion and turmoil swirling around the organization. From emerging disruptive technologies, to smaller margins and pickier consumers, for most organizations the world is uncertain to say the least. As a result, senior management picks a path, covers their eyes and ears and starts moving.

Reason #2: The wrong training – Many leaders rise up through the ranks because of their ability to make quick decisions with limited data. Analytical skills that are highly coveted and rewarded in fields such as finance, engineering, accounting, law and medicine train leaders to make snap decisions and trust their judgment above all else. Thus, in times of stress they rely on only one person – the one in the mirror.

Reason #3: Fear – Sometimes a lack of listening is the result of fear. Fear that they’ll hear bad news. Fear that they’ll hear reasons why their strategies won’t work. Fear that paralysis will set in. Fear that the organization will fold under their watch. As a result, they close the door, turn off their phones and wax nostalgic about times when life was good and every decision they made was right.

Reason #4: Hubris – Sometimes leaders don’t listen because they have had an unfortunately lengthy track record of their decisions being the right ones. They begin believing that they have a golden touch and can do no wrong regardless of the situation or problem. Couple that with direct reports that tell him or her how amazing they are and you end up with a narcissistic deity complex – nasty to treat and even nastier to follow if you are one of their employees.

Your Prescription

Overcoming senior management that is reluctant to listen is critical to everyone’s health, including that of the organization. If you are trying to get senior management to listen, remember one of the most fundamental principles of influencing: others are open to being influenced (in other words, willing to listen to you) when they feel heard first. Listen to what senior management talks about and cares about. Hook your conversations to those hot topics and you’ll find them suddenly receptive to what you have to say. In these situations, packaging is everything.

If you are a senior leader and you want to avoid the traps above, here’s your prescription. Take daily.

Test all of your ideas and / or possible decisions by ask the following questions and truly listening for answers:

  • What assumptions am I basing my strategies on? Does the current situation support those assumptions or refute them? What evidence do I have?
  • What do customers say? Would my most valuable customers support this decision and / or the direction I want to take? What evidence do I have?
  • What risks / exceptions do I need to consider? Have I asked others what I should be considering?
  • What other stakeholder groups might be impacted and how can I get their honest input?

The above questions are hard. They require careful thought, data collection, analysis and synthesis – something that any senior leader worth his or her salt should be capable of executing. However, if you can’t or simply won’t ask the preceding questions, not only are you a poor listener, but you should never be in senior management. You are a senior “gambler.” You are a risk to the organization and I would recommend your immediate termination.

Then again, if you are reading this today, I’ve got a good feeling about you…

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