Leadership development: Learning by listening

This week, Alice Korngold, author of Leveraging Good Will, weighs in on the important topic of listening. Her remarks inspired me to share fellow authors who agree with her about this essential leadership skill. Seven Page to Practice™ book summary excerpts that highlight good listening follow Alice’s remarks.

I read CausePlanet’s book reviews and articles on a regular basis for their wisdom and to follow the conversation. In preparing to write this post, I perused many recent pieces for inspiration.  Brilliant stuff…. if perhaps a bit head-spinning for most nonprofit CEOs when taken in large doses.  Fundraise this way, establish your culture that way, create a sustainable business model this way, connect with social media that way. And change sure is hard, but here’s how to do it (from my personal favorites – the Heath brothers).  Woah!

My bookshelf is stocked (now my iPad) with many such books and there is often much to gain from them. At the same time, I believe that the best leaders learn the most from listening to the people with whom they work. Unless the CEO walks the floors, encourages people to truly say what they think, and has an open ear, no advice from any book will help. This is surely the case with CEOs of NGOs and nonprofits who are the primary readers of this site.

And listening doesn’t mean much unless your organization is successfully engaging and retaining people from a variety of generations, backgrounds and perspectives. While it might seem messy and at times inconvenient to have a blend of personalities – even more so when they are ardent advocates of the cause – the magic and energy of the organization is in that very passion and diversity. Without that, a nonprofit environment would be sterile; it would lose its heart and soul.  It would also miss the variety of stories and sharing of experiences from the people at the organization who make the world a better place.

Yes, by all means, NGOs and nonprofits need to envision and embrace many changes and indeed many do.  These changes include more business-like approaches in establishing new revenue models, capturing and fully engaging young new talent, creating and then leveraging the power of great websites and social media, and doing many of the things that the experts advise on CausePlanet.org’s valuable pages.

The best leaders learn how to listen to the different perspectives, appreciate and engage everyone who brings value to the table, celebrate passion, inspire the team to embrace the greater vision, and lead forward with enthusiasm.  And leaders learn by listening.

Taking a cue from Alice Korngold’s thoughts on listening, I have listed seven different Page to Practice™ book summary excerpts below that feature an emphasis on the importance of active listening:

Do More Than Give: The 6 Practices of Donors Who Change the World by Leslie Crutchfield, John Kania, Mark Kramer

Empower the people

Catalytic donors view individuals as “essential participants” in the process of solving problems for themselves. Listening to stakeholders is a powerful engine for change because of the ideas that emerge and the solutions that result from brainstorming.

Working across Generations by Frances Kunreuther, Helen Kim and Robby Rodriguez

Exercise: Understanding each other

Understanding the differences among generations starts with listening to what each generation has to say about what shaped them. This exercises asks participants to identify important events in their past and assess their accomplishments and disappointments.

Step 1: Review Key Events for each decade (these can be found in the book, or you can add your own).

Step 2: Answer these questions for each decade:

  • What were your or your generation’s accomplishments?
  • Challenges and disappointments?
  • What would be helpful to share with other generations?

Step 3: Discuss these debriefing questions:

  • What key events and experiences that have influenced you stand out?
  • In what ways have they shaped how you view the world and how you approach your work?
  • What would be helpful for others to know to better understand you? How would you share your story?

12: The Elements of Great Managing by Rodd Wagner & James K. Harter, Ph.D.

Seventh element: My opinions seem to count

Small actions by employees can create meaningful differences for an organization. The Gallup research shows that improving the proportion of employees with Seventh Element scores from one to five to one in three substantially impacts customer experience, productivity, employee retention and safety—all of which create, on average, a 6 percent gain in profitability. Listening to and using employee ideas have two benefits: 1) The idea itself is usually a good one; and 2) Because the idea comes directly from the employee and not management, the employee is much more likely to be committed to seeing it through. Incorporating employee ideas also helps employees feel more included.

Forces for Good: The Six Practices of High-Impact Nonprofits by Leslie R. Crutchfield and Heather McLeod Grant

Master the art of adaptation

All the nonprofits in this book have adaptive capacity—or, the ability to perceive changes in the environment and develop new approaches in response. When they perceive a gap between their vision and their results, they aren’t afraid to modify their approach to have more impact. These nonprofits have learned how to balance creative innovation and structured execution. They have mastered what the authors call “the cycle of adaptation.” Specifically, they must be able to effectively listen to the environment, experiment and innovate (either for product or process improvement), evaluate and learn what works and, finally, modify their approaches on the basis of new information.

Listen to the environment. Adaptation begins with listening for external cues in the environment and looking internally for opportunities to increase impact. Organizations that focus on working with and through other sectors of society are more adept at listening and perceiving opportunities for change.

The Nonprofit Marketing Guide by Kivi Leroux Miller

Listen to the world around you

According to Leroux Miller, no matter where you are, your nonprofit doesn’t operate in a silo; it’s essential to formalize your listening so your marketing is relevant. Listening should include in-person and online tools as well as third-party and custom research. There are online tools that allow you to observe and listen to conversations about your issue and specifically, your organization. (See Page to Practice™ section for listening strategies.)

The Networked Nonprofit: Connecting with Social Media to Drive Change by Beth Kanter and Allison Fine

Listening, engaging and building relationships

Effective listening is critical to getting your bearings online, making sense of data, identifying network leaders and leveraging your message appropriately. Listening to large numbers of people can easily be accomplished by using tools such as Google Alerts, Technorati blog mentions, RSS readers, Twitter search, Delicious tags and Boardreader. Kanter and Fine like to think of listening through these tools “as an investment in relationships”—not time taken away from other tasks. Transitioning from listening to actively communicating with people online is the secret to engaging an audience according to the authors.

With your listening tools in play, you can begin to engage the public in the following ways:

  • Share information
  • Enter or initiate a conversation
  • Thank people for their efforts
  • Educate and raise awareness about an issue
  • Occasionally ask people to do something
  • Aggregate information for people
  • Clarify misperceptions

Image credit: elephantjournal.com


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