Are You Listening?
Recently I had the privilege of participating in an event that gathered over a hundred law firm leaders from Europe and beyond. Over speakers dinner, the night before, and the event itself I caught up with many old friends and made a number of great new acquaintances. It is a stark reminder of the importance and value of meeting in person!
For the closing keynote, the organizers had managed to engage a well known and highly regarded corporate leadership expert, who had just served a term leading an esteemed global executive search partnership. One will be hard pressed to find more knowledge and experience as it comes to what it takes to be a successful corporate leader in 2023 and beyond.
As you know back in 2020, based on research and experience, TGO Consulting defined 7 Core Competences© needed to excel at the top of the legal market. These seven dimensions are:
1. Understanding the Business
Keeping up with economic news and business-related news on a daily basis.
Showing an interest in and understanding of how companies make money.
Having an understanding of how lawyers could help companies to be more profitable.
As a lawyer, being able to think out of the box.
The ability to find multiple solutions for a problem.
Regularly teaming up with others to get new insights.
3. Practice Development
Ability to build a good reputation and develop a relevant business network.
Being proactive in maintaining relationships with clients, potential clients and market influencers.
Identifying opportunities in an early stage and acting upon that.
4. Practice Management
Being able to manage multiple complex matters at the same time without chaos or stress.
Being able to communicate timely, clearly and specifically when cooperating with others.
Planning capability: being able to realistically estimate how long tasks will take and knowing inter-dependencies between certain tasks.
5. Emotional Intelligence
Having a well-developed understanding of other peoples’ drivers, values and emotions.
Effective communication of one’s emotions.
The ability to build rapport with other people.
Recognizing the importance of permanently calibrating one’s own moral compass.
Openly and pro-actively discussing moral dilemmas with others.
Putting decency before profit or personal ‘temptations’.
Not being guided by the fear of failing or being made fun of.
Easily mingling with new people in unfamiliar situations.
Being self-assured and not immediately giving in when faced with opposition.
The keynote speaker stressed the importance of 'listening' and in one-on-one discussions over dinner and during coffee breaks some argued that ‘the willingness and ability to listen’ perhaps should be added to the 7-Core Dimensions©. So, could ‘listening’ be the 8th dimension?
It is complicated and all but straight forward, but on balance I do not think ‘listening’ should be considered one of the core dimensions. Please allow me to explain:
Not Listening is Dangerous and Foolish
I assume that all of you are familiar with the saying “the writing on the wall”. It’s origins trace back to the book of Daniel in the Christian bible. It depicts clear signs that something (bad) is about to happen. Yet in today’s world all too often corporate (and government) leaders are completely missing the writing on the wall. For leaders not listening can be dangerous and foolish.
As a leader, do you know what the associates are thinking? What about staff, the partners, the clients? Being leaders and lawyers, all too often we assume we know. We prefer to talk about generation Z, rather than with generation Z. Listening requires an open mind, a general interest and a healthy dose of curiosity.
Does the CEO of the airline listen to its passengers? Are they aware that first class passengers expect unlimited free fast internet for the duration of the flight? Is the CEO of the bank aware how frustrating it is for clients being forced to have conversations with a ‘dumb’ chatbot and not a real person? Last week I read an interview with the CEO of one of the large oil majors who could not understand why brilliant young talent no longer wanted to pursue a career in Big Oil...
Leaders that do not listen, will miss the writing on the wall
Too Much Listening is a Bad Thing
Now that you know that the ability and willingness to listen is crucial for any leader, I must caution that too much listening will be harmful. Confused? Bear with me:
Quite often what you hear is ‘bullshit’ (excusez le mot). It was Henry Ford who said “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” There is no doubt in my mind that he was right. I have been involved in close to a hundred client surveys and client panels over the years, and consistently part of what was said was useless. In general it is wise to be extremely cautious and not take everything you hear too literally. Leaders must not only have the ability to listen, but also apply a healthy dose of common sense when doing so.
You will be surprised how often so called experts have it wrong. When IBM unveiled the first computers, experts said that we would probably only ever need a handful of such machines in the world. When Steve Job introduced the iPhone, Microsoft CEO Steve Balmer was convinced that only very few consumers would want to use such a device. When a friend on mine, who owns a hugely profitable global business asked the banks to help finance the development of a new type of machinery, all banks refused as they did not see a future for such (massive) machine. My friend ended up financing out of his own pockets and now has an immensely profitable worldwide monopoly, being the only company with such a machine. Leaders must know when NOT to listen and swim against the current.
Listening creates expectations. If you ask for input and opinions, people will expect that their views are taken into account when it comes to taking a decision. If it then turns out the decision is not in line with their opinion or advise, they will be disappointed and potentially angry. This happens when the government decides to build a nuclear reactor next to where you live. It also happens if you ask your lawyers about work from home while not having a fixed desk at the office in order to manage office space more efficiently and cost effectively.
Without effort I could go on producing more arguments limiting the usefulness of listening. Having said that, remember that at the same time I fully and wholeheartedly subscribe to the importance of listening: you most certainly do not want to miss the writing on the wall!
In the end, more important than listening itself, leaders must have the ability to act in the interest of the firm. That is why listening is not one of the core dimensions, but still an effective leader can not do without. Ultimately leadership is stewardship. Leaders have an unwritten obligation to leave the firm (or company) better than they found it.
On this and other leadership topics, TGO Consulting offers bespoke workshops at our Off-Site Retreat in Sweden. If you are interested in growing as a leader, please inquire for available dates.