When Emily Guthro started her new job this past fall as a human resources manager at charity group Goodwill in Hamilton, she wanted to make sure her first days on the job were well spent. First on her task list: Sharpen up her listening skills and take them on the road with a "listening tour." This involved one-on-one meetings in person with the head of each department. She set out with a series of questions that she would ask each person. Then it was all about listening.
Listening tours have become popular with chief executive officers and politicians who want to get a read on particular issues in their companies and constituencies. They can also be a valuable exercise for a wider range of leaders – particularly for those joining a new organization, taking on a new role, or even entering a new sector.
A listening tour is not the time to make promises or commit to assignments but rather to gather information and collect insights and learn – about the organization, the culture, various stakeholders, and the issues at hand.
While Ms. Guthro said she hadn't heard of middle managers doing this, she had been encouraged by her new boss who had done this when he started in his role. She designed a set of questions and e-mailed them out in advance and then sat down face to face with each individual on her list.
"I wanted to get the lay of the land and learn about the different personalities, the needs of the various business units and a feel for the culture," Ms. Guthro said.
She said the experience was worthwhile because it gave her a good feel for some of the key issues she would need to address – or at least be aware of – in her new role. Equally important, the meetings helped spark a connection with key people she would be serving within the organization.
"It's important to build bridges and make sure you aren't just a name on the org chart. Likewise, it's critical to put a face to the people and positions you will be serving. I think listening tours can be invaluable to a whole range of people in jobs that serve internally – especially when just starting out in a role," Ms. Guthro said.
So how do you embark on a listening tour in the right way? Here are a few thoughts to help you plan your own listening tour:
Establish specific goals:
Having clear intentions for the tour will help you focus on what you want to learn, determine who to include in your tour, decide what types of questions to include, as well as help you inspire any other potentially desired outcomes (such as building relationships). As well, going in with "listening goals" can also help you tune in more acutely to the conversation and pick up on pertinent information shared.
Prepare and share questions in advance:
Preparing your main questions in advance is important. You might ask common questions for everyone – to hear the varied perspectives on particular issues. You can also include specific questions for a particular person that could be pertinent only to their area. E-mailing at least some of the questions in advance provides people an opportunity to reflect and provide more meaningful feedback. Don't limit your questions to the script. The conversations will likely prompt other questions not on your initial list.
Listen more than talk:
Often new managers are anxious to prove themselves and may feel inclined to talk about their ideas and plans. Resist the urge to do too much of the talking. Instead, ramp up your curiosity to ask the right questions – and truly listen. This will end up being far more valuable in the long term and will help you to have a deeper understanding of the issues and the people you serve.
Spark connections and relationships:
Fostering good relationships is integral to success. In addition to gathering information, a listening tour can help spark a connection with key people. Consider including questions that help you get to know the person behind the title. Ask about their interests, passions and even what brought them to the organization. Notice the personal photos (of their dog, hobbies and family) on their desk and comment or ask. Just be careful to respect boundaries and balance the conversation with the business at hand.
Put your best foot forward with an authentic introduction:
If you are new to the role and the organization, be prepared to answer some questions too. People will want to know who you are and what you are all about. Reflect on how you want to introduce yourself to instill confidence and put your best foot forward. While preparing is important, never let it be at the expense of authenticity. Avoid being too scripted. Be real. Just be careful you don't make the conversation all about you. Make listening your top priority.
*Disclaimer: Emily Guthro is a client of Eileen Chadnick Eileen Chadnick (@Chadnick) is a work-life and leadership coach and principal of Big Cheese Coaching in Toronto. She is the author of Ease, a book offering strategies to manage being overwhelmed in times of "crazy busy."