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Just Listen

Just Listen

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Town-hall meetings help close the gap between what business leaders see as problems and what front-line employees experience.

A West Coast financial-services company got some good news recently. A survey on communication, administered by my company and Gill Research of Chicago, indicated that employees feel their supervisors do a very good job communicating about business issues. The company’s senior management has a clear business plan, according to employees, and they feel senior management clearly communicates with them about the plan.

This company is in an enviable position. Employees generally trust the business leaders and enjoy a healthy communication environment. Among the good news, however, there was a warning sign: Employees believe senior management could do a better job of understanding the issues and concerns of people in the lower levels of the company.

Even in the best companies, employees perceive a gap between what they experience every day and what senior management sees as the most pressing problems. One of the responsibilities of a leader is to look at all the available information and to make an informed decision about where the organization must focus its attention.

Business leaders and employees will not always agree on the issues. After all, a business is not a democracy. Senior management is accountable first to shareholders or owners. However, senior management also needs the physical, mental and emotional investment of employees for the business to be successful.

That’s why it behooves business leaders to have an ongoing dialogue with employees. The financial-services company with whom we worked holds regular town-hall meetings where business leaders talk to – and more important, listen to – employees about the problems facing the company. Senior management gets high marks for the town-hall meetings, but the survey indicated employees don’t always feel senior management understands the nitty-gritty realities of front-line jobs.

Having worked for several companies in which town-hall meetings were a centerpiece of the communication program, I realize most business leaders have a hard time knowing when to stop talking and start listening. They want to explain the reasons behind business decisions – and they should. Even if employees don’t agree with business decisions, they usually find the decisions easier to accept if they understand the reasons.

But explaining business decisions is not the greatest value of town-hall meetings. Most companies have multiple vehicles through which leaders explain business issues and decisions. The greatest value of town-hall meetings is in the building of affinity between business leaders and employees. That affinity begins with senior management listening to and internalizing what is on employees’ minds.

My hometown of Richmond, Va., has a wonderful example of an executive who understands the power of listening. Mayor Doug Wilder – who once was Virginia’s governor and recently was elected mayor, or the city’s CEO – has participated in numerous town-hall meetings with citizens. The fact that he is accountable to the citizens is a bit different from the relationship between a company CEO and employees. Still, he is an example of a strong leader who does not allow his strength to overpower his ability to listen. As Wilder engages in more listening, citizens feel empowered to get involved in solving the problems facing the city.

I believe any CEO of any company would welcome that kind of self-motivated involvement by employees.

Robert Holland

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