My Most Powerful Leadership Tool

Eleven years ago, I started my job as Director of Admissions at Northeastern Junior College. I was 31 and didn’t even know what I didn’t know. I supervised a staff of 4, with an administrative assistant who had worked there longer than I had been alive, a recruiter who had a successful professional career before becoming an admissions recruiter closer to retirement, an effective and experienced recruiter a decade older than me, and a younger recruiter who was about five years younger than me.

It was a staff that had more knowledge, experience, and talent than I did. I really didn’t know what to do as I entered the admissions world after teaching and working for Gallup for the previous eight years. Because I didn’t know what to do, I asked my staff what they thought we should do. Surprisingly, they told me and had good ideas.

At a time when most rural community colleges saw declining enrollment, we had 4 years of enrollment growth out of the 5 I was in charge of admissions. It wasn’t because of my talent, mostly it was because I listened to my staff, provided them the information they needed, and supported them in their goals.

This experience taught me my most powerful leadership tool isn’t my talent or effort, but my ability to listen to others and help them reach their goals. This helped shape the last two leadership transitions I’ve had. When I came to McCook Community College as campus vice president, I set up discussions with my direct reports, their direct reports, and anyone else on campus in the summer. I discovered what had worked in the past, what hadn’t, and what the concerns were on campus.

When I took the role of McCook Economic Development Director, I set up individual meetings with all the board members. I quickly learned what had worked, what hadn’t, and what concerns they had. Both experiences reinforced the idea I did my best work for the organization when I listened rather than when I talked.

In the book, What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, Marshall Goldsmith gives some tips on what good listening looks like:

·      Don’t interrupt.

·      Don’t finish the other person’s sentences.

·      Don’t say, “I knew that.”

·      Don’t use the words “no,” “but,” and “however.”

·      Don’t be distracted. Don’t let your eyes or attention wander elsewhere while the other person is talking.

·      Maintain your end of the dialogue by asking intelligent questions that (a) show you’re paying attention, (b) move the conversation forward, and (c) require the other person to talk (while you listen).

·      Eliminate any striving to impress the other person with how smart or funny you are. Your only aim is to let the other person feel that he or she is accomplishing that.

It isn’t complicated, but it does take a mind shift from thinking that the leader has all the answers, to the leader needs to find the answers from the rest of the staff.

What do you think?

·      What is your best leadership tool?

·      Who is the best listener you know?

·      What have you learned about the power of listening?