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Mountians and Lake

Listening is Only Half the Challenge


A lot of the leadership literature, especially interviews with corporate heads, recounts the importance these leaders found in becoming good listeners. They talk about how much more effective they have become since learning to listen carefully, to welcome new ideas, to be open to responses from a wide variety of constituents even if those responses contradict their own thinking.


A related skill follows on listening that I don’t think gets enough attention – anticipating – not anticipating in the sense of sitting there waiting passively in anticipation of something happening, but of actively considering what might happen and planning for it well in advance.


We are consistently notified of changes that require adjustments. Maybe that means a simple adjustment like changing the date on which a bill is paid or sending something to a new address.


If the anticipated change is complex, like learning how to work with a new boss, often our focus is narrowed to the immediate time and effect of the change. Most of us don’t consider the longer-term impact of the change not only on us but on others who might be affected as well.


The skill of anticipating requires taking a longer and broader view of what is about to happen and preparing for it rather than just letting it happen and figuring out what to do when the impact is realized. It’s the planning phase that is often overlooked and, unfortunately, can be the most important, as well as most neglected, step toward success.


In these cases, anticipating means having the necessary resources in place so that the different impacts of the change, long and short term, are not only identified, but can be addressed with smooth transition processes based on knowing what is needed and being able to provide it whenever that need occurs. In The Soul of a New Machine, Tracy Kidder related the story of designing a new computer from the circuitry up. One of the team members said that he couldn’t understand how he did it, but every time they discovered something that hadn’t been planned for, the team leader had anticipated the need and had all the resources available to meet it. By anticipating and planning, he turned a crisis into a transition.


The team leader’s time frame and focus were simply different from the staff’s. They were focused on the next few steps in the design process. The team leader looked farther into the future, anticipated the roadblock, and put the necessary resources into place to remove the roadblock, even when that meant getting a bigger budget or changing a strategy. It had already been cleared with management. In your organization the change to be anticipated might be regulatory changes that will require changes in equipment, skills needed, staffing and funds to address the required change and find opportunity in it.


When a leader anticipates for the long term, the value of careful listening becomes clear. Leaders listen between the lines, especially to complaints and worries, for implications, possible effects, areas of coordination and other subtle clues that identify possible roadblocks and even indicate the potential fix. Leaders are also listening so that conflict and disagreement over goals and processes can be avoided, and the costs of wasted time and materials, and damaged relationships can also be avoided.


Good leaders build the road to the right destination before others realize that travel is required.

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