Listening

Leading the first 100 days

Listening is one of the most important tasks for any leader in the first 100 days.

Today marks 100 days since NSW’s Premier Barry O’Farrell took office, and everyone is talking 100 day plans.  In politics, the term ‘first 100 days’ was used by US President Teddy Roosevelt on entering office in 1933. It is a symbolic period: three months; a season.

For leaders, listening is key to the first 100 days

For leaders, listening is key to the first 100 days

In business and organisations, the concept of the first 100 days was popularised over the last decade following the success of Michael Watkins’ 2003 book The First 90 Days: Critical Success Strategies for New Leaders at All Levels

Watkins outlines a number of areas of focus for leaders for leaders following transition – taking up a new role. These include:

  • Self promotion
  • Learning the new environment
  • Adapting your strategy to the new situation
  • Achieving some early successes – and establishing a vision
  • Negotiating agreement with the boss
  • Aligning the organisation
  • Building the team
  • Establishing a stakeholder and supporter base
  • Keeping focused on the right things
  • Using change to maintain momentum

Many new leaders in organisations struggle with the balance of delivering quick wins that are based on the current organisation, not only on what has worked for them elsewhere. During these changes, one of the most important actions in listening. The challenge is for leaders to be honest enough to say ‘I don’t know yet’. The 90 day planning process is valuable because it builds in a period of information gathering and planning based on a diligent approach.

Organisational listening
In addition to being a key leadership skill, there are many ways to listen to an organisation.

While a leader does not need to go to the lengths of Shakespeare’ Henry V or Undercover Boss, there are some ways to listen effectively to the people in the organisation:

  • Visit the places where work is done – don’t summon people to head office.
  • Small groups allow for people to be heard. Don’t gather 100 people and ask them a question.
  • Ask open questions – “What are you working on at the moment?” “What would make that easier?”
  • Be authentic from the outset.
  • Where there may be concerns about an open culture, supplement dialogue with formal research such as independent focus groups or interviews, being open about the purpose and intent.

Induction, undercover: lessons from Undercover Boss Australia Pt 4

For Ray Schliebs, the new CEO of Big4 Holiday Park, taking part in Undercover Boss Australia during his first week at the company was a chance to be inducted into all aspects of the business.

Undercover Boss Australia

Twitter suggests next series of Undercover Boss

Affable Schliebs comes to his first day the role with extensive experience in travel, tourism and hospitality. He is at ease with the employees at all levels and demonstrates an open rapport. Years of experience at the front line of travel has equipped him to be a good listener and to relate to a diverse range of people.

The first three months for an executive is a critical time. In that period, new leaders need to understand the organisation and set about achieving early success that will enable their subsequent agenda. Michael Watkins, author of The First 90 Days, recommends that new executives need to accelerate their learning. By going to a range of parks, Schliebs get to hear from the owners about what is working and what keeps them awake at night, important inputs to the strategic direction of the park.

How can leaders capitalise on being the new kid?

  • Introduce yourself. Managers and employees will interpret your comments, behaviours and decisions from the outset.
  • Get out and about. Starting in the company is a fantastic reason to see the operations. Start the way you mean to continue.
  • Ask open questions. What are you working on? How does that work? What has been working? What would you change? How can I help?
  • Listen. Then listen more.

As my mother would say, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.”

The human face of organ transplant
Australia has one of the highest rates of success for organ transplant operations in the world, yet a transplant rate that is up to 50% lower than other countries. This episode of Undercover Boss included the story of Quentin, a Queensland park franchisee who has been able to continue a life with his family as a result of a successful transplant. For more information on organ donation, visit http://www.donatelife.gov.au/. Ticking the box is not enough, and Donate Life includes resources for you to discuss your wishes with your family.

Disclosure: I have previously provided volunteer communication services for Transplant Australia and currently for ShareLife Australia.

Undercover Boss Australia highlights power of listening

What if those in power could be ‘everyman’ for a day? The premise is simple and rooted in

Listening

Listening is a key leadership skill

dramatic tradition. In Greek myth, Zeus would disguise himself as a beggar in order to reward the kind and punish the cruel. In Shakespeare’s Henry V the king becomes a common soldier the night before battle. The latest incarnation of this idea is Undercover Boss, in which the head of a company takes on a series of frontline roles disguised as a new employee in order to discover first hand the customer and employee experience.

The format, created by ex-BBC documentary-maker Stephen Lambert, has run successfully in the UK, the US and is now commencing in other countries, including Australia. The popular US version has also been criticised for the PR element –  trying to provide a human face to CEOs, a group ‘suffering’ from poor public image after some of the executive excesses before – and during – the economic crises of 2008 and 2009.

Spin aside, the series shows that effective two-way communication in organisations improves engagement and leads to better business outcomes.

The newest spin-off in the franchise, Undercover Boss Australia kicked off Monday on Ten with Domino’s Pizza Enterprises CEO, Don Meij taking on a range of frontline jobs across the business he has been with for over 20 years, including delivery driver, human billboard and pizza maker.

“Australian workers are feeling the pain, working harder and longer. Are workers really asking ‘what about me?’” was the question posed in the opening sequence. The opening aside, on screen, Meij quickly demonstrated an authentic leadership style and openness in his interactions with his leadership team.

Since hearing of the Australian version, I have wondered how well the format would translate for Australia as there are a number of cultural differences that have seen other reality formats crash and burn here. The Aussie bullshit detector is particularly acute and ‘ra-ra’ sessions are justifiably viewed skeptically.

Also, Australian’s are not always quick to tell deeply personal stories. This was demonstrated in one of the more awkward exchanges in the first episode, where Meij sought to draw out the story of one of his young workers. This was the show’s weakest moment, but  is a central element of the ‘find it and fix it’ formula used by the American version.

The biggest problem with the overseas versions is in the ‘reveal’ and ‘reward’ section of the show. There have been many cases where the solutions are one-off donations for the individuals, as if we have slipped into Secret Millionaire, the other creation from Studio Lambert. This makes for great ‘tissues’ television for viewers, but from a business perspective, many of these solutions feel superficial and unsustainable – band-aid solutions that do nothing to address the root causes of the issues in the business, and that could (or would) not be replicated across a workforce of thousands.

However, it is here that Meij demonstrated some great authentic leadership. He owned issues where he saw the business needing to support the stores more effectively.  And although granting a number of personal rewards, these were clearly contexted as recognition for the efforts and commitments of the employees.

As he spoke to his employees he appeared humble, open and genuine in reflecting his experience of his time with them, their hopes and commitments, at one point saying “You’re doing an amazing job and I wanted to acknowledge that.” Recognising people not only for their achievements but also acknowledging their ambitions is a powerful approach.

Undercover Boss Australia has the ingredients: the implied drama of being ‘undercover’, the human interest stories of the employees, the leaders who learn about themselves in the process, the ‘reveal’ and the ‘reward’. And for leaders, some great lessons in the power of listening. In the words of one of the participants “Every CEO should get back down to earth level and see what we see every day.”

How well do you listen to your business?
Regardless of the size of your business, a real awareness of the operations and the people within your organisation is essential. The good news is it doesn’t always require glasses and a fake beard. Here are three ways to get closer to employees immediately. They key is to provide opportunities for the leader to listen. And if at first the issues raised seem unimportant, that is a failing of the culture and leadership, not of the employees. The quality of discussions will change over time.

  • Walk around. If you are visiting an interstate office, spend time in the office while people are doing their jobs. Show genuine interest. Practice deep listening. Ask open questions.
  • Open discussions. Whether sharing a sandwich and a coffee, or just getting out from behind desks and talking, small group discussions (8 is a great number) can be an effective way of increasing open feedback.
  • The CEO hotline. Can any employee in your business phone or email the boss if they need to? The first step might be to have a set time each week or month when employees can ring and discuss anything about the business they feel the need to talk about.

Don’t think that one shared sandwich will change your culture, but a sustained approach to talking with small groups of employees provides leaders an opportunity to listen to what is happening and speak openly about the business.

Undercover Boss Australia screens 8.30pm Mondays on Ten. Next week, Veolia Environmental Services.