ATD Blog

Listening Is a Leader's Most Important Skill

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

A friend of mine, a key leader with a major insurance company, regularly comes around her desk when one of her team members comes to speak with her. She feels that sitting side by side, rather than across a desk, leads to a better discussion. Why? Because she is putting that person at ease, she is conveying that she genuinely cares about him, and she is listening intently to what he has to say.

Another friend, a high level executive with a leading company in the sports industry, has made listening a priority. He tunes in to the person speaking with an open mind—without problem solving or seeking conclusions—while that person is speaking. It has been noticed and admired numerous times, not only by his immediate team members, but also by his senior executive colleagues.

Another example of active listening by leaders comes from Peter Hill, CEO of Billy Casper Golf, the leading company in golf management. Hill says, “When I am speaking, I’m not learning.” Indeed, more and more leaders are recognizing how essential listening skills are today.

Why now? Why are people striving to improve their listening skills? Because the quality of our listening determines the quality of our influence, and that brings huge benefits to our business.

Consider the statistic that some 40 percent of people in the workforce today do not feel appreciated and valued, and 70 percent are either actively looking for a new job or would very likely accept an offer if it came their way. Clearly, now is the time to reach out to our people in meaningful ways.


Email has become the easy and quick way to communicate, share info, make requests and answer questions. Yet, there is a dark side to the endless flow of emails coming at us. First, depending on how disciplined we are at managing emails, each of us may have 100 to 300 emails to read, delete, respond to, or act on each day. More disturbing is the fact that, to a great extent, emails have replaced conversations.

We simply do not make the time to connect with and maintain solid relationships with people, as we should. We are on the go from the time we wake up until we turn off our bedside lamp. We’re too busy—way too busy.


This situation can and must be remedied by those of us who deeply care about our teams and our team members’ success. We must stop spending so much time in meetings, speaking with other senior execs, and in front of our computers. Instead, we must let the people doing the work of our companies know that we appreciate and value them and want to know their ideas. More important, we must listen attentively, with a quiet mind and a full focus, not thinking what we’ll say, not problem solving in our minds, or even partially thinking of our own to-do list.

On average, we retain just 25 percent of what we hear, which is because of our busyness and lack of listening skills. The good news is that we can learn to be a better listener and significantly increase our retention. There are principles and practices that can help us be intentional, purposeful, and conscientious when listening and that will make a huge difference with the spirit of our team members.

To earn and maintain quality relationships, our people need to know we genuinely care about them. By listening with an empathetic ear, by putting ourselves in their shoes, and by maintaining an open mind, we develop a culture of enthusiastic and energetic teamwork. Our conscious listening, which is listening to understand and learn, is our gift to others.

Be assured, the journey of improving our ability to quiet our minds, to focus on the other person, and to become a fully present listener, will significantly improve our effectiveness as a leader.

About the Author

John Keyser is the founder and principal of Common Sense Leadership. He works with executives, helping them to develop organizational cultures that will produce outstanding financial results year after year, as well as ongoing employee and organizational improvement; [email protected].

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