I don't really have any nicknames, which suits me fine. My grandfather called me something different, which was great because he was my grandfather and the only one who ever used it. My mother and father had a name they called me; parents do that. And there was this group of ladies in college who made up another nickname that I had to live with... for a year at least. No, I'm not telling you any of those nicknames! lol

Listen to your kids
Bindaas Madhavi via Compfight

I have one friend that I've known for almost 35 years who has a nickname for me that I will share however. Five years after we met he started calling me "guru". This was way before the days when everyone started calling themselves this so there wasn't any consternation in accepting the appellation at the time, and he's still the only one who calls me that.

He has a reason for calling me that. He says that out of all the people he's ever known, I'm the only one who can listen to someone describe an issue, take some time to think about it, and then not offer just advice but options, usually at least 3, that a person can decide to take and what the possible outcomes of each option might be. He's told me that after all these years I've never been wrong, and that it took a few years for him to realize that the best option should have always been the one he should have selected.

I've always appreciated his words. I used to wonder why none of his other friends seemed capable of the same thing. Over time I realized why, and it leads to two major failings of leadership.

The first one is the art of listening. Many times leaders are ready to solve issues without fully listening to what the problem is. Sometimes the people telling leaders what's going on don't tell everything, and that makes it hard to define what needs to be done. Every once in a while they might need to ask follow up questions to get closer to the truth, but that can't happen if they're not listening as well.

The second one is the art of seeing problems from multiple points of view once there's a good grasp of what's going on. Most people think of problems as black and white, which means doing either one thing or the other. I've found in life and business that there's often layers of answers, and that sometimes it's smarter to take the route of a layer than either the best or worst idea.

An example of doing something like this was when I was a director at a hospital during the Y2K time. Our computer system was being discontinued at the end of the year and we learned just before conversion that there wouldn't be enough time for the people installing the new system to write a program that could merge our current data into the new system.

I'm listening
Melvin Gaal via Compfight

Two other things were complicating our efforts. One, a contract with one of the major insurance companies hadn't been signed yet, which meant there was a possibility that we might or might not get payment information posted before the end of the year. If that wasn't enough, I also had to merge two different hospital business offices together while trying to find a way to get almost everyone trained to use the new system, since only 3 people had been trained on it.

I realized I had to get more people into the thought process instead of just myself. I held an all day meeting with my 3 supervisors, having each of them bring one person who reported to them, and also had one person who'd already learned the new system but hadn't had a chance to work on it in real time. On a whiteboard I laid out what I thought were all the issues that I could think of as a starting point for us to have a serious brainstorming day. I also told each person in the room that not only did I expect everyone to contribute with their opinions, but I was buying lunch; couldn't have people being hungry could I?

Over the course of 7 hours we talked about every issue we could think of and the list grew beyond what I had started with. Then we started looking at what we could either remove or push to the side for the short term. After we got down to 7 specific things that we knew were going to be crucial, we worked down even further until we got to the place where we knew we could only tackle those things we had control of. That left us 4 things to deal with, pushing the insurance issue to the side for the moment since that was the great unknown.

In the end, we had a plan that had added things I hadn't considered and also didn't leave us with only one thing we could look at. This wasn't close to a black and white issue; it was more like the colors of a prism, where each color was important but we could only concentrate on specific colors. All of them worked towards a goal that we couldn't fully complete because of the unknowns, but they would get us closer to where we needed to be.

Without being a good listener, I'm not sure I could have facilitated that meeting properly. Without all of us coming up with options and then working out the importance of each, I'm sure that it would have all gone awry. We were communicating well with each other as equals, even though I knew at all times that the outcome would be on my head. This was one of those times where there was no one perfect answer, and had I gone with just my original ideas I'm not sure I'd have been able to pull off what we eventually got to.

This was a very complicated case, yet I tend to believe that using my leadership skills I not only helped guide us to the proper conclusion but a lot of other people had a hand in it, which was important because it brought a lot of people together during a very tense time. The way I saw it, everyone else could take credit for where we ended up; I was just the person who helped pull it all together.

Listening is an essential part of leadership. Maybe these listening tips can help those of you who might determine this isn't your strong suit to get it right, although I'm sure that if you read this blog you already know these things. 🙂