Who Are You Listening To?

Andrew Bass’s Pragmatics Newsletter March 2013

Practical techniques and thought-provoking ideas Main article takes under 4 minutes to read.

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Who Are You Listening To?

The news is full of examples of the organizational underperformance, even failure, that follows when managers allow themselves to be cut off from reality.

Conversely, some of the most dramatic improvements I have ever seen in either business or individual performance were achieved by changing who the client was talking and listening to. The intervention might have been dressed up in various ways – and called consulting or coaching or even facilitation – but it you stripped away the protocols and management jargon and just filmed the client ‘before and after’, you’d see that the difference that made the difference was new conversations with better-informed people.

If you are a senior executive, you run the risk of living in a world mediated by memos. If you are not extremely careful, you can end up talking only to your direct reports, the board, investors and advisors. The consequence is insulation from reality.

One MD was shocked to read in a trade magazine that his number one competitor had been awarded a contract he hadn’t even known was available to bid on.  This was a substantial company – with an excellent reputation for its engineering – in a B2B market where just 10-20 contracts were available per year.

Another CEO had been begging his engineers to build a slimmer version of a ventilation unit used in commercial buildings, only to be assured that the physics meant it was impossible. Imagine his surprise when he finally left his office and went to a trade show, to find the competition displaying a ‘physically impossible’ slim ventilator. He kicked his display stand over in anger in full view of the trade show delegates. You can imagine his horror and embarrassment. The competitor was out with the product now. How long would it take to work out what they were doing and get something into production? And, even more worrying, just how far behind the competition were they?

So often I find – and, ominously, I’ve heard turnaround professionals say the same – that answers to serious challenges to a business are likely to be found in the heads of frontline staff, customers or even people like trade journalists – but they have never been asked.

Individual careers are similarly threatened by a lack of varied and informed conversation. A few years ago I was involved in a number of projects to improve business relationship development in professional service firms. Many of the young associates spent their time talking to each other, eloquently reinforcing the shared delusion that things like networking were undignified, unsophisticated and generally bad, whereas technical excellence and high personal utilisation were the most important factors. They got away with it because the economy was good. The exceptions spent their time talking less to colleagues, and more to business people about their businesses. A few years later, in a much tougher environment, they are the ones who are partners in their firms, while those who eschewed varied external input are trying to keep their utilisation up to avoid being made redundant.

There is no need to seek deep psychological explanations for all this. We can reality observe the human tendency to cut ourselves off from reality, even when the stakes are as high as they could be. The French High Command at the start of WW2 – at the Château de Vincennes – was described by one staff officer as ‘a submarine without a periscope’ and we know how that went.

As it is for Generals, so for businesses, individual executives and professionals. The businesspeople who I’ve observed progressing, or even in these volatile times just surviving, are those who seek out informed conversation outside the self-sealing information bubble that constantly tries to envelop them.


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