Better Listening, Better Leadership

A new book by New York Times leadership columnist Adam Bryant shares CEOs' lessons for success. Take heed: Close listening is a big deal.

January is supposed to provide a slow on-ramp into a new year, but somehow my calendar didn’t get the message.

Early 2014, for me, is overstuffed with new leadership and management challenges. I’m chairing a committee for a national membership organization whose board I serve on, and I’m also teaching a pair of classes—a first for me. So I’ve been thinking a lot about the different types of personalities I’ll be working with in each of those three contexts—fresh-faced millennials new to the work world, self-assured boomers with long experience, and mid-career professionals looking to develop new skills. I wouldn’t presume to equate these roles with the day-to-business of running an association, but all the same they’ll put a lot of what I’ve been writing about leadership to the test. Last week I was impressed with how tricked out my first classroom is; as I was likening it to a friend as the starship Enterprise, I was struck by the realization that I’d have to access my inner Kirk.

Yelling is the result of the dismay you feel when you realize you have not done your own job.”

Because managing those different types of personalities and doing right by them is so important to me now, I’ve been reading Adam Bryant’s new book, Quick and Nimble: Lessons From Leading CEOs on How to Create a Culture of Innovation. Bryant writes the weekly “Corner Office” column for the New York Times, which is routinely a lively and intriguing Q&A with a leader and his or her own insights into management, hiring, firing, change, and more. His emphasis is on managing a variety of groups and individuals, a topic that can often be overlooked in favor of more structural and financial concerns.

Bryant summarized his book’s lessons in a recent Times article, pointing out a few common threads among successful organizations: easy-to-articulate missions, clear statements of values, success-oriented teams, candor, less time on email, and a culture of respect.

All useful points, but the last one strikes me as especially critical—get that wrong, and you start losing your best people. One leader Bryant spoke with, Rue La La chief marketing officer Robin Domeniconi, has a simple term for how she established a healthy culture: MRI. “MRI means the ‘most respectful interpretation’ of what someone’s saying to you,” she told Bryant. “I don’t need everyone to be best friends, but I need to have a team with MRI.”

MRI sounds a bit cutesy at first, but it attacks some of the main drivers of organizational dysfunction: misinterpretation, lack of communication, and a failure to listen closely to what’s being said. Management expert John Spence has made culture an important part of his formula for successful organizations, and he’s argued that out that strong cultures are built on the kind of respect Domeniconi discusses. In Quick and Nimble, Bryant points to some of the consequences of a disrespectful cultures—high turnover and low morale, especially.

If respect is so crucial, why do organizations fail at it? Often, Bryant suggests, the problem has much to do with the leader’s lack of preparation. Time and again, Bryant ran into successful CEOs who decided to become leaders because of the bad bosses that they had, and the evidence they had that the officiousness and barking reflected their inadequacies. “Yelling is the result of the dismay you feel when you realize you have not done your own job,” chef Mario Batali tells Bryant.

At heart, “MRI” is really no more complicated than simply listening—taking the time to hear what somebody has to say, especially if it contradicts your own thinking, and taking the time to ask questions if something isn’t making sense to you. As cheap morale boosters go, a little extra time understanding pushback can go a long way—especially when the right cultural fit is so important at the top.

What are your strategies for making sure the people you work with get heard and feel respected? Share your thoughts in the comments.


Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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