Condoleezza Rice once said, “When you’re in a position of authority, you need truth-tellers around you.” Did she hit the mark? You bet.
First, let us agree that one element of leadership is the authority. To be a leader, you must have some authority. This authority isn’t determined by power but by your ability to motivate, inspire and affect change. This authority can be extensive and broad like a CEO’s or narrow and focused like a subject-matter expert. Either way, leadership requires the authority to motivate, inspire and affect change.
The greater the scope of a leader’s authority, the greater the need to listen. A wise person once told me, “The higher up you get in the organizational hierarchy, the less you know what is happening on the front line.”
In my past, I worked for a good organization with amazing people. But there was a significant disconnect. The sales process required strong relationship building requiring expert diagnosis skills built upon customer and company trust. They sold expensive enterprise solutions. This kind of relationship building can only be accomplished through personal connection, face-to-face, and handshake-to-handshake. These tight bonds of trust cannot be effectively built with Webinar or teleconference. The disconnect between the top leadership of the company and the frontline sales was that every year, as a way to control expenses, the company would put a travel moratorium in place midway through the third quarter. This moratorium effectively put a hold on the national sales team for 15 weeks each year. For a sales team that was compensated on commission, this created some, at times significant, hardship and the impact on revenue was substantial. But the worse outcome of this strategy was the sales team entered each new year with a nearly empty pipeline.
What caused this organizational dysfunction? Essentially two things. One, senior leadership made this decision to suspend expenses without hearing (or maybe caring) how it adversely impacted the customers in the sales process, the commissions of the sales team or the need to continually build the sales pipeline. Two, the incentive/bonus structure for senior executives was heavily weighted on EBITDA. One way to create a strong EBITDA was by drastically cutting expenses to drive up the earnings. This is a classic example of how bonuses and incentives structures devised by Boards can drive the wrong results but is also how the strategies for growth can be adversely impacted because the measurements being used were developed without listening to all stakeholders in the success of the organization.
Even at a supervisor level, the leader needs to listen carefully to the department’s stakeholders and customers to understand if they are doing the right work at the right time to deliver the correct results. An example of this is when a supervisor directs the staff to sell a specific solution because the incentives were better, not because the product was the best fit for the customer. This supervisor became distrusted by the staff because they knew better or became as mercenary as the supervisor in their selling ethics. This created a significant trust gap among staff and with the customer but also damaged the corporate brand.
Although the two examples are sales examples, this does not mean these same compromises and misdirections are not possible in all areas of an organization. Also, these examples are not made to cast dispersion upon the profession of sales. I know instances where deals were made with integrity and operations compromised in the solution delivery. I know of examples where sales professionals directed people away from a sale or to a lower commissioned sale because it was right for the customer. When we talk about leaders listening, we have to put sales professionals at the top of the pyramid. To have long-term sales success and to create a bond of trust, sales professionals must first be expert listeners, diagnosticians second, and salespeople last.
Leadership, whether it be Mano-to-Mano, supervisor to team or CEO to the company requires creating processes and skills to listen but more importantly to hear the voice(s) of the stakeholder(s). Condoleezza Rice was right, leaders need to be surrounded by truth-tellers, but more importantly, leaders need to learn how to listen and hear the truth-tellers; to give them the power to “lead the leader.”