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Leaders Learn Best by Listening

We're constantly rushing from one thing to the next. All of us, all of the time. The days are ever longer and the nights are even worse. I call it a life of "playing the entire game in overtime." You might be kidding yourself and calling it masterful multi-tasking, but I'd say it's mostly just a mess. We're constantly trying to make time for everything and we're discovering that not only is this an impossible dream, but we end up spending too much of our time on the urgent, rather than the important. We lose sight of what really matters in our lives and businesses. Our inboxes (calls, emails and especially texts) are driving us instead of the other way around. You'll never get into the flow if you're fighting non-stop fires all day long.

It's abundantly clear that, as the speed of our days increases, we're losing the one-on-one time necessary to connect with the people in our lives and in our companies whose thoughtful input we need to make smart decisions and right choices for the future. I'm talking both about accessing crucial company data as well as not cutting off the far more critical access to the personal and emotional feedback we all need from those we work with in order to succeed. Sadly, with the rate of change constantly accelerating, I don't see things getting better for us any time soon-- unless we start to take back some control, have a little patience, and slow the entire process down.

It starts with making time to listen. People will tell you the truth-- which only hurts when it ought to-- but only if you make it clear that you're interested and paying attention when they try to talk. Entrepreneurs pride themselves on being great talkers with the "gift of gab," but it's much harder to sit still and listen. Even better, no one's ears ever got them into hot water.

Taking on and trying to do too many things at once makes for an unendingly stressful life not to mention mediocre results across the board for your business. It never pays to be a mile wide and an inch deep in anything. It might be worth the pain and the sacrifices if the bottom line results were there, but the evidence is to the contrary. Trying to be all things to all people or please all of the people even part of the time is as impossible as trying to be in two places at one time. No one expects this of you (except maybe you) and--if you give them a chance-- they'll tell you that and they can even help you get over some of the hardest spots. It's never smart to try to do everything. It's not remotely practical to try to do it all by yourself. And, in the end, it's a losing proposition for everyone because you inevitably find yourself trying to do a bunch of things poorly or cheaply that you shouldn't be doing at all.

"Hurry sickness" is definitely an occupational disease of entrepreneurs, but it's not incurable. Slow down, catch your breath, ask for some advice and help, and let your people do the talking. Wisdom and smart decisions are the rewards you get for listening when you would have much preferred to be talking.

There are two main reasons (apart from a continual lack of enough time and a constant lack of enough money) for the persistence of this particular problem and both can be addressed--maybe not entirely eliminated--if we just keep a couple of simple ideas in mind.

The first reason for the constant frenzy is that no one wants to slow down and be run over by their competitors and/or be left behind by their customers. Fast followers are lurking behind every bush just waiting to go to school on your example, create a faster, easier or cheaper solution, and quickly try to take your place. Customers' expectations are perpetually progressive and their demands will only continue to increase and ratchet up over time. You've got to be rapid and responsive, but not rabid.

It still pays to be paranoid and to try to keep constantly moving your products and services ahead (and iterating all the while), but speed alone isn't all that helpful if you're headed in the wrong direction. Not all movement (however frantic) is progress or even forward motion and too much trying can sap precious energy, waste critical and scarce resources, and take your eyes off the main chance. There's a right way to handle and prioritize these things, but a successful approach rarely starts with acting in the moment or reacting to the surrounding circumstances. It starts with listening and taking stock.

Looking for effective solutions without taking the time to carefully listen to your customers' problems is like working in the dark without a flashlight. A lot of coding and other activity may make your engineers feel better (it's a somewhat effective antidote for anxiety), but it's not likely to be moving the ball up the field or leading your business to a better result for your clients unless it's informed by actual and timely customer input. Making the time and taking the time to listen closely is not only smart business; it's the safest way to proceed because no one ever listened themselves out of a job.

The second reason that drives a lot of entrepreneurial excess has more to do with managing people's imagined perceptions rather than reality except that -- in the intense context of a startup -- perceptions and impressions are often long lasting and can quickly harden into unpleasant realities.

I'm a major advocate of leading by example and modeling the behavior that you expect from your team, but many entrepreneurs take this idea too literally and push it too far. They believe that, if you're too calm, too collected, or too unconcerned with today's crisis, your team members will think that you don't care or that you're not all-in. Ya gotta let them see you sweat so they'll know you've got some skin in the game right alongside theirs. And, to prove the point, they think they need to run around like crazy people all day long, too. They worry that, if they slow down or sit down, people will be suspicious of their commitment.

But the truth is that these are the very people trying to get your attention and also to get a word in edgewise. They'd line the floors with flypaper if they thought that would slow you down for a few seconds. They want to be heard and they want to be helpful and it's all up to you. Listening is the highest form of courtesy.

So give yourself a break, take some more time to listen, and--when you're drowning in a hundred contradictory suggestions and ideas--remember the cardinal rule: most of the time, it's far more important to listen to people's advice than it is to heed it.

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Topics: Insights