Strategic Leadership Means Learning to Listen—Differently
Moving from operational to strategic leadership requires a different skill set.
By Mike Hoban
“I’m listening now with a different ear.” That insightful statement was told to me by one of my coaching clients recently and I think it cogently describes an important difference between strategic and operational leadership.
This leader was promoted about six months ago from an operational mid-level role to a more strategic role—one where he is now responsible for a group of leaders who were his peers, and which now requires a heavier mix of strategic thinking and doing. His “different ear” statement was the result of purposeful behavior in his new role and yet was still a work in progress. Leadership is always a work in progress.
“I’m listening now with a different ear.”
Successful operational leaders are usually good with details and are good diagnosticians and problem solvers when issues arise. They’re fixers. They ask probing questions to get to the heart of the matter—the root cause—and to generate successful solutions. Of course, the best operational leaders are not “Lone Rangers”—they engage with others in the problem solving and decision-making process. But they address what is in front of them, problem by problem.
When the scope of a leader’s role includes strategic territory and that person is responsible for a group of operational leaders, it’s no longer sufficient to simply ensure that individual problems get addressed effectively. Rather, a more strategic mindset is required.
The leader I’m referring to focused more on discerning whether there were patterns or commonalities at work across problems and across geographical and organizational boundaries. He was listening for a higher order and perhaps a more nuanced set of root causes, not just in the world of “things” but also in the more abstract world of roles, alignment, and priorities.
That sounds easy on paper. It’s not so easy in reality. Leaders get recognized, rewarded, and ultimately promoted for being good problem solvers. For being good fixers. They likely have a passion for the detective work necessary for effective problem solving. It’s enormously gratifying to be responsible for the Archimedes “aha” moment in the bathtub. Pivoting away from that skill set requires discipline.
Listening with a different ear also includes gaining insights from what one does NOT hear. In a classic Sherlock Holmes story, the great sleuth draws conclusions about the disappearance of a race horse based on the significance of a dog not barking. Hence, the absence of a point or element of a thought process by others can also lead to insights in the strategic picture.
The “different ear” can also come into play with how a leader listens to how his subordinates ask questions and diagnose issues. The nature of our questions can reveal much about how we try to make sense of the world and effective senior leaders listen for the quality of thinking from others. It can provide clues about potential for higher leadership roles.
The bottom line is that while hearing is an autonomic physiological act, effective listening is an intentional act of leadership, and one that can be developed with practice.
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Mike Hoban is a senior consultant for DDI who works with executives in many different industries. He lives right off Lake Michigan and takes way too many pictures of lake sunsets.
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