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What CEOs can learn from Justin Trudeau’s cross-Canada “listening tour”

The listening tour has become a standard activity for incoming CEOs. A tour of the front lines can be transformative—but only if it’s genuine

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau listens to an audience question during a town hall meeting in September 2016. (Geoff Robins/AFP/Getty)

On the off chance you haven’t noticed, Justin Trudeau wants to hear what you have to say. The Prime Minister is smack in the middle of a cross-country listening tour that will occupy much of his agenda for the rest of January. He has been meeting—and will meet—with Canadians of all stripes in coffee shops, hockey rinks and Legion halls from Bonavista to Vancouver Island. The stated goal? To hear his constituents’ concerns, directly from the source.

Of course, it’s a classic bit of political opportunism, and gives the PM a well-timed “I’m a man of the people” story to tell: instead of hobnobbing with the elite at the World Economic Forum in Davos or decamping to Washington for the inauguration of Donald Trump, he’s chatting with Jacques and Jane Canuck. The optics are great.

And while there’s been some grousing about the use of taxpayer cash to fund the trip, even staunch Trudeau opponents have to admit that paying attention to what people want is, in fact, the job of a leader. It’s hard to make the case against listening. This is as true for business as it is for politics, which is why we occasionally see executives doing the whistle-stop thing to get some direct intel—usually when taking a gig in a new industry, or country—about what’s really going on.

Marsha Smith, the incoming president of IKEA Canada, for instance, is starting her tenure by travelling to across the country with the goal of meeting personally with every one of the company’s employees. When Guy Laurence, the former CEO of Rogers Communications Inc. (which owns Canadian Business), took the reins of the telecom three years ago, he spent several months touring the country, talking to everyone from cable installers to call centre staffers to mid-level managers about their concerns.

There are real organizational benefits to a business when its leader approaches the people actually doing the work with open ears. It creates the impression that every employee matters in a very visceral way—something that can’t really be said for mission statements and staff surveys. A core tenet of employee engagement is that there are few things more motivating to most workers than being heard; it’s hard to imagine even the most jaded desk jockey wouldn’t feel a little bit chuffed when the person at the top of the org chart looks her in the eyes and asks her what she thinks. And it can be invigorating for the executives, too. In an interview late last year, Patrick Nangle—who recently took the helm at Vancouver ride-sharing co-op Modo after years of running Purolator—said one of the best things about his new job is that he now gets to spend a lot more time talking to people on the front lines. “When you rise through corporate ranks,” he said, “you get a little removed from the daily business—not necessarily for the good.”

The trouble for all leaders who engage in this particular type of fact-finding comes in deciding what to do with all that firsthand feedback. Action is, unquestionably, key—there are few things more disingenuous, or discouraging, than soliciting complaints you have no intention of working to fix. And often, listening tours can reveal hidden opportunities and alarming problems that genuinely deserve prompt action. But the truth is that not all complaints are valid, and not all ideas meritorious; it is the leader’s responsibility to make measured, informed decisions, and not to pander to data points of one. Successful listening is a matter of balancing executive purview with populist input, which adds a layer of complexity to any decision-making process.

This may be why so few leaders bother. (According to a 2012 survey of nearly 1,300 workers around the world commissioned by HR consultancy Development Dimensions International, only half of respondents said their bosses solicit input into solving problems; furthermore, 35% said their leaders rarely or never listen to their ideas.) But “it’s hard” is a pretty weak excuse for someone who is likely earning exponentially more than their average employee. There can be great merit in a listening tour (IRL or virtual), so long as it’s treated not as a feel-good photo op, but rather as an executive responsibility, with all the complexity that entails.