The smart CEO’s most undervalued skill

We tend to think of leaders as the ones doling out advice—but what most employees really need is a skillful listener

Woman listening in a meeting


Ram Charan has a curious job: He wanders the world, offering counsel to CEOs. On the day I happened to speak with him, he was on a train travelling across the northeast U.S. A day later, he’d be getting on a plane for India. He is 75 years old and this has been his life since 1977. He’s advised the leaders of GE, Verizon, Citicorp and DuPont. He arrives when beckoned, solves a problem and vanishes. He sounds like a comforting myth invented by CEOs—a visit from the management fairy. Charan, who recently visited Toronto for the CEO Global Network’s speaker series, says he owes his extraordinary career to a knack for “listening, searching for the viewpoints of different people, and learning. That’s what I do.”

It might sound like a humdrum skill set for a man who charges up to $20,000 per day (as reported in Fortune). But the ability to listen—something we’ve all been told to value since kindergarten—is actually a rare talent. A landmark study published in 1957 found people tend to forget one-half to one-third of what they hear within eight hours. And there is evidence this skill is particularly undervalued in the C-suite. In a 2014 survey, only 40% of sitting CEOs viewed an ability to communicate as a crucial skill for an executive, ranking far behind adaptability and strategic vision. Executives seem concerned about having an opinion on what needs to be done, not on hearing from others. Which is unfortunate. Being able to actively listen to someone, and ask effective follow-up questions, isn’t just about garnering knowledge to be better at your job. As Charan demonstrates, listening properly to another person can actually make them better at what they do.

By asking questions, leaders “can move away from command-and-control leadership to a dynamic in which your direct report grows through self-reflection,” Amy Jen Su wrote in the Harvard Business Review last year. Questions lead people to consider their own position—including assumptions they might not even know they’ve made. And as author David Rock observes in his book Quiet Leadership, advice can be challenged and debated; that’s far harder when people reach a conclusion based on their own answers to open-ended questions. Eric Schmidt, the former CEO of Google, says the benefit that he drew from having an executive coach was having someone in his life to say, “Is that what you really meant?”

Indeed, the idea that well-asked questions can lead to better management decisions has been formalized as “coaching,” with executive coaches like Charan acting as rock stars of the field. But stripped to its core, this field is based on the simple notion that listening to an individual’s problems and then following up with questions is an effective problem-solving tool. It’s certainly a cost-effective one: Participating in a three-day management training program increased the productivity of managers by 22.4%, according to a 1997 study by psychologist Gerald Olivero. In contrast, one-on-one coaching hiked productivity by 88%.

In our recent annual issue celebrating Canada’s Best CEOs, our panel named Mark Barrenechea of OpenText as Best New CEO of 2015. When he joined the company in 2012, he didn’t storm in with a plan already set. Instead, he focused on listening, since, in his words, “The employees know the business better than I do.” For companies looking to instill leadership skills in their executives and managers, that’s an excellent model to follow. Sit and listen for awhile like Ram Charan does and then, when you’re ready, ask a question. Or a dozen.