Justin Ricklefs


The Listen First Leader

One part of my job I really enjoy is being exposed to leaders, dreamers, doers, and thinkers of all types. We get the privilege of being invited into the deeply brave and intimate parts of a brand’s story, and one (of many) benefits I personally receive is the unknowing mentorship they offer me.

Such was the case a couple weeks ago on a call. Interviewing two leaders of a massive facility with mega millions in revenue and multiple hundreds of team members.

They are in the middle of a project, and transformation, that is much more complex than I could imagine. Budget constraints, project timelines, supply chain issues, multiple contractors, production requirements, and the list goes on. Not to mention the human element tied throughout the whole thing.

“How in the world do you navigate and prioritize what to focus on every day?” I asked them.

“Well, for us, it’s always really simple (my note – aren’t nearly all memorable, helpful, leadership concepts), even if we think we know the path forward as leaders, and even if it’s really clear to us, we always begin with asking questions to our people, and then really listening to them.”

They went on to describe how this played out, how their team brought new ideas to the table, how they challenged some assumptions, how they bought in deeply, how they rehearsed and orchestrated the implementation, and ultimately, how the project was executed without a hitch.

“Honestly, the final plans weren’t drastically different than what we assumed they’d be, we likely could have just given them a project plan, told them how it was going to go, and demanded they fall in line. But that’s not how we do things around here because we deeply value our people and their perspectives. And plus, it’s not as effective of a strategy anyway, because when people are invested in the process, they’re invested in the outcomes as well.”

Their story has really challenged my thinking.

And it’s forced me to wrestle with my own ego, assumptions, and stories I tell myself about effective ways forward for teams, businesses, and even personal relationships. Especially when the environment mentioned above is one that is far more of a production, systems, and next (wo)man up in line type of an environment.

If it’s the most effective and empathetic there, isn’t it even more critical in a knowledge-worker culture to be a listen first leader?

To ask your team more questions?

To give them the floor to share their perspective?

To allow for deviations and pushback?

To give time and space for patience and contemplation?

To listen for the sake of listening, not just for a break in the conversation to jump back in?

There seems to be some work ahead for me in this area, I’m listening.

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