During my time at one public service organisation in Singapore, I recognised one day that I had a problem calling my staff by their name. Even worse, I did not know anything about my more junior level officers. Of course, I met my managers and deputies quite often. But, some of the executives I did not have any chance to engage in a chat with.
I decided to implement “One Hour with Amy” and asked my PA to help me disciplining myself by planning Amy-time in my calendar on every single day. We encouraged my staff to drive the agenda. I was dedicated to listen to them. This was a real stretch, and often I ended up taking my more than hundred emails home at the end of the day. However, I felt that I had started to have quality conversations with my staff.
I was not looking forward to meeting Gerald, one of my longest serving officers, because I had a hidden agenda. During our conversation, I wanted to convince him to take the package I had prepared for him and go into early retirement. And, I did not really feel happy about that although it made organisational sense.
After knocking politely, Gerald entered my office. Following some warming up, Gerald took the initiative and started carefully “Director, I wanted to talk to you for quite a while.”
Since I did not really feel good about sending this nice colleague – who could have been my father – into retirement, I was very happy that he started bringing up his points first.
He proceeded “I wanted to talk to you about my work. I think I am not really needed any longer as a driver. As I can see that less and less documents are sent by paper. I assume most of them are sent via email. This is much faster and wastes less paper. It looks like this is the new way.”
I thought for myself that he had actually given me a perfect introduction into my offer to him.
Learning my Lesson – Listen
He went on “I see the people in our Registry Department being very busy scanning documents to transform paper into electronic files. I want to learn this. I think I can. Then I can really be of better use for our organisation.”
I felt ashamed. It had certainly taken some courage for Gerald to come up with this idea and to bring it to me. This was an eye-opener for me. Why did I not think of that in the first place? Was it because I did not know my staff? Unfortunately.
One of my junior officers just taught me change management, job redesign and staff development in one simple request. If I had not had that conversation with Gerald, I would have made a decision that I might have regretted, or worse still, I might have created unnecessary stress on Gerald, his colleagues, and his family.
Of course, Gerald’s idea made sense and got implemented – not only for him but for others, too. Needless to say, that Gerald really appreciated me supporting his request. He was so happy about his new role and his new value-adding responsibility, that for many years he greeted me at Chinese New Year with poems written by himself.
And, I am forever grateful for him teaching me an important lesson about leadership.
If you want to lead people, start with developing the capability for listening to them (Figure 2). If you sincerely listen to them, you truly understand what drives and motivates them. Only this enables you to do the best for them and align their contribution to organisational needs. That is leadership.
Daniel Kim’s core theory of success is built upon deep listening and reminds us of the importance of the quality of relationship for quality of results. The quality of conversations leads to quality of relationships. As the quality of relationships rises, the quality of thinking improves, leading to an increase in the quality of actions and results. Achieving high-quality results has a positive effect on the quality of relationships, creating a reinforcing engine of success.
2020 marks the start of a new decade. Let’s start the year with holding quality conversations with our staff.
And your loved ones deserve this, too.