Become a Chief Listening Officer

The higher leaders climb up the organizational ladder, the easier it is for them to become disconnected from the rest of the ministry or organization. Leaders’ schedules are filled with meetings—meetings with governing boards, executive teams, serving on other boards, many which require another big time-claimer: travel. 

When a leader does get some precious uninterrupted desk time, often the last thing they want to do wander through the office to find out what’s going on. The end result is less input and interaction with the front-line team members. Ironically, the time demands on leadership can weaken a leaders overall leadership effectiveness.

What’s worse, when leaders do give more attention to their executive communication role, they don’t do it very well. Although they are effective at communicating with their top lieutenants who are already likely to understand and own the leader’s vision, the deeper one looks into the organization, the fuzzier things get. Middle-level managers and front-line workers all too often do not comprehend how to relate their daily work to the larger ministry or organizational strategy. Frankly, they often aren’t even aware of what the strategy is. Leaders have no one to blame but themselves in this kind of situation.

Former Proctor Gamble’s A. G. Lafley offers a solution. He made it a practice to constantly remind his employees of these four important words: “The consumer is boss.” He was an outstanding listener to both his workers and customers. John Ryan, president of the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL), says, “He knew that the best way to get good ideas was to ask for input and listen to it carefully. Like him, we need to be the chief listening officers in our organizations—every day. That’s not an easy task, since listening can be a great struggle for even the best-intentioned among us. It is, however, something we can improve at with effort, and frankly, we don’t have much choice.”

Michael Hoppe, a former CCL faculty member, trained hundreds of corporate and has distilled his advice for how leaders can become better listeners down to six steps:

1. Pay attention. Turn off your cell phone and or handheld wireless device. Gain and maintain eye contact. Engage by nodding your head to let others know you understand. Without understanding, the conversation isn’t working for anyone. 

2. Suspend judgment. Withhold any comments or criticisms until the others have fully explained their view on a situation. A leader can show empathy without agreeing with a differing point of view.

3. Reflect. Restate the others’ key points to verify you understand them. This will often reveal that you have missed something.

4. Clarify. Encourage others to expand their ideas by asking open-ended questions. This can be as simple as asking, “What are your thoughts about how we might best address this matter?”

5. Summarize. Briefly restate core issues addressed by the other person. This is neither agreeing nor disagreeing; it is simply closing the loop in a way that assures everything has been put on the table.

6. Share. Now that you know and understand the other person’s position or view, it is time to let them hear your ideas and suggestions. This is what makes a good conversation a great conversation. 

(Every CEO Must Be a Chief Listening Officer by John Ryan)  

adapted by Gary D. Foster
Previous articleThe Power of Story to Cast Vision
Next articleQualities of a Successful Leader'
Gary D. Foster founded and leads Gary D. Foster Consulting, a marketing and management service specializing in helping religious product companies and ministries discover and optimize new revenue streams and to better leverage existing ones. He served as an executive with Focus on the Family, where he managed their award-winning book publishing operation and $110 million direct-mail fundraising division. He also spent 12 years with the Christian Booksellers Association, where he served as President and CEO of CBA Service Corporation. He also served in executive product development and marketing positions with Cook Communications Ministries, Moody Press and Moody Magazine. Learn more about Gary at