We all know the story about change: it’s the only constant, it’s happening faster than ever, if we don’t like it then we will like being obsolete even less.
It’s all true. But, most of us and most of our companies haven’t really internalized the implications. If any of these thoughts on change are to be meaningful, we best change the way we approach this not-so-new world order, not merely acknowledge that it exists. We have to change ourselves.
I was working with a company recently that operates call centers to provide direct support to their customers. As we talked about growth and change in their company more broadly, we explored if and how they were, or could be, learning from these front-line employees. What were they hearing directly from customers that the company really needed to understand?
We’ve all heard the saying about the importance of having “an ear to the ground” so we can sense imminent changes in our work environments and markets. Who has their ears to the ground more than those meeting our customers where they are? Dealing with their problems? Frustrations?
Too many of our people on the front-lines think they don't have the power or position to speak up in our organizations and don’t have the ability to create change in their own work. As a result, many of us are missing a huge opportunity to become more resilient, adaptable, and creative organizations. When we don’t listen to our customers and the employees who interface directly with them, we run the risk of missing indicators of emergent change in our markets, products, and even broader society that can lead our products, services and companies toward their next iteration.
Through our discussion, this company realized that their listening to front-line employees was spottier than they would like - that the value of listening to employees was more ad hoc and leader-by-leader than a consistent, strategic value of the firm. The implications from this discussion and this kind of organizational self-awareness are pretty vast.
How do we as an organization demonstrate listening as a value? How do we train our people and set management expectations? How do we hire and promote our people to support such a strategic value? How do we intentionally recognize good listening as good leadership? How do we openly celebrate the knowledge that our people at all levels are stepping up and sharing with us?
People at all levels of our companies need formal and informal outlets to provide feedback, ask questions, and share ideas for solutions. This is just strategically smart. It’s not merely about being nice to our employees. Not only will listening to our employees make our company more resilient and adaptive, it will also make for happier employees and better products and services. When they know their ideas and insights are respected (even if not always acted upon), our people will more actively identify customer patterns and frequent issues that we may never see, and solve them in ways we may never have thought of. They will own their work.
So, instilling a culture of listening that is supported by training, accountability, and processes up and down our organization is paramount to leading emergent change –the change we otherwise may not see coming.