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Why Leadership Means Listening

Today's employees want to be asked for feedback and they want to be heard. Here are four tips to help you become a better listener

Over the past several weeks, I interviewed a half-dozen well-known business leaders for a new book on communications. One theme came up repeatedly—great leaders are great listeners. Extraordinary men and women solicit feedback, listen to opinions, and act on that intelligence. Listening skills have always been important in the workplace, but are even more so when dealing with young employees. Recently researchers at Hudson, a staffing and executive search firm, conducted a survey of 2,000 employees across multiple generations.

The differences they found were striking. One-quarter of "Generation X" employees (born between 1965 and 1979) considered it very important to get feedback from their boss at least once a week, if not every day, while only 11% of "traditionalists" (born between 1928 and 1945) desired that level of communication. Clearly, times have changed and so have employee attitudes. Today's employee wants to be asked for feedback and he wants to be heard. Here are some tips for becoming a better listener:

1. Fix your gaze.

The other week I asked a newspaper reporter who he considered the most inspiring person he had ever met. He answered Bill Clinton without hesitation. When I asked him why, this reporter told me he had met Clinton after the former President gave a speech in South Africa. According to the reporter, "Clinton looked me in the eyes and seemed to have a genuine interest in what I was saying. His gaze never left me. He made me feel like the most important person in the room at the time, and Microsoft founder Bill Gates was standing right next to us!"

This reporter meets plenty of famous people, yet Clinton made an impression on him because in Clinton he found someone who seemed to show a genuine interest in what he was saying. I have never met Clinton but I have heard this before. I recall a conversation with former Clinton Chief of Staff Leon Panetta, who also told me that Clinton had a way of making people feel as though they were the most important in the room.

When you speak to someone, maintain eye contact with that person. How many times have you been talking to someone who glances over your shoulder as if he is looking for someone more interesting? It doesn't leave you with a positive impression, does it? Fix your gaze on the person speaking.

2. Ask questions in response to a question.

Great listeners ask questions in response to a question asked of them. When you bump into employees in the hallway on Monday morning and ask about their weekend, they are likely to respond, "Great. We took the kids to breakfast on Sunday. How was yours? Were you and Jane able to enjoy this great weather?" By asking questions in response to a question, you show respect and a genuine interest in the well-being of the other person.

Just as eye contact makes people feel important, asking questions makes them feel as though their opinions count. In a business setting, ask questions that move the conversation forward and that give you another opportunity to listen to the speaker. And don't interrupt when your question is being answered!

3. Incorporate feedback.

Great listeners solicit feedback and, more important, take action based on that feedback even if the action is as simple as responding in an e-mail, "Great suggestion, Bob. I'll forward your idea to the appropriate person."

I have interviewed four people recently whose companies have been ranked in local and national publications as "best places to work." Each one of them has a reputation for soliciting opinions and taking action based on what they learn. These men and women will make a point of meeting with different departments and employees, asking their opinion on everything from advertising campaigns to company operations, even the new paint in the lobby. The more these leaders ask for opinions, the more comfortable people feel offering it.

4. Be available for the tough questions.

One man who runs one of the fastest-growing franchises in the country told me that when he addresses franchise owners, he will let them know that he wants to hear the toughest questions first. "If you have any questions that you think might make me uncomfortable, ask those first," he tells the people he meets. When other franchise owners see that the leader invites tough questions instead of shrinking from them, they all have more respect for him.

In his new book, What Got You Here Won't Get You There, executive coach Marshall Goldsmith writes, "80% of our success in learning from other people is based upon how well we listen (see, 1/8/07, "Now Go Out and Lead!"). In other words, success or failure is determined before we do anything."

Goldsmith calls listening the one skill that separates the great from the near-great. He makes an important observation. Goldsmith points out that when we're on a date we focus intently on what the other person has to say. The same goes when talking to our boss or pitching a new client. The difference, Goldsmith says, is that the super-successful maintain that level of focus all the time. Be a super-success by listening more and talking less.

New Book Announcement

As I mentioned at the beginning of this column, I'm pleased to announce that I'm working on a new book to be published later this year. Please send me an e-mail if you would like to be kept up to date or have any suggestions of individuals who should be featured in the book—men and women who inspire through their communications. Send me an e-mail directly at

Carmine Gallo is a Pleasanton, Calif. communications coach and author of the book, Fire Them Up! (John Wiley Sons; October, 2007).

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