Mark Hinderliter

By Mark Hinderliter

Listening Strategies as a Competitive Edge

Listening Strategies as a Competitive Edge 150 150 Mark Hinderliter

Good leaders have listening skills, great leaders have listening strategies.

Several years ago I was working with the CEO of a national specialty retail chain.  One of the questions I asked her was “As the CEO of your company, what is the most important thing you do?”  The answer was short and direct.  “Listening.”  

One CEO’s approach to listening.

I was a little taken back by the simplicity of the answer, so I said, “tell me more about that.”   She went on to say that when she visited stores she listened to her associates and her customers in very intentional ways.  When business was slow, she would take some associates to the food court for refreshments and conversation.  As part of the conversation, this CEO would always ask two questions.  The first was “What could we do to make working here an even better experience for you (associates)?”  The second question was, “What product ideas do you have that you think our customers would really like?”

This CEO did the same thing with her customers.  Customers usually came in small groups, so when they finished up, she would invite some to the food court and have a similar conversation.  “As customers, what could we do to make this an even better shopping experience?”  Again, as with the associates, ‘What products would you like to see in our stores that would interest you?”   What she was doing was conducting informal focus groups as part of her store visits. While this company has an R & D department, the CEO said that many of their new products came from these discussions with associates and customers.

The epiphany for me in this conversation was this.  Good leaders have listening skills, great leaders have listening strategies.  This CEO was very intentional and strategic in her approach to listening to associates that take care of their customers, and the customers themselves.  The benefits of these listening strategies were improved operations, employee engagement, and product innovation.  Pretty big dividends for a simple-to-execute, but powerful strategy.

What Strategies Can You Employ?

What listening strategies can you implement to better understand your employees and customers?   In addition to old-fashioned one-on-one meetings with the intention of listening, I once implemented what I call “skip level meetings,” for people that reported to my direct reports.  The inspiration for this strategy was watching a company executive who was the “Emperor with no clothes.”  He seemed to be the only person that was unaware of the deep dissatisfaction in the ranks of two functions he managed.  His problem was that he only interacted with the his direct reports, the Vice Presidents of those two functions.  They were the problem.  Both were hard-ass, know-it-all bosses who managed by intimidation.  Finally, after getting wind of the problems, both VPs were let go.  But not until much damage was done in those functions.  So, I resolved not make that mistake and to do these skip-level meeting with people a couple of levels removed from me.  I was completely transparent with my leaders about what I was doing and why.  There were four benefits from these meetings.  1)  People felt respected and heard.  2)  I learned more about what was really happening.  3). I heard a lot of good ideas people had.  4).  It helped me keep myself and my direct reports accountable.  A win all the way around.

Another listening strategy I have become a big fan of are pulse surveys.  Not the mind-numbing surveys of 50 questions that companies can’t seem to digest, so they end up doing nothing with the data.  Image the cynicism from all who put the time in to do the survey.   These pulse survey platforms provide the tools to ask employees very targeted questions, one or two at a time.  “Are you getting the support you need in this virtual work environment”  “What would help you feel more connected?”  “What ideas do you have to improve our customer service?”   How well does leadership live up to our core values?  Now you have real-time feedback you can work with.

An example of a listening strategy with customers is Enterprise, the car rental company who is the largest privately held company in the U.S.  Enterprise is a company that I really respect.  They have a simple two question survey for their customers, which I have taken many times.   1) On a 1-5 scale, how would you rate your experience with Enterprise?  2)  Will you use us again?  Short and sweet, but a great predictor of repeat business.  Enterprise takes this data so seriously, the results are part of their executive compensation program.  So, what easy-to-execute listening strategies can you employ, and what advantages could they create?

Know this, your leadership matters. Keep learning, growing and developing your leaders!


Dr. Mark Hinderliter works with clients to develop people strategies that align with their business strategy.  His experience as a Senior Vice President for a billion-dollar global enterprise along with a PhD in Organization and Management are a unique fusion of real-world experience and academic credentials.

Mark is a United States Army Veteran. He is the creator of the leadership program Diamond Quality Leadership: Leadership Skills for Today’s Workforce. His superpowers are Executive Coaching and Leadership Development.


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