Thank you to leadership expert Roddy Millar who writes about the power of listening in this guest-blog. Roddy is Founder of Ideas for Leaders, editor of Developing Leaders magazine and is currently setting up the Scottish Leadership Institute.

Just before we were all spun into the new normal of lockdown, I was privileged to host an event at the RBS Conference Centre with Bob Chapman. Chapman is the CEO of Barry-Wehmiller, a $4bn conglomerate head-quartered in the Midwest of the USA. It is a business that he inherited in his late 20’s when his father died unexpectedly, and that was not in good shape.

Chapman had just completed his MBA in Chicago and was a trained accountant so ‘knew’ how to run a business, so he slashed costs and let people go – and things only got worse. After several years he had an epiphany. Sitting in the lobby of one of his plants one morning, he saw the staff coming in, laughing, chatting and energetic, and yet as they made their way through to the factory-floor he saw their shoulders droop and the energy dissipate. He realised that with employees so disengaged from their work, no matter how much he trimmed the costs and set tighter KPI’s, productive output was never going to be maximised. This was when the seeds of his people-centred leadership philosophy, which he now terms Truly Human Leadership, were sown. The business has since grown steadily for the last 25 years, acquiring over 100 companies with a 95% success rate – an almost unheard of figure; research suggests the mirror of that is nearer the norm, with some 70-90% of acquisitions failing.

At the heart of Chapman’s approach is a culture of respect and focused recognition that every employee is an individual. In his Midwest parlance, ‘that every employee is someone’s precious son or daughter’. This can come across as a bit folksy perhaps, but the two and a half decades of above average growth, the low turnover rate of employees and their commitment and energy does suggest that a focus away from just the pure metrics of the business – to include a real appreciation of the people doing the work – has a significant bottom line impact.

Perhaps the most relevant anecdote Chapman shared with us in February was when a plant was really struggling following the 2008 financial crisis, and rather than let some people go, everyone accepted reduced hours and lower pay – Chapman included. He likes to compare his staff to a family, and asks ‘If times were hard, would you get rid of one of your children, or would you all eat less?’ The questions is, of course, metaphorical. Few issues in organizations are as simple or black-or-white as this makes it seem; but the point is that good leaders adopt a human – or people-centred approach, they have a mindset that their staff are a resource of energy and innovation, often closer to both the problems and the solutions, than managers are, so, as Chapman does, give them the space and opportunity to bring their resourcefulness to benefit the organisation.

When Chapman joined us in February, no one had any concept of how the world was about to be turned on its head, but we now find ourselves in a situation as, if not more, testing and difficult than the 2008 financial crisis. It is a time to come together, and to leverage the strengths and ideas of the people we have around us. This will require leadership skill and adaptability, asking that leaders nurture and care for their staff as individuals in balance with running a structured and disciplined approach that all can understand – following the watchwords of the Scottish Leadership Institute: clear, structured and disciplined while fair, nurturing and caring, that sit at the heart of the good leadership we encourage.

The central concept of people-centred leadership is that ‘by optimising the individuals you optimise the organisation’. This requires leaders to understand the psychological aspects of human values, aspirations and needs; and promote empowerment, individuality, creativity and, crucially, self-leadership in those they lead.

This is much easier to say than to do. Leaders who use this approach effectively have, like all other skills we acquire, practiced getting better at it over a long period. But it has to start with a mindset shift, to appreciate that everyone has something valuable to bring to the party. While some may have more to bring than others, there are countless tales of staff who had previously been overlooked or ignored, often the quieter, more introverted ones, offering and leading solutions that radically improve outcomes, once they have been listened to, included and actively encouraged to do so.

The key to this is the ability of over-stretched, time-poor leaders to be able to stop and listen, really listen, to what others have to say. Clearly when the day seems already too short, this is a challenge, but once that culture of listening gains traction and people see that their ideas are valued and their circumstances understood, they will gain greater respect for their leaders, their work and themselves. From that foundation real growth will occur. Like Chapman’s employees, they will most likely cease to droop at the shoulders as they go into work, and start to embrace it with an energy and purpose not seen before.

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