This week’s blog can also be called Ethic’s Seismic Fracture, and here is why.
Wells Fargo Corporation opened fake bank accounts and fake credit card accounts, and charged its customers fees for accounts they did not know existed. These actions were both illegal and unethical and will have significant consequences for all those involved. It has all the trappings of a soap opera scandal and everyone is piling on adding his or her opinion wherever they can. But the story is not over and I think there is more to come.
This is an ethical failure of seismic proportions, and I will likely write about it in a future letter, but it is too soon because I don’t believe we know the whole story. It does offer an excellent segue into a related issue that I think is relevant to this story.
An article in the Harvard Business Review discussed the subject of listening and why this is such a critical skill for CEOs and other leaders. The author noted that a recent survey indicated as many as 25 percent of CEOs of major companies were either not good listeners or down right bad at it. The article went on to explain that this deficit at that level of leadership in a company can have severe consequences to the point of damaging the company. I think it’s safe to say the authors of that survey got that one right.
When such a deficit exists at the top level, imagine what the absence of this skill would mean in someone heading up a major business unit who must communicate and receive feedback from other business unit leaders. Information naturally flows up an organization making information transfers across the various organizations difficult at best, but it is made more difficult if the person in charge of one of these organizational structures does not listen well.
Think for a moment about a company much like Wells Fargo where employees at multiple levels in an organization are trying to convey important information up the chain of command; information that signals the train is going too fast and is about to go off the tracks, but that information doesn’t move up the organization. It meet resistance that shows itself in several ways. These can be procedures that require detailed explanations and lengthy reviews for no apparent reason, a set of well-established routines that do not conform to any written procedures or policies and which cannot be bypassed, and a culture that says to the average manager or employee “make your numbers first and save your complaints for later…” The transition from poor listening skills to an un-willingness to listen is a very short step.
One of the most important skills a leader has is the ability to listen. It is one of the ingredients of leadership that separates a leader from the rest of the crowd. Does this mean that you can’t achieve a leadership role without this skill? No, it doesn’t; a person can achieve a leadership role in a company or organization without this skill, but the chances of doing well in that position are significantly diminished without it.
The leaders at Wells Fargo failed in their leadership role. It is not the first company to suffer a severe failure of leadership, and it won’t be the last. As more time passes I think we will find there were ample opportunities to change the work ethic in that company, but the warning signs were ignored. I believe the failure to listen at various levels of the organization was the catalyst that sowed the seeds for disaster.
Successful leaders learn early in their careers that listening is part of a process designed to produce communication with others that works so that misunderstandings are reduced or eliminated. I encourage those who read my letter each month to read, or if you have already, then re-read Stephen R. Covey’s book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. He understood that listening, especially empathic listening requires training. Sometimes leaders trained themselves to achieve this level of listening, and sometimes leaders found someone to teach them how to achieve this level of listening.
In chapter 5 of his book Stephen Covey wrote that there are several principles of communication and he begins by saying “seek first to understand then to be understood”. I believe those principles are as valid today as when he wrote his book some 30 years ago.
The idea that you first needed to understand the person you were talking to was a completely foreign concept to the vast majority of people. In the business world of that era it was seen as an impractical point of view, and that view was not hard to understand in that most communication at time was directive in nature where the boss told his employees what to do and when he wanted it done and the employee was expected to figure it out.
I am firmly convinced that empathic listening as he wrote about has a sound ethical foundation and provides the best framework for building listening skills of the scope and reach that will separate you from the crowd, and sustain you in your role as a leader.
A strong ethical culture requires the right kind of action. Listening is an action and so it must be supported by the right kind of action to be successful.
Food for thought: Great readers and great listeners all have great work ethics. They work hard at what they do and they are devout about their reading and listening. (Andy Wilkinson)
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