SEVERAL years ago, I met a chief executive officer (CEO) who had been hired to turn around a company that was foundering on the rocks.

He was an intelligent and seasoned executive, and had arrived with a detailed set of proposals to rescue the business from the brink.

In his first town hall meeting, he repeatedly promised to listen and rebuild.

Then, for the next two months, he slashed and burned his way through the organisation. The workforce was cut by almost half.

It was the appropriate strategy to adopt at that time. But soon after the dust settled, the remaining executives did a surprising thing. They rebelled.

They had stayed on because of the new CEO's promise to listen and rebuild. But he had not kept his promise. Instead, he had remained as deaf as in the slash and burn stage.

It was not long before the board decided to show the CEO the door.

The importance of listening

The story above does not illustrate whether a scalpel or chainsaw should have been used to fix shrinking sales and profits.

Rather, it shows what can happen when a CEO fails to listen to key people both inside and outside the organisation.

Effective listening skills would have enabled the CEO to build and sustain trust with the staff, seek out different points of view and deepen his insight into the company - all of which would have then led to clear thoughts for the rebuilding phase.

As leaders move higher in positions of authority and responsibility, they have development needs that are linked to their listening skills.

The higher they are in the decision hierarchy, the more input of information and knowledge is required, and hence, the more the decision-maker must develop his listening ability.

Listen by choice

Communications coach Carmine Gallo, who wrote an article entitled Why Leadership Means Listening in the Jan 13 issue of BusinessWeek, said that one theme that regularly came up in her interviews with business leaders was that "great leaders are great listeners".

Yet, listening well is increasingly one of the many difficult things for leaders in transition to do - because of the daily demands placed on them.

Some executives do not have the time or interest to listen, while others may avoid saying they are listening so as not to suggest that they do not know what is going on.

Employee attitudes have also changed. Today, they want to be asked for feedback - and to be heard.

Listening is like many new management fads. Some leaders in transition like to use the word "listening" without understanding what it means, so long as it gives the impression of "connectedness". Others actually mean "hearing".

Hearing is not listening. In hearing, one is aware of the words but may not process them.

In listening, one needs to understand the words, reflect and think clearly, and only then embark on clear talk. We hear by chance but listen by choice.

When a leader hears by chance, his views are easily swayed. He may hold conflicting opinions, but is unable to come up with clear thoughts - because he lacks focus and direction.

A leader who listens by choice develops clear thought because he is not judgmental.

He pauses to think. He questions what is being said. He separates facts from opinions.

He has an open mind on divergent views and is ready to adjust his position when prudent to do so.

He is assertive without being commanding. He stands by his beliefs and values, and provides sufficient facts and figures to support his arguments.

The difference is that he allows others to share their views, but he eventually influences them through clear talk.

The executive and the intern

A successful executive known for his expertise in turning around companies was mentoring a young intern. This is how their conversation went:

Intern: What tip can you give me on leadership?

Executive: One word.

Intern: What is that one word?

Executive: Execution.

Intern: How do you know if you have executed well?

Executive: One word.

Intern: And what is that new one word?

Executive: Decisions.

Intern: How does one know if a decision is the correct one?

Executive: One word.

Intern: Yeah, I know, it's another one word. Just tell me the one word!

Executive: Thought.

That response finally stopped the intern in his tracks. Finally, he decided to paraphrase what he had heard so far.

Intern: So, to execute well, one needs right decisions. Right decisions come from having clear thought. Now, do tell me, how can one develop clear thought?

Executive: One word.

Intern: Oh, goodness, I hope this is the last one word. All right, what is it?

Executive: Listen.

By this time, the intern was tearing his hair out. With his last shred of patience, he nearly screamed: "Sir, can you tell me your one final word? How can one learn to listen well?"

The executive smiled, and said without hesitation: "Practise."