Don’t Be a Hippo

I’m a sucker for a good analogy and I recently heard one that’s stuck with me. In fact, it’s helping me shift my approach to how I communicate with and lead my team. While at a powerful and intensive Stanford Graduate School of Business executive training event, my fellow attendees and I were instructed not to behave like hippos when we returned to our respective companies across the globe.


Then I got it. As we were reminded, a hippo has a really big mouth but small ears. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I had unfortunately adopted some hippo-like habits: talking at people, not with them. I had allowed ambitious goals to pull me off track. I was regularly speaking to my talented team members, but doing less listening. I recognized that, at times, I was acting like someone with a big mouth and small ears.

I’ve now come to understand that there’s a distinct difference between being a strong speaker and being a highly effective communicator. While I’ve committed to continually honing my public speaking abilities and I have no trouble doing TV interviews or presenting at leadership conferences, I had not been as focused on sharpening my listening skills.

I am now.

I’ve spent the last few months leading with intentionality. I’ve made a conscious effort to improve my active listening abilities at the office. It’s taken some practice and patience, but this approach is already paying big dividends. Here are my top takeaways from my “being all ears” experiment. I hope this advice will help you to be a more attuned and successful leader:

Ask your employees smart questions (and then shut up)
Are you regularly helping your team members reach “a-ha” moments?  I’ve made it part of my routine to have daily check-ins with my firm’s financial advisors. I walk around the office and connect with folks one-on-one. In many cases, we keep it to less than five minutes.

But far from perfunctory powwows, these mini-meetings can be incredibly powerful. To work, the other person should do 90 percent of the talking. And I may only ask several questions. Examples include:

  • What are your top priorities — and obstacles — right now?
  • What defines success for you today?
  • How can I help you?

By prioritizing interaction I no longer need to wait for lagging indicators; I have my finger on the pulse. And I’m able to quickly offer encouragement, support as well as ideas on how to potentially navigate the issues of the day.

I recently posed just one simple question to an advisor who outlined a challenge: “Given your timeline and your many skills and talent, is this really the task you need to focus on today?” He took a moment to think and then corrected course and devised a plan to tackle a more important (and rewarding) objective.

The bottom line: My employees are seeing that I care and they know that I have their backs.

Nip problems in the bud

An additional side effect of listening more and establishing more open lines of communication is that I can easily spot issues and undercurrents before they have the opportunity to spread and fester. If there is uncertainty, conflict or confusion about priorities that could chip away at our team unity or productivity, I’m able to immediately step in and offer transparent communication. Clarity comes quickly — and straight from the top.

Solicit staff feedback

OK, so you’ve made a change, you’ve shed your hippo skin and you’re listening more. Wonderful! But how do you know if the approach is making a difference with your employees? Well, you have to invite feedback. I’ve started posing this query at select times: “How am I doing as a leader and how can I improve?”

But it’s not enough to merely ask the question; you have to truly want the answer. And that means you have to provide a setting where the employee feels safe enough to respond truthfully. You can set the stage for mutual authenticity by steadily building trust. And the aforementioned daily check-ins are a fantastic place to start. As Winston Churchill once said: “Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak. Courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.”

Would I spend a day in a canoe with you?
Ask this simple question. Gain profound insight.

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