by Brian Turner — December 11, 2020

To put humans at the center of change, you have to put on your listening ears to truly understand them.

My favorite client, Eva, once gave me a magic wand and a pair of Mickey Mouse ears.  She told me you can’t wave the magic wand without the Mouse Ears on.  I asked, “why not?” She said, “you can’t create magic in the world if you don’t have your Big Ears on.”  When setting strategy for a customer or my own company, I remember her words loudly. I ask myself if I can actually hear my customer and my people in strategic choices I’m about to make…and this has helped me learn how to take a human-centered approach to leadership. Here are a few rules of thumb that I follow:

Create a System of Listening to Inform Strategy and Execution.

During times of crisis, we often lead with action – a desire to think 3 chess moves ahead and be decisive and clear in what we do next. So, what happens if you lead with listening rather than action? In the first month of the pandemic, we created a system of listening across our customer base. I asked my teams to focus on asking our customers questions that shaped our understanding of their reality to help understand our own reality.  At a base level, these questions were often as simple as “How are you doing? How’s your team doing? What are you hopeful for? What scares you? What are you keeping your eye on?” These aren’t very strategic questions, but rather very human ones. We developed a weekly cadence of taking the pulse of over 100 customers across twelve geographies to help understand what was most important to them, which then informed what was important to our business. Along the way, it created a groundswell of empathy and a new level of connections between our people and our customers. It allowed our people to be there for our customers’ human needs, while also informing how we adapt our strategies. 

Know that Feedback Informs Clarity and Clarity Informs Action.

In the face of uncertainty, the drive for clear and decisive action often stifles conversation and adaptability. But adaptive strategy requires gathering information, making some hypotheses, running tests, gathering feedback and adjusting. In the early stages of the pandemic, we believed our healthcare provider customers would need a lot of consulting help drawing from a lot of our operational expertise – given the instant pressure put on the U.S. healthcare system. Our healthcare leaders knew they needed to represent the voices of our healthcare customers – to really understand what was happening in their world. We used that feedback early on to realize the financial and operational strain being put on healthcare providers in those early days. We changed our strategies with healthcare providers, which meant providing less operational solutions – but more helping hands wherever they needed it. With this feedback, we also quickly realigned our resources to other industries and customers that needed our solutions and high-end expertise. This quick pivot, happening over a few short weeks, happened successfully because our leaders learned more from customers, gave us feedback on how to best to help organizations we care about, and quickly adapted to what we needed to do next. 

Listen and Understand When Your Leaders Need to Take Risks – Even in Challenging Times.

If you’re listening to your leaders, and they come to you to place a bet, you have to be with them. You have to know how much space you can give for risk taking if they need it. It’s hard when your business is not in growth mode. And there are times when your plays won’t result in wins. But, are you and your leaders proud of the decisions you’ve made? Will your colleagues be proud of your decision? Get comfortable with listening and be willing to give your people the space and autonomy they need to make challenging decisions and take risks during times of transition and change.

Understanding is a Two-Way Street. Let Your People See You’re Human Too.  

Let your people see what it’s like to make tough decisions. Show them the process you go through. What happened in the moment, who made which decision, what questions were asked throughout. Get comfortable with your people seeing your blind spots. It allows them to understand you as a human, and align and heal after a particularly hard time as an organization. And do this through multiple voices to offer different perspectives and illustrate how your values as an organization and a person inform the decisions that have been made. Allow for continued dialogue so you can continue the loop of empathy with your teams.

Empathy and human-centered leadership have never been more important. Take a good look at how you’re interacting with your customers and your people, and make adjustments where necessary. It will only improve your business and your state of mind.