Does this sound familiar? You’re in a new leadership role. During your initial weeks, you embark on a listening tour, meeting with various team members and stakeholders to understand their perspectives, challenges, and aspirations. The tour proves insightful, enabling you to make informed decisions quickly and build trust with your teams early.
Listening tours during onboarding are a proven, well-known practice in leadership circles (tips, keys to success). However, many of us put this valuable tool away after we feel onboarded. In this post, I’ll explore the benefits of conducting listening tours beyond the onboarding phase and share some real world examples of how they’ve positively impacted leadership here at Flatiron.
Some well-known benefits of listening tours:
Building Trust: When you seek out input from your team members, it demonstrates that you value their input and opinions. This fosters a sense of trust and openness, creating a more collaborative and engaged work environment.
Uncovering Widespread, But Subtle, Pain Points: Hearing the same low-grade pain point across multiple teams helps you identify lurking problems that may be hindering productivity or morale. Taken in totality, these low-grade pain points can cost teams real time and money if not addressed.
Connecting with Front-line Knowledge: While high-level strategy and messaging are crucial, they might not always align with the realities faced by front-line team members. Listening tours offer an opportunity to get in touch with the day-to-day realities and identify disconnects or gaps in your understanding.
Diagnosing Cross-boundary Problems: Some issues transcend individual teams or departments, and the same root problem may present as different challenges depending on the team or organization. A listening tour allows you to identify such systemic problems and find solutions that resolve many disparate problems at once.
Looking at the above list of benefits, there are many times when I’ve found myself needing these exact same benefits well into my tenure in a role. Over the last several years I’ve had the opportunity to embark on a number of listening tours. Here are my top recommendations for when and where to leverage them even, or especially, after your onboarding phase:
When there’s agreement that something isn’t quite right, or a strategy just isn’t generating results, but no one can pinpoint the cause, a listening tour can help identify the underlying concerns and incentives at play and help you find a path forward.
Recently, there was a general feeling from Directors that our senior engineering ladder levels were driving teams towards short-sighted solutions. We had some anecdotal evidence, but no clear path forward. After listening to managers and senior engineers from across the company, we used their feedback and on-the-ground experiences to rework our senior engineering ladder levels to focus on outcomes over outputs and set clear mentorship expectations in place.
Ownership of New Responsibilities
If you’re tasked with overseeing a new domain or project, a listening tour allows you to get up to speed and gain valuable insights from those directly involved (who often have more expertise in the new area than you do).
Upon inheriting our “Technical Governance” program, I wanted to get a sense of how things had been going, and see what I was in for. By listening to both sides of the governance story, I was able to identify a need for stronger role definitions that would both; empower our senior engineers to unleash their full potential, while also providing directors a clear mechanism for assigning ownership of persistent and cross-cutting issues that had been lingering for years.
Following significant changes in your peer or organizational landscape, a listening tour can aid in understanding the new dynamics and challenges.
If your team or organization has hit a plateau, a listening tour can offer fresh perspectives to spur growth and innovation.
Flatiron’s SRE program had fallen into a rut. SREs across the company didn’t see how the work they were doing aligned with their peers, and the SRE leadership team couldn’t agree on a clear path forward. An enterprising member of the SRE leadership team was committed to making the program a success, so embarked on a listening tour. This gave them a company-wide perspective that has led to a new north star direction for the program.
While listening tours offer numerous benefits, there are several situations where they aren’t the most suitable approach.
Change Management or New Strategy Rollout: If you’re actively driving change or introducing a new strategy, it’s more effective to communicate centrally and frequently through emails, presentations, and group Q&A sessions.
Lack of Time or Authority: If you lack the time or authority to address the findings from a listening tour, going on one may inadvertently create frustration and hinder future trust-building efforts instead of helping. Either postpone your tour if it’s a time issue, or focus your attention on gaining leadership alignment if it’s an authority issue.
Predictable Outcomes: If you already know what you’ll find during a tour, consider alternative methods to prove your point. Try finding what data points decision makers are receptive to, such as productivity metrics or cost trends and overages.
I hope I’ve shown that listening tours don’t have to be exclusive to the onboarding phase; they’re an indispensable tool throughout a leader’s journey. They offer unique insights, build trust, and foster collaboration, things we need in various contexts.
In a world where everyone is canceling meetings, embracing the power of intentional listening can set you apart as a leader who truly values their team’s voice and perspective.