So You Want the President's Job...

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Getting caught listening may not be indispensable for a great career or rapid advances in management, but it is the common denominator in promotions to the top job.

How do people get promoted to CEO? Why will one of your colleagues bepassed over on the road to the presidency of your company when another,with seemingly no better qualifications, gets the promotion? Is there acommon denominator to these career advancements--one you can use toimprove your business? To find out, we surveyed presidents, CEOs, board members, and top executives in a variety of companies and nonprofit organizations, asking them what they looked for in a presidential promotion and then asking them what actually occurred in their firms.

Clearly, the skills that would be desirable in the founder of a start-up would not be the same as those a board of directors would look for in choosing the head of a more mature company. More often than not new presidents are selected from within the firm--a promotion without a visible search. We focused our attentions there. From among our findings we can present several suggestions for executives, including:

- what you can do to increase your chances of promotion to CEO;

- how, as CEO, you can make it easier for someone to advance (and thereby gain an even better and more productive manager for yourself);

- how you might increase your effectiveness as president;

- steps to take as a founder to increase your ability to manage a larger company; and

- some ways to save time in getting results.

All these suggestions are methods of managerial self-improvement that stem from one crucial quality. The common characteristic we discovered--the "magic" factor shared by all the top managers we interviewed--is a pervasive and quietly effective way of catching the high regard of those who make CEOs. Better yet, it is a trait that can be learned and adapted.

The Most Common Denominator

In talking to executives, we found that the common denominator for being promoted was not skill or experience. You probably know several examples of top executives put in place who possessed neither.

You also might expect that most CEOs come from specific disciplines. We found, however, that more than one or two jobs lie on the path to the top. All the CEOs had strong line experience, but not just in, say, sales or manufacturing. Although most human resource managers or CIOs will not get promoted, executives from finance, sales, marketing, manufacturing, service, or engineering are all equal candidates. Line experience, however, still is not the common denominator.

The common factor that differentiated the successful candidates for promotion was this: The executive was seen as a person who listens. Colleagues, bosses, and the people who worked for such managers all seemed to share this perception.

The key is not that these executives listen, but that others often perceive them as good listeners. Many managers may listen well, but those interacting with them may not actually realize it. We use the phrase "get caught listening" to highlight the difference. It is not a pejorative. Some people are noticeable when they listen. "Getting caught" is in addition to just listening; it is a behavior above and beyond what we generally consider the norm.

Seeing Listening in Action

If you seek promotion to the CEO's job, or if you are evaluating someone for it, the best chance for success comes when others think of you or the candidate as a listener. Self-perception is not important; what others notice is.

Consider the recent transition of presidents at Tandem Computers and UB Networks, both of which are located near San Jose, California. Roel Pieper left the chief executive position at UB to become CEO of Tandem, and Chris Brennan was promoted from vice president and CFO at UB to its president. Both appointments came quickly and without a visible executive search--just the way many would like to get such a job.

One would be hard pressed to find a common factor that links these two men but still separates them from the senior executives who were passed over. Although they both know their markets and their businesses, they have very different temperaments, styles, and backgrounds.

However, people who deal directly with the new presidents have noticed their ability to listen--and be observed doing it. Sam Boyd, a vice president who has reported to each man, remarks, "You can tell Roel by the time he gives. He clearly interacts with you on the material." As for Brennan, Boyd states, "Chris [can be seen] listening carefully to customers, field people, employees. He is clearly working at listening." Each person we interviewed who knows these men maintained that a trait common to both is the visibility of their knack for listening.

Brennan himself notes,

Every leader imparts values to a company and sets a tone. Setting the value system of the company requires you to listen. If your people do not sense that you hear them, you are missing signs of a crisis.

Again, merely listening is different from being caught at it. Pieper's predecessor, Jimmy Treybig--the man who founded and ran Tandem Computers--is known for hearing things people thought he had missed. Many people have sat in meetings with him and not known that he heard what they were saying. It is a style that worked when Treybig was getting Tandem started but that could have prevented him from being appointed to run the company he founded.

Kathryn Fuller is the CEO of the million-member World Wildlife Fund. She sits on board committees that appoint chief executives. In the search for the new president of the Ford Foundation, she selected listening as a reason for her choice. "I've worked with many people who are creative but can't get decisions to stick," she says. "They are not good at making sure that information flows. Listening is a huge part of that."

Being caught listening cannot guarantee you will get a promotion, or that you will do well at a task. It's like table stakes: you use it to get into the running for promotion or success in less time. In our survey, the executives most apt to be promoted were the ones whom colleagues and subordinates noticed were good listeners.

This trait has an important and useful side effect: it can make you a better salesperson. In the past year, Brennan sold UB to Newbridge, and Pieper sold Tandem to Compaq--both at a healthy premium.

Listening: The Reality versus the Perception

Some managers confuse listening with getting caught at it. At Tandem, the board passed over some seemingly qualified candidates for the position Pieper now occupies. "Looking at some of my peers," says Jamie Allen, a former general manager at Tandem, "I have observed some terrible communicators. I'm thinking of one vice president. He heard, but he didn't tell you he'd heard." Allen adds, "You can overcome the lack of being a team player through demonstrated results, but you can't overcome that lack of being a good communicator."

The value of listening is clear: You cannot succeed in running a company if you do not hear what your people, customers, and suppliers are telling you. Poor listeners do not survive. Listening and understanding well are key to making good decisions.

Being caught listening, though, has a different value. It does not change the decisions you make; it changes how the people around you perceive you. That, in turn, affects how they take and implement your decisions. When people know you hear them, they are more likely to hear you when you respond with a decision or instruction. It may not have been what they wanted to hear, but they will nonetheless be more likely to accept it. Hence, listening (or active listening) is valuable for making decisions; being caught listening is valuable for making them stick.

Many executives are good at taking in information but fall short when it comes to showing that. Can people who fit that model start a successful company? Clearly they can- and do. But can someone who is a poor or even average communicator grow a company successfully? This is less likely.

Is it possible to be a good listener and not get caught? Yes. Is it possible to be caught as a good listener and not actually be one? We don't think so.

Although many executives can listen well, few consciously try to show it. Even fewer intentionally try to teach it to others. However, the skill of being caught listening can be taught and learned. Marius Abel, former senior vice president and general manager at UB, has come to demand it of his peers. When he wants it, he gets it by asking questions. "I listen to their feedback carefully," he explains, "and I ask hard questions to make sure they understand. If they don't ask a question, I get in my ask mode."

When he ran support for Tandem in Europe, Chris Rooke, now a vice president of sales for the company, often came across what he calls "the wrong rock syndrome": A boss says to a subordinate, "Get me a rock," but when the subordinate brings the rock, the boss says, "No! Not that rock," and the subordinate has to go back for another one. This is an analogy of what happens when one does not check for understanding. No matter who was at fault in such cases, Rooke's team was redoing work and wasting time. By learning to ask questions, he could check others' understanding--or lack of it. It may take a few extra minutes, but it can save hours later. How often have you seen someone start down a road only to find it's the wrong road? It can cost a person precious time, and it can cost a company time and other resources to cover the loss.

Ted Antonitis, president and CEO of ONEAC Corporation, believes that some people are raised to be CEO whereas others are chosen by circumstances. But, he says, part of the process of getting there must be to "logic-check everything with the help of your team, encourage gaining wisdom, and communicate the wisdom so that fundamental knowledge is shared and becomes the basis for decisions."

A Model Process

Listening is more than just waiting for your turn to talk. Most business conversations fit the model of what Swiss psychiatrist Paul Tournier calls "dialogues of the deaf." But the successful candidates for promotion to CEO transcend this. So do the best managers. They listen, and are good at getting caught at it.

You can find many ways to get caught listening. A simple and effective process used by several executives has four steps:

- Listen.

- Restate what you have heard.

- Empathize clearly.

- Offer the solution.

1. Listening is both hard and easy. As we rise higher and higher in companies, we find it harder and harder to spare time for listening, much less for being caught at it. Yet there are more and more people who want access to the CEO and who clamor to be heard. If information is the key to success for an executive, listening is the first step to gathering that information.

A key listening skill is to do it actively and quietly. John Leopold, the former executive director of the Santa Cruz AIDS Project, a nationally known nonprofit organization, saw what happened if he interrupted stakeholders in the community: he lost a lot of time. When he began to listen without interrupting, he discovered that meetings with constituencies became shorter, not longer. "People want to feel heard," he points out. "So you want to ask: Can you leave [them] feeling respected? They have to think they have a voice."

Active listening can help. Use your face and body to show that you hear and understand what is being said. This can be as simple as nodding or mirroring the speaker's mannerisms.

2. Restating is the key to getting caught listening. When you repeat what you have just been told, you move from a position in which you may or may not hear what the other person says to one in which you actively try to hear it. You thereby increase the comfort level of the situation and project the image of listening.

Restating can also guarantee that you are hearing correctly. This is what Chris Rooke means by his "wrong rock syndrome." Like many other successful executives, Rooke says, "I learned to listen and ask a question for clarity. Reiterating was crucial in a support environment." After all, is saving time any less crucial in an executive environment?

Restating may not show others that you understand, but it will often show you that you do not understand. You might discover that what you thought you heard is not what the other person meant for you to hear. This can constitute another time saver, both for you and your colleagues.

Part of restating is to ask whether you heard correctly. When the person with whom you are talking answers yes, you can move on to being understood. Waiting for the "yes" is important; if you get a "no" instead, you must start over. Listen and restate until you get a firm "yes." Otherwise, you leave an impression of indifference toward that person. You become one half of Tournier's "dialogue of the deaf." Such an impression will not enhance your chances of winning the CEO's job or obtaining information you may need in the future.

3. Understanding and empathizing are more than just hearing. Empathizing is a combination of both the analytical and feeling aspects of conversation--your head and your gut. You may find that showing empathy will be hard for you, or for the person you are coaching. For some, this represents the difference between understanding and agreeing.

Empathy is not sympathy, nor is it agreement. Agreeing with someone's views is not necessary, but understanding them is. Demonstrating that you understand a concern is reasonable; you may then say you don't agree with it. Most people skip this, then have to go back later to gain a better understanding.

There are a variety of techniques for showing empathy. The easiest may be to say something like, "That must feel terrible" or "That would make me feel terrible." Even better may be to ask, "And how does that feel?" The key is to show that you heard and understood.

4. Offering a solution is the final step. Once you have been caught listening, the person will be waiting for an answer from you. This is the best time to provide it. Even if your solution is exactly the same as it would have been to begin with, you still have a much better chance of having it accepted now than earlier.

The tendency for most of us is to offer a solution immediately--to drive toward solution. This may be the right thing to do for fixing a computer or diagnosing an engine. But people are not machines, and managers who forget to keep that distinction clear are not likely to get the promotion to the top spot. To drive toward solution may be traditional, but the executives who are promoted to CEO try to avoid doing this.

An Example

How does a president get caught listening? And how can a CEO teach others the art? Dennis Haar, president of Aspect Telecommunications, unconsciously demonstrated this recently with an employee who had been passed over for promotion. Haar knew Aspect wanted to keep the manager, and he had a good idea of what behaviors she needed to improve before she could succeed at the next level. Haar could have saved time by suggesting that the manager change those behaviors. Instead, he lengthened his conversation with her, unconsciously making sure she caught him listening before he offered a solution.

I have watched Haar practice this, both before and since his promotion. First, he takes the time to restate the comments in his own words. After restating, he asks if he is right. Clearly willing to hear a "no," he will try again until he gets it right by the other person's definition. After confirming that, he empathizes aloud. Then he offers a solution.

His careful message to the passed-over manager was: "I can do all that for you if you want. I can go see the right people for you and talk to them. But here are some things you must change or it won't work." He used listening to keep her loyalty while giving advice she needed but didn't want to hear. By taking the time to use this process, Haar increases the chances of his being heard and understood. This might save him a lot of time later--perhaps in trying to change someone's behavior, perhaps in working to prevent a key manager from leaving.

If You Are Already CEO

What should you do if you already are the president? As CEO, you will be judged on whom and how you promote. Those appointments will be more likely to succeed if the executives can get caught listening. Teach your people--and theirs--to listen and get caught at it.

For many, the process of teaching and learning is uncomfortable. Successful managers and executives are accustomed to driving toward solution, so asking them to stop and get caught listening may seem counterintuitive. Once they get the hang of it, however, they usually do very well. This is a model you can share as CEO. It will bring benefits to you, your employees, and your company.

There are risks. If executives become good at this, they will be better candidates for your job, or for the top job in a rival firm. But if they are interested in running a company anyway, all you have done is help future presidents along while you benefit in the meantime.

There is also a strong upside. Something interesting will happen as you use the skill: you will find you have more time in the day. Being caught listening shortens conversations. A person who feels he has been heard will stop trying to be heard, and you can then get to other work more quickly. Hearing something right the first time makes repeating work less likely.

Eventually, you'll find you have more effective managers working for you. They will take less time to hear you and less time to get things done through other people. The best result is more time gained.

We cannot offer a guaranteed path to the presidency. However, you can come closer to the top. If you follow the advice of these other executives, you will be a better candidate. If you fail to be chosen, you will be a better executive in the meantime.

The lessons? To get the president's job, be good at your task and get caught listening. People who promote others to the position of president look--consciously or unconsciously--for this crucial trait. This does not necessarily mean you will be able to run your company; obviously, much more is required for that. But increasing your visibility as a listener--getting caught listening--can help you earn the promotion. Getting caught listening builds trust, and building trust increases your chance of promotion--all the way to the top.


Quotes and citations have been taken from personal interviews with the author and his staff during the research for this article.

Paul Tournier, To Understand Each Other, trans. John S. Gilmour (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1967).

Peter Meyer is the principal of The Meyer Group, a consulting firm in Scotts Valley, California. The author would like to thank the several dozen senior executives and board members who agreed to be interviewed for this article.

This article is copr 1998 by Business Horizons, all rights reserved.