Listen to understand, not to answer
Listen to understand, not to answer
The scene is set in a rapidly growing IT outsourcing company, the post is head of a department whose performance level is low and thus enjoying a low level of trust among employees and customers. Predecessors on the post have usually lasted max six months and thus the department is lacking real leadership. On an everyday basis there is a magnitude of operational matters to sort out and hitting the ground running from Day One is a necessity.
This was the scenario that I faced when I became Head of Administrative Department in one of the major IT outsourcing companies in Ukraine.
In addition to this I came with another cultural background. I had moved to Ukraine only five months earlier from Denmark and decoding how to do business and how to lead people in Ukraine was still a personal work in progress. Coming from Denmark, the most distinct cultural differences for me were the differences in Power Distance and Uncertainty Avoidance as defined by Geert Hofstede, see below figure.
I treat people with equal respect and personally I fail to see why a person on C-level should command or deserve more respect than for example a driver. In Ukrainian society there is a much higher differentiation between people depending on what their position in society is. Being in a leadership position, this aspect was easier for me to understand and to adapt to than for example the Uncertainty Avoidance. It took some time and a great deal of frustration before I realised that some Ukrainians require a more detailed task description than I would expect to give someone from my own national culture.
Many lessons were learned in the process and I would like to share some of them with you below.
What was done?
If no one is following you, you cannot be considered a leader and forcing people to follow you by giving directives will backfire in the long run in my personal opinion. Employees who are motivated and feel listened to will almost certainly become more proactive; however, to achieve this it is necessary to cultivate an atmosphere where employees trust their leader to actually listen when they speak.
From a company perspective my initial task was to sort out the operational administrative issues and therefore for me personally it was to earn the trust of my team. This meant resolving operational issues side by side, fostering a team spirit by asking for opinions and ideas whenever the situation allowed and, most importantly, having their back when customers or other employees were dissatisfied.
Naturally, there were situations where I would disagree with the approach applied by a team member. In such situation I found it relevant first to establish how the customer/other employee felt about the situation. If satisfied, my task was to extract positive learning lessons and if dissatisfied, constructive learning lessons in order to prevent such situation from happening in the future.
The next priority was to bring stability and to re-establish employees’ and customers’ confidence in my department being able to take responsibility and to deliver on promises made. For me personally this meant becoming very visible in the organization, being accessible for everyone and following up on agreements. It became a mantra for me to try to always look into wishes and suggestions from other employees and customers but only make promises when I was certain that we were able to deliver on such promise.
What was the result?
Over time my team started to show more confidence in themselves, take more responsibility and make suggestions for improvements without me explicitly asking for it. This had the positive effect that I could start delegating and be more confident that situations could be dealt with without necessarily being escalated to me.
Also, the monthly performance and satisfaction level surveys which were carried out among employees and customers started to show improving numbers. Employees and customers began to have confidence in the capabilities of my team. We started receiving information about situations before they turned into real problems, thus we would have a chance to remedy the issue without the working relation suffering any real damage.
Which problems were encountered?
The immediate challenge with this approach was personally being on call 24/7 which gave me a wealth of knowledge about many details but also meant that there was time for little else than the job.
In addition to this, during the first 1.5 years there was a relatively high attrition rate in my team. When interviewing people I would put more emphasis on personality than on technical skills and it is limited what you can learn about a person during a short interview where people anyway want to present themselves as the best. Only when people actually start working, their real self will shine through and sometimes a mismatch in expectations would start showing.
Not to be underestimated in this context is also my leadership style as I prefer to agree in unison on the starting point and the end goal for a task and then leave the execution to my team. Not everyone in my Ukrainian team was comfortable with this approach and while some responded well and developed a great deal on a personal level, others did not like this approach or took advantage of it.
Lessons learned and recommendations
Changes are not accomplished overnight and singlehandedly implementing change is not realistic. However, with a shared understanding that changes are absolutely needed there is a foundation to work with.
Thus, it is necessary to identify the people whom you can rely on helping you carry the torch towards the goal. In my case it took a while before I had the team in place but in such situation it is important to keep persevering and keep actively listening to your team’s opinions and stakeholders’ feedback.
No less important is building a coalition among colleagues. Having one department going in another direction than the rest will not bring success, thus it is necessary to align your goals and ideas with both colleagues and the overall strategy of the company. In my case other department heads supported change, not just in my department but overall, as the IT industry is one of the most dynamic and therefore it is a simple necessity to be change-adaptable.
Although these are my personal experiences, they fully reflect the first steps in John Kotter’s 8 Steps Framework for implementing change. Subsequent steps in the framework such as for example empowering employees to act and generate short-term wins, evolved as a natural consequence of the first steps taken.
Some of my greatest moments were when a customer would praise one of my team members for having done something extraordinary without me knowing it. In my opinion, such situations occur when an employee is confident and trusts that if something goes wrong, their back is covered. Customer satisfaction in general increased by more than 25 % during my tenure.
Accomplishing actual change is to a large extent built on trust. If others have no trust that you can actually accomplish what is intended then success will also be elusive.
Building trust takes years but it is lost in minutes
About the author
Agile and versatile leader with more than 8 years’ experience from the Ukrainian IT outsourcing industry, both as part of service delivery team and as customer representative.
Extensive experience with managing stakeholder expectations in distributed teams.
She speaks seven languages.