Five Things Leaders Don’t Like to Hear, Except When They Do

October 15, 2015 by

“Listening is a positive act. You have to put yourself out to do it.” – David Hockney

Leaders are individuals, and when you’ve seen one, you’ve seen one. Active listening is an attribute of a great leader. Like anybody else, leaders aren’t always delighted with what we hear, though it may not be for the reasons people think.

1. I didn’t want to bother you (said about 5 seconds after some horrendous issue has been revealed). Leaders do not like to be surprised, especially when the surprise results in unhappy customers (external or internal). Like it or not, leaders have ways of helping or steering that may not be apparent or available to others, and they prefer to provide that assistance in time to avert a crisis, rather than manage a crisis. I would rather hear about ten things of which nine are minor or nothing, but the tenth is where I can add value. (I’m a digital addict, a few more emails isn’t going to deter me.)

2. I never heard back from… (insert vendor/stakeholder/customer name here). Sometimes heard when responding to an inquiry about a late deliverable. When a person accepts a deliverable, they also accept accountability for that deliverable. That includes understanding and managing the items upon which you are dependent. If the upstream person or group is non-responsive (especially if they are within the organization), go sit on their doorstep or escalate. Deliverables make up projects, and projects make up outcomes; outcomes that (should) result in customer delight.

3. It’s only a delay of… (insert time frame here, e.g., a week, a month). Delays equal lost opportunity cost. Every additional day spent is an additional day not available for something else. People are the most valuable asset; and this means valuing your own time and that of your colleagues. Great leaders are passionate about developing great teams, which means they value everyone’s time.

4. But you told me to work on… (insert project name here). If a leader requests an unplanned assignment, it is your responsibility to (calmly) indicate the impact and give me some options. Example: “I would love to bake those cookies tomorrow. I was scheduled to deliver 50 cakes, but if we pay Todd $100 in overtime, he can deliver the cakes so that I can bake the cookies. Or I can bake the cookies next month.” Then the leader has options and can make a decision. Don’t assume that leaders understand impact. Great leaders hire smart people to tell us what we need to hear, not what we want to hear. A leader can’t make a decision about the cookies unless she/he knows about the impact to the cake. And trust me, they care about the cake…

5. But it was the vendor’s mistake (said in response to an outage/delay/disruption). This statement may be true, but understand that IT usually can’t use that as a defense. It is our responsibility to manage our vendors. In 2015, with increasing cloud and “as a service” arrangements, vendor partnerships are complex. P.S. Even if there is a penalty clause in the relevant contract(s), recouping some cash doesn’t offset customer.

The worst thing leaders want to hear however, is silence. A great leader would rather hear the five things above, and have a chance to respond helpfully, adjust thinking, change direction, or ask more questions.


“There is only one boss. The customer. And he can fire everybody in the company from the chairman on down, simply by spending his money somewhere else.” – Sam Walton. Hmm. If you’ve read the news lately on Wal-Mart, this quote may be coming home to roost.

Technology glitches continue to plague air travel. Southwest had issues related to check-in earlier this week, while the Department of Homeland Security had an system issue on Wednesday. #GotUptime?

For no other reason than I just love this quote: “My interest is in the future because I’m going to spend the rest of my life there.” – Charles Kettering


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