Leadership focus: Learning to listen is the key to becoming a top leader

When an HR director whispers that she’s found a fantastic leadership programme that has had transformational results, my curiosity is certainly roused. When two other HR directors rave about the same programme, and tell me “there is a certain alchemy about it”, I have to find out more.

Which is why I find myself in a manor house near Winchester on the first day of Penny Ferguson’s three-day personal leadership programme.

Instead of office-type desks and chairs, the eight participants (from HR, operations and finance at different organisations) all have comfy, chintzy armchairs to sit on, arranged around a coffee table and angled towards Ferguson, who commands proceedings from a high-backed armchair.

Introductions start not with the stiff ‘this is what I do’ routine, but with an insight into the personal as well as the professional. We spend a fair chunk of time talking about: the three things we feel good about in our lives the biggest challenge or opportunity facing us now the three things we’d like to get out of the programme and the three things we’d like to give [to the programme].

Communication and responsibility

Our first task as a group is to discuss the question: ‘How can you create an organisation where everyone can think at the highest level?’. Cue a 30-minute discussion and a list of bullet points on a flip chart. But Ferguson isn’t just interested in our answers she has been observing our communication styles, and has mapped them on a chart.

She tells us we are all guilty of using too much ‘blue’ communication style (giving information, proposing, disagreeing) and not enough ‘green’ (seeking information, supporting, testing understanding, summarising, building, bringing in). Thankfully, there has been little evidence of the ‘red’ style (shutting out, defending/attacking).

Productive meetings should have a good balance of green and blue, says Ferguson. “Interrupting people, not acknowledging or appreciating them – or focusing on the one minor thing they do badly rather than the several good things they do well – is the quickest way to suppress creativity and innovation,” she adds.

Ferguson explains that the two main components of her leadership philosophy are communication and responsibility.

“The more you dole out advice and solve people’s problems for them, the less you are teaching people to be responsible. It’s as though you’re saying they’re not competent enough to come up with their own answers. But the brain that has the problem also holds the solution,” she says.

HR people, in particular, often use the blue communication style, adds Ferguson (ie, they tell people what to do).

“If line managers have a problem, then HR professionals sort it out, because they care about people. But caring means you’re not allowing them to sort out their own issues,” she says.

To do that means encouraging people to take responsibility for their own lives, and to choose how you’re going to react to a problem instead of feeling the victim of circumstance. Out goes disempowering ‘SMOG’ language (should/must/ought to/got to), and in comes ‘I choose to’ or ‘I choose not to’.

Needless to say, we spend the rest of the programme ensuring that everyone is given ample time to have their say, and apologising profusely if we interrupt inadvertently as we aim to move ‘into the green’.

We finish the first day – before we break for dinner – by ‘appreciating’ someone else in the group. Several participants comment afterwards that it is much harder to hear yourself being appreciated than it is to do the appreciating.

Time to think

The breakthrough moment for me comes just before lunchtime on day two, when we test out the ‘listening partnership’ model, based on work by Nancy Kline.

I pair up with Caroline, who is one of Ferguson’s trainers. I choose an issue I want to think about, and we walk around the grounds as I talk, and talk… and talk.

If you’re not used to someone listening without interrupting or advising, this feels bizarre. Eventually, she asks me what assumptions I’m making about my issue, and what evidence I have to back them up. This technique is to uncover my ‘bedrock assumptions’ (the deep beliefs you have about yourself or the world).

“Beliefs drive behaviours” is one of Ferguson’s mantras.

Caroline then proceeds to knock down each of these assumptions via the technique of ‘incisive questions’. For example, for someone with time management issues, you could ask: “If you knew you have time to fit everything in, what would you do differently?” For someone who assumes they’re not very clever: “If you knew that many people see you as an exceptionally bright person, what would change for you?”

The questions deliberately use incorrect grammar as a way of tricking the brain into believing that it’s all happening now.

I dig deep to answer Caroline’s incisive questions, and succeed in unravelling a particularly knotty problem – and feel elated at having done so.

We return after a two-week gap for day three of the course – a clever way of ensuring that participants have put into practice what they have learned – to bring together all elements of the programme neatly, and to recap certain areas that need more work.

Most of the participants have tackled situations that previously they had assumed would be difficult. And one manager jokes that someone on his team had remarked: “Will you stop bloody listening and tell us yes or no.”

Our final task is to envision ‘the best six months of our lives’ and come up with an action plan to achieve that. We are paired up with a fellow participant so we can coach each other over the next few months and ensure we stay on track.

Ferguson concludes: “Decide what kind of leader you want to be and take 100% responsibility for being that leader. Doing more of what you’ve done won’t get you different results.”

Creating a leadership environment

Penny Ferguson says: “A leader’s primary job is to create an environment in which people can think for themselves and find the courage to put the best ideas into action. Imaginative, fresh, independent thinking does not emerge by chance.

“Good thinking takes place under specific conditions:

  • Listening – focusing with genuine respect and interest
  • Valuing others – consideration for the qualities of every individual
  • Incisive questions – removing assumptions that limit ideas.”

What former programme delegates say:

Ewan McCulloch, HR director at Staples UK Retail, has put many of his managers through Penny Ferguson’s personal leadershipprogramme. Here’s what impact they believe ithas had:

  • “Managers walk towards me with suggestions and solutions, whereas previously they almost waited for permission from me to do so.” Corrina Towers, retail district manager
  • “The need to work through other people and raise the performance of teams to deliver to their full potential is one of the biggest challenges facing business in the 21st century. The programme has helped us address these issues in a simple but hard-hitting way.” Simon Maskell, supply chain controller
  • “Those who attended the programme view the world through different eyes, challenge the conventional, and achieve what would have previously seemed impossible. As a business, we reap the benefit of their company.” David McGlennon, head of operational HR

About Penny Ferguson

Penny Ferguson has turned her own personal traumas into a successful business over the past decade. She is startlingly open about her life, and has even structured the personal leadership programme in a way that interweaves stories about her three failed marriages and the death of a son with the latest business models and leadership theories.

Ferguson has written two books – Transform Your Life and The Living Leader – and her company has just celebrated its 10th anniversary. She is in negotiations over a reality TV programme.

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