I was recently a panellist on one of the Managing Partners’ Forum excellent webinars, looking at the importance of listening when professionals are trying to win business.
This resonated with Next-Up, who rightly say that this is one of the hardest transitions that lawyers and accountants have to make when building a new career in unretirement. They asked me to write about the issues and to suggest some tips for others going through this phase.
To put into context, part of my work is helping partners in transitionary career phases – they may want to join boards, become a non-executive director, start their own business, invest in a start-up, become a coach themselves or follow many other routes.
One of the most difficult things for partners (and anyone in a senior role) is to listen. They are used to being asked for their advice and opinion and the natural urge is to assert our skills and expertise – often at the expense of listening and learning.
Getting into the habit of asking open questions – and listening attentively to the answers – is critical to winning both business and roles.
In this article I'll look at where this urge comes from, and the immense value of resisting it. Below I also list a number of practical techniques for developing and applying a powerful, exploratory mindset.
Listening, or just waiting to speak?
Last year I heard a general counsel lavish praise on the professionalism and technical brilliance of one of her law firm client partners. In mid-flow, she paused, smiled and said, “However, I do sometimes wonder if he’s listening to me or just waiting to speak”.
I sympathise with the partner. We all want to demonstrate our knowledge and capabilities – our focus on solving problems is informed by years of hard-won experience. The more experience we have, the more we mislead ourselves that we can assess and diagnose any situation we encounter.
We state our conclusions and recommend courses of action - without necessarily grasping all the facts.
This often gives the impression that we’re not listening, or that we don’t understand what we’re being told. Or, worse, that we prefer to listen to ourselves rather than elicit another person’s views. (Steven Covey, author of the excellent Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, said “we listen with the intention of replying, not with the intention of understanding.”)
This need to assert our view – in Covey’s words, to reply before understanding – is increased when we’re taken out of our natural environment and dropped into unfamiliar situations. Typical fish-out-of-water scenarios include having to sell to potential clients, conducting difficult performance conversations, leading dysfunctional teams and ‘selling’ ourselves as an individual for roles, consultancy, starting a business or more. Which of course is what most people have to do once they have left corporate life.
Asking or telling?
A good example can be seen when partners become coaches – I know several who have gone this route. They bring a wealth of experience with them and, initially at least, have found it hard to resist sharing this experience at every opportunity. They tend to instruct their coachees, rather than encouraging the coachees to work through and solve their challenges for themselves.
This tendency partly comes from the didactic, instructional mindset typical of most professional firms – and the way they were trained themselves. This is a habit which continues when they leave their firm or organisation.
Last summer I carried out a survey with partners, looking at why they were uncomfortable asking questions outside of their core areas of expertise. The responses made fascinating reading. Some admitted they were wary of asking questions for which they didn’t already know the answer. Others worried that questioning could lead the conversation into uncharted territory – so avoiding asking questions meant they stayed on familiar ground. Many believed that, as highly-paid solution providers, it was their job to provide answers rather than ask questions. Some admitted that they felt a constant need to prove their technical credentials.
Why does asking questions matter?
Conversely, we’ve all experienced moments when a question we ask leads to an obvious shift in thinking in the person we’re talking to. As a coach I see it a lot: often it’s something as simple as a coachee saying “That’s a good question,” or “I hadn’t thought of it like that.” As their facial expressions and their body language noticeably shifts, I know that my question is triggering rich internal connections and that, shortly, they’ll offer further feedback and insight.
When we ask questions, and listen to the answers respectfully, attentively, openly, we encourage a process of reflection - in them and ourselves. We often learn more from the other person than we would otherwise have expected. As Chris Voss, former FBI hostage negotiator and author of Never Split the Difference, said, “Who has the power in a negotiation? The listener, stupid.”
Imagine a retiring partner meeting to discuss a non-executive directorship. With decades of M&A and corporate governance experience behind him – as well as a deep understanding of the company’s industry sector – it’s easy to assume they will be shoe-in for the role. A typical instinct is to slip into their usual advisory mindset, telling the interviewer what the organisation needs.
What if, instead, the candidate explores the underlying needs and drivers of the organisation? Delves into the organisational culture and values – and the ambitions and personalities of the board? As well as the hidden strategic drivers and decision-making imperatives? It’s likely that the partner will unearth information and insight that deviate far from initial expectations.
The question cascade
I use what I call a questioning cascade - a series of steps leading to a deeper, reflective conversation that elicits a great deal. This is no cop-out or easy ride. Resisting offering opinions and solutions feels uncomfortably counter-intuitive. Listening really attentively is a hard skill to master.
The cascade has four stages:
Step 1. Open questions: High level open questions (of the who, what, when, where and how variety). Many people think that simple questions such as “What is your biggest challenge?”, “What are you hoping to achieve?” or “What would be the ideal outcome?” are simplistic cop-outs. But clearly phrased, open questions tend to encourage the deepest reflection and feedback. They also help develop relationships beyond the superficial.
The danger to avoid here is to fall into making statements of opinions disguised as closed questions, such as “Don’t you think it’s a case that…”. And, rather than risk a moment’s silence while waiting for an answer, we fill the empty space with confusing follow-up questions. Asking open questions is hard. If it was easy we’d all do it.
Ideally, you want to stay at step 1 for much longer than feels comfortable. The tendency is to press on to a concrete outcome (step 4) but this often misses hearing valuable information.
Step 2. Summarising: This stage interprets what we’ve been told by offering pithy recaps. It shows that we’ve listened closely, “So what you’re saying is…” and offers them a chance to add further information. It can help to build empathy if you add in phrases such as, “It sounds like you’re facing a significant challenge…” or “That sounds like quite a dilemma…” and leads naturally onto the next step.
Step 3. Measuring: By encouraging the other person to add values or measures to what you are discussing, you start identifying the most important topics, the levels of resources dedicated to them, timelines and so forth. Further questions will help to crystallise the level of urgency and start the seed for action – examples are “What’s the most pressing issue for you right now?” and “Which of these factors carries the highest risk?”.
Step 4. Acting: You will now have built a trove of information, empathy and identified pressing concerns. This next stage simply agrees what the next steps will be. It’s the one step where closed questions can be used confidently. “Shall we meet again….?”, ”Would it be a good idea if…?” or “Would you like me to…?”.
Does all this work in practice?
A partner who is due to retire, recently met the chief executive of a successful IT consultancy to discuss a non-executive role. Having done her homework on the consultancy and the CEO she felt extremely well qualified for the position. Her instinct was to go in all guns blazing, impressing the CEO with the relevance of her experience and her knowledge of the sector.
Instead she stuck to the question cascade. “I was like a kid at a party, wanting to jump up and say ‘me, me, me’” she admitted, “but I stayed in exploring mode”. Midway through the conversation, the CEO revealed that he had an ambition to establish a publishing arm – and began to ask her advice on how to do this. “In no time we’d gone off at a tangent discussing the topic that was obviously closest to his heart. This wouldn’t have happened if I’d been in broadcast mode.” She was appointed to the non-executive position.
There is a wider lesson in all this. It takes most people some time to establish a new career/portfolio once they leave their old firm. Depending how much you prepared before leaving, it can take two to five years to build the life you really want. In that time, you probably want to do pro bono work to keep your skills and CV current – and using this questioning process will enable you to have lots of conversations and find areas where you may be able to offer help.
Just so long as you keep listening and don’t jump in too soon!