On Listening

How do you listen to people when the noise and fanfare of your success begins to complicate your ability to form meaningful and authentic relationships with each one individually? Can a company outright fail due to inability to listen and communicate with its customers, what about the employees? In my first company, I learned the answers the hard way, and have been thinking about listening ever since. This is a quick summary so others can avoid the pain and move faster. But first, a little bit of a story.

In my first company, when I was paying particular attention to every user, things were going great. We were growing, users were active, new clients funneled in every day. I talked to customers and I learned little unique things that helped me and the company to be more relevant to them. I knew their schedule, their preferences, and in general had a good sense of the direction in which our users wanted to move the company. We were building the product to match those needs and visible progress was made every day. One by one we would hear positive feedback, and user numbers would grow.

Then came funding and Y Combinator and The Next Web, the Verge, and TechCrunch. We wanted to grow, we needed to grow, we needed to be a billion dollar company. Fanfare, stress, need for speed, all derailed my brain into thinking that I had some kind of super-powers to get everything right. After all, if Steve Jobs could make a great product overnight, so could I. [1]

One day when Paul Graham questioned my assumptions about our marketplace, feeling threatened by the question, not having a data-driven answer to fall back on, my response was along the lines of: “because I said so.” What a dumb thing to say! PG is a goldmine of advice and he wanted to help us to find the light at the end of a tunnel. Instead, I just blocked him out.

I was stressed, tired, sleep deprived, and my brain fell into a narrow-minded focus trap, where I knew I had to do better, but instead of trusting people around me to help, I rejected everything and put self in charge. After all, I had gotten the company to a certain point all by myself, the key to future success was somewhere in me, it had to be in me!

How can a founder stay passionate and strive to grow a huge company, while maintaining a cool head?

My own mistakes have taught me how easy it is to deceive yourself that you are doing your best, with the best intentions, while you are actually failing miserably and are no longer capable to recognize that.

This self corrosion seeps in slowly, but the transition is fast and brutal, and completely unrecognizable to the one who fails. After all, if the founder, the person who cares the most about a business, is able to fail like that, then no one on the team is immune. Developers, designers, marketing folks, you name it, no one is immune from working hard on a wrong problem, running head first into a wall. Ever since, I have been learning to get better at listening.

Listening well can help to understand customers, employees, and friends. Good listening skills open possibilities, help you connect with people on a deeper level, earn their respect and in general make life richer. Good listening is a cornerstone to success. What does it take then, to listen well?

Good listening is a cornerstone to success.

First, to be able to listen, you need to be able to drop your ego. As a founder, you are used to people telling you that your business would not work.

To protect yourself and to stay on track, you grow immune to the negativity, and with that to all the feedback at large. This creates a flawed feedback loop where everything the company does is caused by the actions you initiated. Every success starts to be perceived as a win, attributed to your greatness, and every failure as an opportunity for you to provide your great advice and direction. Founder’s ego starts to grow exponentially, and ironically, so can founder’s insecurities.

It is imperative to remember that if someone is sharing with you, they are not trying to cause you harm. They do not want to fight you, or prove that you are wrong, or to question your intelligence. As long as they are sharing with you, they care about you and your product. The best way to receive feedback in this case is by thinking like a child -- stay open to possibilities, wonder about everything, and don’t have preconceived notions about right or wrong. Consider everything said to you as an option, absorb information given, and you will then have plenty of alone time to reflect, process, and to bounce ideas against your current opinions.

Second, in order to listen, you need to keep your eyes open and your mouth shut, your own opinions need to be put on hold. It's perfectly fine to disagree, but remember, this isn't about you. Your only job is to understand the feedback you are give and to collect information which will help you improve. Whoever is giving you feedback is trying to help. Providing your own opinions will only interrupt their thoughts and make them feel like you are not listening. To facilitate this process, you should be asking lots of questions.

Third, if you're going to ask questions, you need to know how to ask good questions. What are good questions? In this case, I would recommend asking leading questions. You want to find out why your advisor is giving you such feedback, what experience led her to form such an opinion, whether there is data you could use to replicate this opinion, or data you would be able to gather to strengthen it. Explore and look for a root causes. Keep asking “Why” and with each answer go a level deeper. Deep dive into every opinion and then branch out.

Using this method, as long as you do it genuinely and passionately, will help you learn a ton and also leave a very positive impression on the person that is helping you. They will feel like you really listen to every word and will come back to you with more feedback. Listen often, do it well, and do it often, and great things will happen.

Lastly, a word of caution - popular startup literature will tell you that “company DNA” is the solution to making sure that your entire team is listening too. Hire great people, build a "culture" and magically, listening will just happen.

Building an organization that can listen is important, but it starts at the top. Just wearing a t-shirt that says “WE R 4 USERS + DATA <3” is not going to accomplish much, and as my friend Liam Sarsfield put it: “Culture is what your employees do when you are not around.” If the leadership cannot do a good job at listening, neither would the company at large.

Focus on listening and be selfless, not self-centered. The difference being -- in one case you are completely focused on yourself and reject all the ideas that are not yours, and in the other you acutely focus on listening to others and evaluate and respond to their feedback vs. your own ideas. Absorb feedback and focus on how you can respond to it.

In my personal experiences I have found listening to be extremely valuable, and the steps to listening to be very doable, as long as I consciously remind myself to drop my ego, to listen without talking, and to ask good questions. I am not always successful and there is a lot more left to learn, but progress is better than none, and listening has so far helped me to connect with a lot of very interesting and intelligent folks and have opened opportunities. I sincerely hope reading this will help you as well. If you have any comments/ideas/feedback, let’s connect.

p.s. Do you feel like your company is not listening to you? Do you want a new job? AttentionHr is for you. Sign up to learn when it launches.

Notes:

[1] Lots of founders think they are the next Steve, but one fact gets overlooked by the young ones, self included. When Steve Jobs started working on iPhone in his second round at Apple he had twenty years of experience running, and failing at running companies. Steve was no college dropout when he with an incredible team of passionate individuals invented the iPhone. Those guys were seasoned entrepreneurs, executives, and masterminds of their craft, working cohesively and efficiently for a common goal. They had a ton of practice under their belt.

Huge thanks to Liam Sarsfield and Emily Brophy for reading and editing a draft of this post.