The F+L Founders’ Circle (consisting of the CEOs of our portfolio companies) meets fortnightly to share news, ideas and to provide mutual support to like-minded people at similar stages on their business journey. Every second meeting has a guest speaker who provides his/her time to the group with advice from their field of expertise. On Thursday, we were delighted to welcome executive coach Joe Trodden to the meeting.Joe works with visionary entrepreneurs in the crucial stage of their business between pure start-up and high growth. This is highly relevant to our Founders as they are all at various stages of being a scale-up. He could have picked from a host of topics that would have been pertinent and chose to talk about the importance of listening and how to have challenging conversations. I don’t want to steal too much of Joe’s thunder or, more importantly, his intellectual property, but I’ll call out a few key things we learned.
We opened with a discussion about the importance of hyper-vigilance before going through the four types of bad listener. If you’re guilty of any of the following:
- Interrupting somebody before their finished as you think you know what they’re going to say
- Working out how to solve their problem without listening to everything they’re saying
- Waiting for a pause to jump in, and often changing the subject altogether
- Getting caught up in the emotion of the story rather than trying to understand the situation
Then you’re probably a bad listener on a couple of dimensions. The Founders’ Circle is an honest group and we all admitted to two, three or all four bad listener traits. Personally, as a Founder of a couple of businesses, as a board director and, heck, as a human being, it was quite humbling to realise how many of those mistakes I make.
With a feeling of circumspection, we moved into a listening exercise. Joe paired us off and we went into individual breakout rooms (using a feature on Zoom that I didn’t know existed but I can highly recommend) with the instruction to take it in turns to talk on a topic about which we are passionate, for three uninterrupted minutes. Even on Zoom, this was an odd feeling when both in transmit and receive mode. I chose wine, a subject about which I talk and write often on my wine blog, and it still felt unnatural to be looking straight at somebody and garbling on for three minutes without them saying anything. It was arguably even tougher not to jump in, ask questions, relate or tell stories when the shoe was on the other foot.
The remainder of our hour was taken up by talking about the importance of challenging people directly, and caring about those people, so you can have meaningful management conversations. Too many of us don’t care enough about the person (who arguably shouldn’t be in the business) or are afraid to speak frankly.
Challenging somebody we don’t care about leads to “Obnoxious Aggression”, not challenging somebody we do care about leads to “Ruinous Empathy”, whereas we want to aim for “Radical Candour” where we challenge those we care about in the right way.
I can’t do justice to Joe’s work in a short blog, so I won’t say much more, but I’m sure you can work out the meaning behind some of these phrases. Growing a business is tough – at any scale – and you’re going to need to challenge and motivate a lot of people. We all found the exercises and content stimulating and I can highly recommend Joe personally. He also led us through examples of how Pixar and Disney have created their own methodologies for having positive challenging conversations that aid the creative process, which are well worth digging into as well.
I’ll close with a quote that Joe used in his slides, from a fine American author and academic, Jonathan Haidt:
“The mind is a story processor, not a logic processor.”
Based upon what we hear, we turn it into stories that may or may not help us or the people with whom we converse. As a marketer and writer, I know the power of narrative and how important it is that companies and brands tell stories, not regurgitate facts. But it’s important as Founders, managers and colleagues that we understand why we have to listen to the stories others are telling us, not make up ones of our own, and therefore have more enriching and purposeful dialogues.