Listen up Featured

7:00pm EDT February 23, 2010

One of David L. Parkyn’s keys to good leadership is for a leader to have a sense of place for his or her organization.

“By that I mean, understanding how my organization fits into the larger fabric of society on the one hand, and understanding how I fit into the fabric of the organization that I am leading, as well,” says Parkyn, president of North Park University, which employs more than 700 full- and part-time employees.

Smart Business spoke with Parkyn about how listening helps you get a good feel on where your organization stands.

Q. How do you know where your organization fits?

Story is important to me. Narrative is important. What I do is try to listen to people who are around me who are around the organization, to hear the story that they tell of the organization, of its environment, and try to understand that, both from a perspective that looks to the past, so I see where the organization has come from, and also as they describe the context for the future.

So, I do it often by listening, and listening obviously can take place in a number of ways. Sitting down with someone … and having a conversation is one thing. Gathering data that are important, as well, would be another way of listening.

Q. Does listening help you to know where you fit as a leader?

Yes, I think so. It’s sort of necessary for me in coming to North Park to walk into the organization and both be known by the organization, by those who comprise the organization and know the people here. In doing so, listening to them describe their place, describe this institution, describe where they want it to be, what helps them to cheer the place on and where they get a bit discouraged. That helps me to understand the place. So story is important there.

Q. Do you have to sort through what is important information?

Yes, I think so. In part because, it probably is true everywhere, but at least in context like a college or university, some people are keen on making sure that we remember this place the way it was when. While, on the one hand, that is important, it’s also important for us to lead the school into the future. So sometimes, for example, when one talks with graduates, they can express some level of disappointment that the school isn’t the same school as it was when they attended. In part, that’s because these are individuals who had a great time as undergraduates and want that same experience to be repeated for others.

So it can be a sense of, ‘Let’s make sure we maintain what was there when I was there.’ The problem is we are not educating students today for a world that is the same as what my undergraduate experience educated me for. So we have to adjust that perspective.

It’s important to hear and to know what once worked well but not to mimic that in today’s context either.

Q. What advice would you have to be a better listener?

When I have engaged in a conversation and then come out of that, I will often make a few notes for myself that talk about that, which helps for me to reinforce what I heard. Perhaps more important than that, I’ll often turn around and write a handwritten note to the individual and thank them for their time. But, in doing so, try to highlight something that I heard from the conversation that I found to be helpful. It’s a way of affirming, but it’s also a way of confirming or writing a little more deeply on my brain what that was about.

Q. How do you handle it when you can’t do what is asked of you?

Gently. At the end of the day, it’s better to be honest than to mislead. I think it’s important for the individual to know what my perspective is on it and not to be led into thinking I’m going to think about it and there’s a pretty good chance that it will come out the way that person is asking for.

Or to use another example, back earlier in my career, I was in a position that I was regularly in conversations with students who wanted to petition for a change in what the school’s expectations were for our curriculum. So, guidelines were you had to do this, this, this and this, and someone comes in and petitions for it.

If I could accommodate that, that was wonderful. But, if I could not, my goal always was not necessarily to make the student happy but to have the student leave my office knowing the reason behind my saying no.

They didn’t have to agree with it, but they at least had to understand it. In the case of a friend of the university, I’d want to try to explain as well as I could why, in our context here, what they were suggesting was not something we could go with. Better to make it clear than to let there be too much of a fog.

Q. What would you say is the biggest challenge in listening?

One of the challenges is if one listens, you can too easily communicate to the speaker that you agree with them, when, in fact, you may not always agree with them. You may not be intending to communicate that, but that’s what the speaker is picking up because you are intent in trying to understand what the perspective of the other is. Sometimes, if the person is not accustom to that, they may take listening as affirmation.

How to reach: North Park University, (773) 244-6200 or