Universal thinking Featured

8:00pm EDT August 26, 2008

To Dale T. Knobel, being a leader means being responsive to many different constituencies to make the best possible decisions for your organization.

And the president of Denison University says that in order to be responsive, it is critical that you listen carefully to what people are saying.

“Being a good listener about their needs and reactions is important, and then trying to take advantage of the knowledge base and experience of your own staff and employees is important,” he says.

Knobel, who is finishing his 10th year at the private liberal arts and sciences school in Granville, also relies on delegating responsibilities to his 650 employees and setting a vision for everyone to follow to help him lead the school and oversee its $95 million budget.

Smart Business spoke with Knobel about how listening carefully can help you delegate better and set a clear vision for the future.

Be a consistent listener. One of the keys to being a good listener is not making snap judgments based on what you first hear. Being a good listener means listening not just to one person or voice, it means listening to many voices and then trying to reach an informed judgment.

Most leaders coming into a new organization are pretty good at listening at the outset and trying to get a measure of the people and culture. But there’s a temptation [that] once you’ve been at a place for a long time, it’s easy to fall in the trap. You have to keep relistening over the course of a productive career because what people have to share changes.

You certainly use your own experience and judgment to try to make sense of what you hear, but you also test what you hear with others. I rely upon trusted members of my own staff to share my impressions of what I hear and test the conclusions that I think I’ve reached from what I’ve heard and see whether they would arrive at similar conclusions or not.

It prevents you from starting with preconceived notions about how something ought to work and plowing doggedly ahead without those notions being tested, whether it’s by those who are recipients of your services or those on your own team.

Learn to delegate. There’s always the temptation for anyone in a leadership position to try to do everything themselves and do it in a way that suits their own predilections, but you soon become aware that not only can you not do everything yourself, but you’re liable not to do it well if you try to take on too much.

Press decision-making down to those who are immediately engaged with the issue, who are most likely to understand it, have experience with it and are able to come up with good answers to an issue or opportunity. The farther you get away from the front line, the more likely you are to make a bad decision.

When you empower people to make decisions, you have to back them up. It doesn’t mean that you don’t ever find occasions where you can help people with that decision-making; there are never occasions where you don’t, after the fact, help people see how they could have made a decision better.

If you’re going to delegate and empower people, you also have to back them up, and that means not second-guessing them. Empowering people means not just giving them a chance to make a decision once, but, as a habit, allowing them to make decisions that affect their area. It’s only by habit that they acquire the sense that you have trust in them.

You’re simply overwhelmed if you don’t delegate, and being overwhelmed means you don’t make decisions well and let things fall through the cracks. You’re liable to get better decisions because you’re delegating to people who probably have a more intimate knowledge of the decision to be made than you have.

Set and communicate a clear vision. I’m a history professor by training and trade, and I try to use some of those skills. That is, try to look back across the history of an organization and identify the enduring strengths, because it’s those strengths that you’re going to try and find ways of taking out into the future as part of a new vision, and you may have to adapt those strengths for a new time and conditions.

If you find the strengths, you also find the places where the organization has not been successful. A lot of it is talking to people. You can find evidence by looking in records and reports, but you learn more from talking to people.

Articulate the message in a way that isn’t inconsistent. On the other hand, you’ve got to talk to people about their particular role and show how the vision relates to what it is they do. Talk to each of these groups about how the vision applies to them. So consistency on the one hand, but on the other hand, try to work with people about what this vision means to them and what they do.

Translate a vision for everyone in ways that help them understand how they are a part of it and how their particular role furthers that vision and how it can help make them feel more [like] contributing members of the organization by adopting the vision.

It gets everyone moving on down the same road in the same direction. If you listened well, a vision helps you find those commonalities and getting all those groups to collaborate.

HOW TO REACH: Denison University, (740) 587-0810 or www.denison.edu