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Thoughtful discussion Featured

8:00pm EDT July 26, 2008

A picture may be worth a thousand words, but Chris Hudson would much rather hear the thousand words.

“If you have a story that illustrates the point, they’ll remember the story far longer than they will remember the picture of a nice building you showed them,” Hudson says.

And Hudson, president and CEO of Morris Architects, doesn’t want any of his employees to be at a loss for words when they are asked a question about the firm.

“I explain to everyone the damage that, that kind of response would do is immeasurable,” Hudson says. “Shame on us if we haven’t explained it to them well enough for them to understand.”

By committing his 215 employees to becoming good listeners and, as a result, always having good answers, Morris Architects achieved 2007 revenue of $48.8 million.

Smart Business spoke with Hudson about how to listen and the role stories play in the growth of a business.

Q. What is the key to being a good listener?

There is a difference between what someone tells you and what they are really telling you. I try to look for an understanding of what is the person saying.

Where are they coming from? Why are they saying it? That gives me the ability to not only see through things but help understand what people are really trying to communicate to me.

I don’t immediately jump to a conclusion. I don’t just immediately assume that someone is telling me the whole story.

I usually assume they are just telling me the side of the story that they want me to hear, and then I probe a little bit more and try to help them. ‘If you were in the other person’s shoes, would that make sense to you?’ Try to interact in the conversation.

I try to take the same technique that I’m speaking of and say, ‘Well, Joe, if you were in Susan’s shoes, do you see why she might be challenging you on this?’ Literally walk someone through. Ask a lot of questions.

I try not to approach a discussion by just immediately saying, ‘Nope, you’re wrong. This is what you need to do. Let’s move on.’ If I think it’s a situation that requires some thoughtful discussion, I use a lot of questions.

Q.Why is listening so important?

Many times, people come to the leader of a company and they are talking about one issue, but they are not revealing the underlying source of a concern. When someone is nearing the end of a project and has anxiety about, ‘What am I going to work on next; what am I going to do?’ it will manifest itself in odd ways.

Someone will start talking about how the copier isn’t good enough or they need a different computer.

It will come up in some way that they are pointing out an issue or problem in the firm when the real issue is they are nervous about what their next assignment is going to be. An important trait of any leader is to be able to see through the real issue, and not ignore the superficial issue, but understand what is causing that.

Q. How can you unearth underlying concerns?

We have a monthly meeting with all of our staff to get everyone on a videoconference from all the offices. We ask people who are involved in our different market sectors to talk about the new work they are pursuing or work that we have been awarded.

That level of communication addresses a fundamental issue, which is, ‘Do we have work coming in and what is it, and does it sound like something I want to do?’

What we do is I turn the mic to people in each one of our offices; I say, ‘Jim, give us an update on what your studio is doing in Orlando. Dan in California, what are you guys working on?’

It’s effective when it’s not just the president of a firm but many voices are communicating. That’s really important for companies to have multiple voices communicating single messages of what’s going on.

Q. How do you get buy-in?

The buy-in starts by the asking. Every time we do a new strategic plan or update our strategic plan, we conduct internal surveys.

We invite people at many different levels to participate. We try to get a number of voices that contributed to the effort so that they are not feeling left out and not part of the process.

You build a plan that’s communicated well by first asking people what’s on their mind, what’s their pulse, what’s their sense of the market? What’s going on in their part of the business or part of your organization?

As it emerges, it may not be exactly what everyone wants to do because it can’t meet all needs, but at least they felt like their voice has been heard and that they’ve had an opportunity to help shape it.

HOW TO REACH: Morris Architects, (713) 622-1180 or www.morrisarchitects.com