Stepping in as a new manager to a team feels a lot like standing at the base of a mountain. You have a vision of what you’d like to achieve, but the hill to climb is steep and the pathway isn’t always certain. From the team’s perspective, gaining a new manager can be either a welcome relief or a cause for trepidation. The amount of excitement, anxiety, uncertainty, and ambiguity shared by all parties can make the first week as a new intact team quite tumultuous.
Effective new managers often go on a “listening tour” for the first 30-60 days. A listening tour is a set period of time where the new manager meets with as many key stakeholders as possible to ask questions, hear concerns, identify barriers, and build rapport. The goal of the listening tour is very simple- just listen. But a listening tour is most effective when it is approached strategically. Here are six tips for completing a successful listening tour:
- On day one, state explicitly that you plan to go on a listening tour. Explain what a listening tour is, why you’re choosing that approach, and how long you expect the listening tour to last. By stating your plans explicitly, it opens the door for team members and key stakeholders to share information they believe is valuable. You’ve informed them that you’re there to listen, and they know you’re open to hearing their ideas. Additionally, it adjusts team members expectations, so they won’t wonder why you haven’t made more decisions or shared any planned changes yet.
- Don’t make any decisions or promises. One of the hardest aspects of the listening tour is reserving judgment. There will be moments when you hear things that seem illogical or are completely in conflict with your management style, and you’ll be tempted to reassure team members that things will be different with you. While there are certainly times you could make decisions without consequence, you want to avoid the risk of making a promise you can’t keep. Without knowing all the complexities of the role, business, relationships, etc, it is too easy to make a promise you’ll have to break once you gather more information. While the main goal of the listening tour is just to listen, every conversation is an opportunity to build trust and credibility. You’ll be more respected for committing to investigate a situation further than you would be for promising to fix a problem you can’t solve.
- Meet with each person one-on-one. Depending on the size of the team, this could take quite a bit of time. But it will be time well spent. In group meetings, some individuals will be less likely to share their thoughts and others will dominate the discussion. Additionally, it’s harder to build personal rapport with people in a group setting.
- Be sensitive to team members’ baggage. It’s possible your predecessor wasn’t the best match for the team. Perhaps they were ineffective or worse- toxic. Your new employees may have very low trust and be highly skeptical of anyone coming in. Or they may want to dive deep into the awful experiences they’ve had before you joined the team. This can be especially difficult in the context of a listening tour. Naturally, you’ve expressed a desire to listen, but not all of the information shared will be helpful or even healthy. Listen and be sensitive to the stories each team member shares. Treat them the same way you would treat anyone who has been through some form of trauma. But ask them to commit to looking forward with you. When possible (and appropriate) help guide each team member into sharing experiences along with solutions and/or suggestions for the future. This will help everyone express their frustrations, but guide them on a new positive journey together.
- Meet with as many people as possible. In each listening tour, be sure to ask “Who else do you suggest I meet with?” The additional conversations that branch off of each stakeholder conversation will give you a fast pass for understanding the inner workings of the organization and relationships. Identifying key strategic relationships and learning how to leverage them will make you a more effective manager and also raise your overall visibility in the organization.
- Finally, share your observations. Once the listening tour is over, gather your team together and share what you learned. Check your conclusions with the team and be open to hearing their reactions. At this stage, it still may be too early to commit to specific plans, but it is helpful to share your vision, share where you plan to investigate more, and share which barriers you believe you can remove. And finally, even though you’re concluding the official “listening tour” in a transparent way by sharing your observations, commit to continuing thoughtful listening behaviors going forward.
The listening tour is a technique that is effective specifically for managers in transition, but the behaviors are valuable every day throughout the management experience.