What Is a Listening Tour?
A listening tour is an extremely valuable tool for any new CEO (or any leader, for that matter). It involves meeting with a wide variety of people from many levels of your company. It helps you understand “the lay of the land” at your company. More specifically, it helps you:
- Gather information about what’s really happening at your company.
- Collect input on key issues you’ve identified in advance.
- Capture ideas that will move the business forward.
- Communicate key messages about the company vision and strategic future.
While a listening tour provides you with a lot of information about the company, the most important outcome of a listening tour is that it presents an opportunity for employees to get to know and trust you. If you want to be a successful CEO, people must trust you. They must believe that the company is in good hands. They want to know that you’ll be transparent, open, and authentic. They need to know that you are not the kind of person who will let them down.
Why Is It Important?
It is extremely important during a leadership transition that employees get to know you. If they don’t know you, they won’t trust you, follow you, and/or sign up for the agenda you have set.
But there’s more. When a new CEO is appointed (whether internal or external), the rumor mill goes into overdrive about the changes you might make. As one new CEO told me, “I really needed to get out into the organization to combat fake news.” In a vacuum, employees will make up all kinds of stories about who you are and what you might do as the new CEO. Most of these stories have to do with fear of change and tend to have a consistent set of themes:
- fear of reorganization and changes in reporting structures
- fear of job losses
- fear of changes in control or career opportunity
A listening tour provides the opportunity for employees to voice their fears and for you to hear and acknowledge those fears and address the fears that need to be put to rest.
One of the common mistakes a new, internal CEO makes is to assume the organization knows her. This is absolutely not the case. Employees fears about what you might do prevail over any prior knowledge of you in your previous role. You are going to have to remind them of what you stand for and who you are.
There is another issue at play here. The higher your position in the organization, the more employees (especially your “go-to” employees) will tell you what they want you to hear. Your appointment will cause “storming” at the top levels of leadership (per Tuckman’s model of group dynamics, introducing any new member to a team will initiate a period of forming/storming/norming/performing). Members of the executive team will likely be figuring out (unconsciously) their status/influence/power on your new team. Unfortunately, this means that a new leader is surrounded by people who are more reluctant to provide you with honest, relevant feedback.
If you are inheriting the CEO role from a popular CEO or if you are an outside hire, a listening tour presents you with an opportunity to “re-recruit” employees. On a very practical level, it allows you to build relationships, demonstrate your knowledge, and model a leadership style that listens. All of this builds followership and increases employee engagement.
Before You Start
I have learned that there are several “pre-listening” steps you can take to dramatically improve the impact and quality of the time you will invest in a listening tour.
First, the conventional wisdom is that a new CEO should take the first 90–100 days to listen and not make decisions. I recommend that you ignore this timeframe and guidance. You should plan to do a listening tour during your first 30 days. Also, while you should avoid making public commitments during your listening tour, you should not shy away from making pressing decisions (especially commercial or personnel decisions).
Second, consider conducting some informal web surveys before you go on your tour. Invite all employees to participate. Don’t make the survey long, but do make it democratic (i.e. open to all employees). Your corporate communications office can help you manage this process. You can isolate the survey process to business units and geographic areas to capture more “local” issues/concerns. Note: You will need the support of a dedicated, experienced corporate communications resource to facilitate this process.
Conducting a survey in advance allows you to dig deeper in a more targeted way during your tour. You will appear to know the company’s issues and understand the organization’s problems. You can use your tour to begin to generate ideas about how to address the most common issues.
Finally, a listening tour is not about talking! Remind yourself that your goal is to listen. Don’t waste time on PowerPoint (if you must, stick to three slides with your most important messages). The biggest challenge with listening tours is that a new CEO is tempted to talk too much—after all, you want to prove that you are a worthy new leader, especially when you already have ideas about how you want to address issues. I promise that you’ll learn much more and have a much more valuable experience if you stay open and curious. It will provide you with a deeper understanding of the people in your organization and the issues they care about.
How to Conduct the Tour
You have some flexibility in how you conduct your listening tour. There are a variety of formats that might work, but there are several obvious steps to take.
- Decide who to include. This involves thinking about locations, individuals, business units, thought leaders, etc. Sometimes you might want to do a customer listening tour (a topic for another day). This involves making a decision about who are the most important people to include and it also presents you with an opportunity to reach some neglected locations or parts of the business. I had a new CEO visit his IT organization in India. They had never had a visit from his predecessor. In the course of his conversations with the IT team, they convinced him that they could move the company to a new IT platform that would allow the company to lead their industry in the area of data-mining. It was time well spent.
- Let the company know your intent for the listening tour. Explain why you are doing it, how long it will take, and where you plan to visit or not visit. If you have a global business, you might want to plan to live-stream (and record) some events. Few new CEOs have the capacity to travel to all company locations in 30 days. That said, I have had one global CEO who traveled to every location over a year-long time period. The symbolism of that commitment was not lost on employees.
- Determine the questions you want to ask in advance. You can distribute the questions in advance to individuals or groups. You’ll have questions you want to ask everyone and other questions that are more specific. As recommended above, you can survey audiences in advance of your visit. Sending the questions in advance provides employees with an opportunity to reflect and provide more meaningful feedback. Springing questions on employees can make it feel more like a test than a genuine conversation.
In a 2017 New York Times article, Chip Bergh, the CEO of Levi Strauss, described his listening tour as focusing on four key questions:
- What are the three things you think we have to change?
- What are the three things that we have to keep?
- What do you most want me to do?
- What are you most afraid I might do?
Of course, you can use a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) format for questions or you might have more company-specific questions. One of the most common areas to address is to determine how well strategy is understood.
You can email questions in advance, use a survey in advance, and you can have index cards available in the room for people to submit questions (just make sure that you have a good question moderator). If you are live-casting, employees can submit their questions to a moderator.
For one-on-one conversations, you’ll have more specific questions you might want to ask. I recommend also sending these questions in advance. In the one-on-one conversations, do not stick with the scripted questions! Embrace inquiry, become curious, and stay in the moment.
- Keep logistics quite simple. Meetings should be 60–90 minutes. You can do a presentation format. You can do a coffee-talk or fireside-chat format. You can have members of your team onstage with you. One of my clients insisted that his full team be with him on stage when he presented at HQ. He took the time to introduce each team member and speak to their personal virtues and talents. It was quite effective and moving.
- Follow up with a survey. You’ll find that the feedback is almost always overwhelmingly positive, and you’ll get some suggestions about how to improve the quality of your events. But don’t just stop there—send a follow-up note. Detail what you heard. Express gratitude. Commit to some next steps.
Finally, some practical do’s and don’ts:
- Do not check out during the breaks. That’s the time that the more introverted leaders in the group might want to check in with you.
- Pay attention to the contrarians or more controversial input—they often surface the issues that no one wants to bring to your attention.
- Be keen to identify relationships you might need to build. This is an opportunity for you to identify talent and connect with the next generation of leaders.
- In one-on-one conversations, pay close attention to why people came to work at your company and what keeps them at your company.
- Consider an annual or more targeted listening tour.
A listening tour is a terrific opportunity for the organization to get to know you and for you to get to know the organization. People really do want to know who you are and what you are about—even if they’ve worked with you for a long time. To be successful, you’ll have to be confident, open, transparent, vulnerable, and present—a tall order! Put simply, be authentic.
You can master this challenge by preparing well and being intentional, while, at the same time, avoiding being scripted or too careful. Remind people of your intent: to listen. You can tell stories about yourself and your challenges; use a story formula that is compelling and engaging. Finally, make sure that employees know that they are the everyday heroes—the heartbeat of your company.
When it’s over? Take care of yourself. These listening tours can be exhausting. Carve out time to reflect on what you heard. And ask yourself what you can do to rest or rejuvenate after the tour. As a new CEO, it’s never too early to implement good self-care practices.
 Bruce W. Tuckman, “Developmental Sequence in Small Groups,” Psychological Bulletin 63, no. 6 (1965): 384–399.
 Adam Bryant, “Chip Bergh on Setting a High Bar and Holding People Accountable,” The New York Times, June 9, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/09/business/chip-bergh-on-setting-a-high-bar-and-holding-people-accountable.html.