Entrepreneurs will do anything to improve their companies -- read leadership books, take courses, hire experts, pay for coaches and consultants, etc. These are all great things to do but there is one very simple thing we often forget to pay attention to: listening.
This might come naturally to some of us, and for the rest it might require some attention and practice, but it is a skill that anyone can acquire. And the great thing is, this is a skill that can help you solve problems, identify opportunities, make you a better leader and -- I am not kidding -- even help you at home with your spouse and family. The best part is you can start this today and you don't have to pay anything.
The listening I'm talking about is not the kind most people do (or think they're doing). Rather, it is actual, active and intentional listening, which I've written about before. That article was about how to do it. Here, I would like to talk about who and what you should listen to, particularly these three groups.
1. Talk with your employees with no agenda.
Have free ranging chats with them where you ask them open ended and speculative questions (like; If you were the head of your department or CEO, what would you do in this situation?).
Ask them what their goals would be for the company this month, quarter, year. Ask them what they think about the business, what they like and what they would change. You can try asking them what they don't like about it if you think you could get an honest answer. Ask them what they would like to do themselves, what their inspirations and challenges are, what they would like to achieve.
You can learn so much about your team members, your management team and your company processes through these conversations. They'll give you some ideas to improve how you do things and maybe even some ideas for product innovations.
If this is something you've never done before, employees might not be expecting it and therefore you might have to warm up the conversation before you really dive in.
Learning about team members is something we like to do in our business as much as we can, and is probably one of the things we enjoy most. In the last year alone, these open ended conversations have helped us move a couple of people from one department to another where their skills are better utilized, come up with a product idea and keep a key staff member who was at risk of leaving.
2. Invest in the relationships with your vendors/suppliers.
Set up a time to talk and tell them you want to improve your relationship with them, invest in a stronger partnership and learn what you can do better. Vendors might be sceptical at first, especially if they are not used to anything like this, but I guarantee this will create a ton of value for you.
Ask them what they consider to be best practices and how they view your industry and they will open up. At the end, you will have a better understanding of your industry, a better and stronger relationship with your vendors, and you might even identify some quick win opportunities together.
Recently, with one of our vendors, we found out that we were separately working on similar product innovation projects and that we could actually collaborate and bring those two separate projects together into one. This would never have happened if we hadn't sat down with this particular vendor and had an open-ended discussion with no formal agenda.
3. Have candid conversations with your customers.
If you are a B2B business, it's fairly easy to set up a candid conversation with your customers. If you are B2C, you might have to rely more on tools like customer surveys.
Ask them about their pains, what they see in your industry and what they like and don't like about it, what ways your company can improve and how they interact with your team. Not only will you identify what you should change or avoid, you can find out what you're doing right and keep doing the same.
Actively listening to the right groups of people is one of the highest ROI tools in your toolbox as an entrepreneur and a leader. After all, it's free.