As Jan Jacobs and Leo Premutico see it, there's one social behavior above all others that's most critical to being creative and innovating well--listening. The pair, co-founders of creative agency Johannes Leonardo, say the trait is still wildly undervalued. But today's consumers are different. They simply won't tolerate being shouted at or having brands forced on them, and they don't want companies that are willing to abandon their identity for just a few minutes of fame and attention. And so businesses absolutely must become fantastic listeners if they want buyers to notice them.

And Jacobs and Premutico are very clear on what being a good listener actually means.

"Listening is not about doing what someone tells you to do. It's not the same as waiting to talk. It's not passive. Listening is active. It's about having your ear to the ground, understanding the forces around you and reading subtext."

With this foundation, Jacobs and Premutico add that, in their own work, their goal is to find the honest truths that are going to stand the test of time for the clients' businesses. They try to read between the lines and figure out the right questions that need to be asked, rather than automatically searching for the answer. That process can reveal what's holding an organization back, unveiling specific challenges or roadblocks it needs to work through.

And it can lead you to marketing strategies you wouldn't try otherwise, too. When a new soccer boot company told Johannes Leonardo that 80 percent of people who tried on their boots ended up buying them, for example, the agency set up a pop-up store that let shoppers take home just the right boot of a set so they could compare it to their old cleats. After two weeks, shoppers could come back and buy the pair for double the price. The strategy ended up driving both awareness and sales for the brand. And when Johannes Leonardo was tasked with breathing new life into the Superstar sneaker from Adidas, they realized the notion of superstardom had shifted. That led them to abandon the culture of likes and followers and instead execute for years based on the idea that true superstars create for an audience of one.

As for who are the absolute best listeners and who you can take inspiration from as you try to improve, the founders say the award goes to artists, hands down.

"[Artists'] work extends beyond their immediate circle of influence, without compromise, to permeate and change the world we live in," say the duo.

"Da Vinci listened by dissecting human bodies to truly understand our anatomical make-up. His elevated awareness of our skeletal, muscular and vascular system was ultimately a big part of what made his work unlike the work of any other renaissance painter. While someone like Banksy listened while lying under a parked truck, hiding from police, after being bust painting a London wall. He had an epiphany the moment he looked up and saw the petrol tank number spray-painted with stencil. From that moment his work started popping up everywhere and he became the invisible artist."

But as a leader, you are a listening model by default, too. You need to show others how it's done and not react on autopilot.

"There's nothing like elevating powerful examples from our employees to usher in new behavior and approach to creativity. In order to collectively embrace a culture of listening, we have to empower our talent in this way, and it must start from the top. Leadership must be the example in showcasing active listening in not only how we work with clients, but in how we work with our talent."

As you sharpen your ability to listen, remember that it's a secret weapon that works for a range of issues, including self-doubt, writer's block or "impossible" tasks. Every unique problem also demands a customized solution. If you reorient your processes to fit the distinct challenge in front of you each time, then effective work becomes the consistent means of quantifying how beneficial your listening has been.

Published on: Mar 5, 2019
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