Listen, Learn, Then Lead

Korn Ferry CEO Gary Burnison says leaders need to be better active listeners.

Gary Burnison is CEO of Korn Ferry and the author of Take Control: The Career You Want, Where You Want.

“Every time we have a discussion, there’s complete alignment—one hundred percent buy-in.” It sounded too good to be true—and, as it turned out, it was.

I can distinctly remember the interview we conducted with an executive several years ago. When we asked about his process for getting buy-in from others, he couldn’t wait to give an example. “During a Zoom meeting with my team, we had a particularly important decision to make. So, I went around to everybody and asked for a ‘thumbs up’ or a ‘thumbs down’ on my idea. Before they voted, I told them that, for me, this was definitely a ‘thumbs up.’”

“And how did that work for you?” we asked.

“Amazing—it was unanimous!” the executive said. “It was just incredible to see ten people on my screen—all completely aligned.”

Needless to say, this wasn’t really listening.

Contrary to today’s habits, we should not be thumbs up, thumbs down, swipe left, swipe right. It should be about “tell me more.” And that takes far more than simply hearing—we need to be active listeners. 

Listening is an invaluable leadership skill. It’s observing with our eyes and ears—and detecting the texture and context between the words. Because here’s the thing—the distance between hearing and listening is thinking and understanding.

That’s why it’s up to us, as leaders, to ask ourselves: Are we really listening or merely hearing? Do we listen to the silence… and to educate our intuition? Are we willing to listen to what we don’t want to hear? And do we suspend judgment—making it safe for others to speak their truth?

Or do we only listen to people who think like us and act like us? If we do, then all we hear is… well, us.

The fact is, listening is a combination of observing and absorbing.

An executive who serves on the board of a company confided in me just the other day about interviewing a candidate for a CEO position. After the interview, each board member gave their opinion—and this executive intentionally spoke last.

She had counted the number of times the candidate had said the word “I” during the interview—27 times! “The use of ‘I’ that many times was a red flag,” she told me. Not surprisingly, the board chose a different candidate.

There’s a power in really listening to others, as I can attest after helping with several interviews for a client recently. In the midst of our conversation, something I’ve been asking is—if you knew then what you know now, what would it be?

Yes, it’s to see how people react and think on their feet. But more important, it’s whether they’re willing to engage—and that’s the difference between hearing and listening.

Over the years, I’ve also sometimes asked quirky questions—like how would you make a tuna fish sandwich for me.

Some puzzle it out, some get flustered—and some really get into it.

Like the time I asked someone, “A penguin walks into the room, wearing a baseball cap and shorts—what do you say?”

“Excuse me. What kind of penguin?” the person interrupted. “There’s like eighteen different species. Emperor, king, chinstrap, macaroni….” He ticked them off on his fingers. “It makes a difference.

More than a little surprised, I nodded. “For the sake of this question, let’s just say it was an emperor penguin.”

“Good.” The person sighed with relief. “Because they’re like four feet tall. You could probably get an emperor penguin into shorts and a baseball cap.”

In a word, memorable. This person had really engaged, revealing more of who they are. Because if the past few years have taught us anything, it’s the importance of being vulnerable, authentic, empathetic.

We know what the opposite of that looks and sounds like, too.

I’ll never forget being in the back of that room many years and a few iterations ago. It was the first meeting after an acquisition that brought two companies together. As the meeting was going on, a person asked a sincere question—albeit one that did not need to be addressed immediately. The leader in the front of the room quickly dismissed it: “That’s not what we’re talking about.” Talk about first impressions.

In that moment, it was like the air was sucked out of that space—everything stopped. No one would speak up—and no one was listening. The connection this leader had been trying to build with others had broken down.

Listening takes time—that most precious of commodities. Yet the payoff is immeasurable.

When people know we’re listening, they’re seen. And when they’re seen, they feel part of something bigger than themselves.

That’s why one of the biggest gifts we can give others is our attention. Indeed, it’s our willingness to truly listen, learn and then lead.