Strong communication skills are important in any position, and as a Chief of Staff it is an essential skill that can make or break you. We see ‘strong written and verbal communication’ as important requisite skills for any Chief of Staff, but we forget another crucial communication skill: listening.
We so often focus communication skills around our output (i.e., talking and writing) without considering our input (i.e., observation and listening). And while it may seem counterintuitive, our ability to listen can speak volumes.
Whether you’re hired into a new company or promoted into the position, as Chief of Staff you are likely to encounter some doubters. They may be anxious about your proximity to the executive or simply not understand your role. And they, quite possibly, don’t feel heard. You can assuage their fear and concern by listening and understanding their point of view.
We often encourage new Chiefs of Staff to take a “listening tour” when starting out in their new role. This means, speaking with a variety of people in the organization – especially those you will work with closely. Take genuine interest in listening to what they have to say. There may be issues you can easily alleviate for them or you can connect them to the right resource when opportunities align. If people feel like you are authentic, and truly listening to their concerns, they are more likely to trust you in the future.
Promote Collaboration and Decision Making
Implementing new ideas and encouraging leaders and their departments to work together often falls to the Chief of Staff. Listening fosters cooperation. Instead of coming into a meeting with guns blazing and a holster full of data to back up your own opinion, take another approach. Ask questions. “Why won’t this work? What is most important to your team? What would help move alleviate these obstacles?”
Listen to their responses. These are the hurdles people are facing, which are inhibiting them from making decisions. You may find that department leaders who seem to be butting heads are actually on the same page, and they are both trying to protect their teams from being spread too thinly. Listening gives you a vantage point to see where these hurdles are creating bottlenecks that are literally blocking progress from occurring. As Chief of Staff, your role is to encourage decision making by others to move the company forward, rather than solely relying on you or your boss for all the answers.
Hear What’s Not Being Said
Business is not a machine. It’s comprised of people. With feelings. And bad days. When you’re engaged in active listening, you pick up on things that aren’t being said out loud, but that are still impacting the business. What’s really happening when a well-liked CEO suddenly starts snapping at employees, a cheerful receptionist loses that warm smile, or the type-A Financial Director starts missing deadlines? While not everyone wants to share their feelings or personal issues, being aware that a colleague’s behavior that is out of the norm allows you to act with empathy. The Chief of Staff often plays mediator, coach, or pulse checker for the organization and its people, and listening is critical to perform these roles effectively.
If you want to be a great Chief of Staff, practicing active listening is essential. Not sure where to start? Return to the old business school favorite, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey. Reread Habit 5: Seek first to understand, then to be understood. It’s a great resource to get you thinking about how to listen actively without evaluating others or interpreting what you think people are saying before you actually hear them. After all, listening is one of the most important skills you can hone as a Chief of Staff.