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How to Listen Like a Leader: The Biggest Lesson from My Unconventional Career Path

How to Listen Like a Leader: The Biggest Lesson from My Unconventional Career Path Blog Feature

Chris Duprey

They Ask, You Answer Coach, 10+ Years in Business Development & Leadership, Former Infantry Officer

September 28th, 2017 min read

Being a leader doesn’t mean that you have all the answers.

In fact, in today’s ever-changing world, many leaders aren’t subject matter experts in the field they are leading anymore.

If this is the case, however, how can they truly guide their organizations toward success? 

The answer is simple: By listening and learning from their team.

I don’t pretend to be a great leader, but I am adamant that I have served and been led by some of the best leaders that have ever walked this planet.

Today, as I write this, I am the Chief Operating Officer of an Inbound Marketing Agency and HubSpot Elite Solutions Partner and I have zero marketing agency experience… I am charged with leading the organization’s leadership team to make our CEO’s vision real.

Below is how I am making this work. By listening and learning from my team, I am setting myself and the organization up for success.

With that said, let me dive into how listening and learning can do the same for you, no matter what industry, team size, or your experience.

But First, Here’s My Story.

A little over five years ago, I returned from Afghanistan as Dog 6 (Company Commander of D Company, 1st Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division).  

Today -- I am the Chief Operating Officer at IMPACT. Quite a shift, I know.

The road to this point has included a ton of learning, but the lesson that set me straight came from my mentor on that Afghanistan deployment.

Here’s the story.

Afghanistan - summer of 2012.

We were located on a Forward Operating Base (FOB) in Southern Ghazni Province. My unit 1BCT, 82nd Airborne Division (The Devils in Baggy Pants) took over responsibility for a large section of Ghazni Province from the Polish Army.

We basically came in, to build several small outposts and our companies and troops went out to secure the area, which had a large Taliban presence. I was the Deputy Plans Officer working with the brigade staff to plan large initiatives and eventually our redeployment back to the center of the universe (Fort Bragg, NC).

listen-like-a-leader.jpg

At this point in my career, I was a graduate from the Maneuver Captain’s Career Course and was in the command queue (which meant I was waiting to take command of an Infantry Company).

My boss and mentor, Adam Barlow, was the Plans Officer and he was waiting to become a battalion operations officer.  We spent more time together in our 9 months in Afghanistan than I probably have with my wife over 10 years of marriage…  We worked out first thing every morning, ate all of our meals together, worked all day and night together, and even watched a movie every Saturday night together.  Long story short, we knew each other very well.

A Lesson in Listening

One afternoon Adam sat me down for a counseling session to help me grow as an officer, leader, and future commander.

He mentioned something I needed to improve on and my brain kicked into overdrive. I cut him off, telling him how I was already working on that…

I can remember his reaction, as this was not the first time I had done something like this. He said, “Chris if you cut me off again I’m going to punch you in the face!”

I remember at that moment thinking, “why am I cutting off someone who is genuinely trying to make me better? Why can’t I listen? How do I fix this huge flaw?”

This same mentor always carried and wrote in three or four different colored pens, and always the same kind: Pilot G-2s.

What did each color mean? Why was he using red now?

Everyone on our staff tried to figure it out and we all made assumptions. After several years working with him, I don’t think he ever really told me what each color stood for; only that changing the colors helped make certain things stand out to him.

I, of course, wanting to be just like him, started using the same pens and developing my own code for each color.

While I was in command:

  • blue meant my own thoughts
  • green meant tasks for my team
  • red meant tasks for myself.

This way I always knew simply by looking at the different colors, who had to do what and how I felt or what I thought. I continued this practice even after I left the Army and still always have my three Pilot G-2s with me, though today they serve a different purpose…

I now use these pens as a way to remind me to listen…

Blue equals my own thoughts and notes. This is probably because blue is my favorite color and I naturally pick it up if given a choice.  When I am speaking I hold my blue pen.

Red is the color of tasks.  All tasks or to-dos that come out of a meeting are recorded in red.  

Now on to Green - the most important pen I have.  When I am in a meeting with our team, our partners, or a client I use my green pen to takes notes based on what others are saying. By holding my green pen, I make it a point to myself to remember I am in listening mode. I need to listen and really absorb what others are saying so that I can understand their point of view and show them the respect that true team's (and any relationship for that matter) are built upon.

If what’s said makes me think of something, I transition to my blue pen to ensure that I capture the thought as mine.

After a meeting, I then go back and try to understand what our client or teammate was talking about, take some notes based on what it meant to me, and then gain a better understanding of the entire subject.

To me, this helps develop the shared consciousness we, as human beings, need today. 

The Lesson for You as a Leader

My purpose for writing this piece is not to try to get everyone to use different color pens.

I tell this story to show each one of us needs to figure out what our own “green pen” is going to be so that we truly listen to those we are working with.

The complex, high-stress environments we all operate in today is too difficult for us to think we can do everything ourselves. The only way to attack this environment and achieve our true potential is to work together in a truly collaborative way. When we do this, we achieve better internal results and we bring more value to our clients.

This starts with actively listening to each other.

When taking over a new team, department, or organization, you need to understand the value of listening to your team.  You will not be successful if you can’t listen to them and learn about them.

It doesn’t matter how great of a leader you think you are. The best leaders are constantly listening and learning. They are reading books, going to conferences, listening to podcasts, watching videos. They take a large part of their week and devote it to the art of becoming a better leader.

No matter what position you hold, think about what I’ve said today.  Figure out what simple trick you can create to make you a better listener so you can continually become a better leader. Here, I’ll lend you my blue pen.

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