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Responding to sound is one of the basic actions of any form of life. Hearing has been traced back in evolution as far as a half a billion years. Plants have been shown to react to sound. Even some microorganisms do it. And throughout the animal kingdom, hearing is one of the most important survival skills.

Among humans, using sound to scientifically identify the location of an object has been around for centuries. Well over 500 years ago, Leonardo Da Vinci stuck a curved tube beneath the surface of the water and rotated it around to locate ships. Hydrophones, underwater microphones, to find ships and more specifically submarines, were developed before the turn of the 20th century.

But it wasn’t until the Titanic disaster that the active use of sound as a location tool was developed. These active devices don’t just listen but rather make their own sound and listen for the return echo. Mere months after the accident in April 1912 both British and German engineers filed patents for active echo sounding devices. And shortly thereafter Canadian Reginald Fessenden was testing such a system in Boston harbor. The seas during World War I were a cacophony of pings and listening devices as virtually all vessels above and below the surface were using sound as a tool of war. And with the advancements to radio in the decades since, World War II shepherded in the world of Radar that took the technology well outside the frequency of human hearing.

I had always assumed that we humans learned active echo sounding from the animal kingdom. After all, as early as the 1700s, scientists had suspected that sound was how bats hunted at night. But the proof was elusive, and we humans had developed sonar decades before we confirmed it in bats and then later found it among whales, dolphins, even some species of rats. It wasn’t until 1938 that the term echolocation was coined by American zoologist Robert Griffin as the term for this sort of “bio-sonar”.

Given this history, it’s somewhat surprising what poor listeners we humans can be. Listening in relationships is a learned skill, one many struggle to master. And when it comes to leading organizations, listening well is a particular challenge. Especially given all the noise many leaders make. When leaders fail to listen as well as they talk, they often struggle. And that’s what this is all about.

This is Leading Smart, the show about Managing in the Brainpower Age. It’s a field guide to the joys and challenges of leading and working in the modern workplace. I’m Chris Williams, your guide to the stories and ideas that I hope will inspire you to be a better leader in the world of knowledge work.

This episode continues the series on communication as a leader. Now it’s time to see if you’re being heard. This is Episode 222 – Echolocation.

I distinctly remember the confidence I felt when I first began leading a team. The promotion from individual contributor to team lead is empowering. The ability to muster the forces of a group of people together to solve a problem is so invigorating. You can get many times the amount of work accomplished, and can coordinate to solve enormous challenges. You see firsthand that the whole often is greater than the sum of the parts. From a quality perspective, there is confidence in knowing that, as a front-line manager, you can peer in at all the work being done, and ensure that it’s being executed at least as well as you might. Often even better. I quite clearly remember feeling, “this is great!”

That first promotion, from doing the work yourself to building a team, is often cited by people as the turning point in their careers. It’s the moment they realize that rather than being a mediocre individual contributor, they can be a good, perhaps even great leader. The light bulb of leadership clicks on. For many, it feels life changing.

But in practice, the next promotion — to the manager of managers — is often the true turning point in any leadership career. Though it seems like merely a step up in the ladder, the entire process of management changes with this one jump. The elevation to higher management requires the most critical pivot in their behavior. That one deceptively small move determines for many whether the life of a leader is really in their future.

The change that happens with that second level promotion is an unexpected reduction in the number of tools available to a leader. One would think that, as you climb the ladder, you’d have more options at your disposal for how to coordinate and manage teams. But in reality, the opposite is true. The further away you get from the front line, the less direct impact you as a leader can have on the direct results. There are more layers of people in the way, more teams to coordinate, and thousands of details that are no longer in your direct line of sight. 

As a front-line manager, if something isn’t going well you can just jump in and rescue it. Sure, that makes the person you pushed aside feel terrible, but the job gets done, and the problem is solved. You can work to remedy the individual situation with them once the challenge is behind you.

But a higher-level manager who does the same undercuts not just the front-line person, but each layer in between. Entire teams who witness the spectacle feel violated, frustrated, and confused. The direct reports who were bypassed are completely undermined and left humiliated, in both their mind and in the eyes of the team. The whole organization lives in fear of future similar strokes of micromanagement.

Further, because of their distance from the problem, the higher-level manager rarely fully understands the many implications at the detail level. Even more likely, they never even see things at that level of resolution in the first place. Problems arise, they see the impact and jump to intervene. The overreaction will likely be a spectacular misfire, and make the problem worse.

All of this makes that promotion to second level manager a turning point in a career. A budding leader must learn to lead by remote control — by indirect influence. To leverage, rely on and trust their own team of leaders. People who excel at senior leadership are communicators first, deciders second, and doers a distant third. This is exceptionally frustrating for some, and they often retreat to front-line management or even back to individual contribution. The distance from the action, and the coordination requirements, are just too much to bear.

But there are those who see the growing impact they can make with each step on the ladder as worth every bit of the challenge of indirect control. They revel in shaping the future, creating the culture, helping to nurture future leaders. To them, the communication that is so critical to leading effectively is not a hassle, but an opportunity. It is what they live for. Those are the true leaders.

This is what much of the series on Vision in season one of this podcast was all about. It’s what I spoke of last time on being sure you effectively and frequently communicate your messages. It is why listening remains one of the few tools that is consistently a part of a management toolbelt. And it’s why listening for echoes is a vital skill as a leader ascends in an organization.

In the last episode I suggested that repetition is a valuable pattern for leaders in trying to get their message out. People need to hear something many times to internalize it. Repetition also helps maintain a certain calmness and consistency in an organization as it is battered by winds as they blow through the working environment.

But even if you push past your internal resistance to sounding like a parrot, incessantly repeating your messages, how do you know if they’ve been heard? This is where echolocation, listening for the echoes and determining their quality and their source, is useful. To do effective echolocation requires several steps:

As in most multi-step plans the first step is the hardest. For echoes, the first step is to listen broadly. You have to listen far and wide to hear the echoes, and determine exactly where they are coming from.

But broad listening is hard. When faced with a lot of input everyone naturally limits the sources. You see this with the news or social media. So much noise. The most common way to cope with this overload is to limit the number of incoming signals. To cut down on the voices in your head.

For leaders, the natural tendency is to limit the input to their immediate circle. Their direct reports, their immediate supervisor, a very few trusted allies. But this is dangerous. With few exceptions, those people all have a vested interest in controlling the echo. They want to share their positives, and expose other’s negatives. And like much of cable news, they only share the sensational. If you listened to only them, you’d be convinced that the various teams were either a model of heroism or a flaming dumpster fire. The gradual progress, the relentless effort, the everyday success, all would be overlooked and all but lost.

Most importantly, by listening only to those up close, a leader misses perhaps the most important metric for a message. Is it being heard clearly, is it impacting the team’s culture, and is it helping to advance the project? Down in the trenches where it really and truly matters.

In the next episode we’ll look at where to go for really good feedback. Who you can trust, and who you shouldn’t. But the overriding theme is to search for the echoes as broadly as you can. And to break out of your communication bubble as often as you can.

Aside from the source, another important measure of the echo its genesis. It is most honest when the return message is unprompted and unscripted. It’s most powerful when you hear it being used as a way to clarify decisions, to independently act, to correct or redirect. This is when you know the message is effective and useful.

For me, discovering this kind of echo happens mostly through serendipity. As I noted in a previous episode, I heard it once in the rest room. I’ve seen it happen for others at lunch, or in casual hallway conversation. What you hear is people leveraging the message to make some of the many thousands of detail decisions every project faces every day. “No we can’t do that, it would be the exact opposite of the project vision.” Or “how many times have we heard Chris say it, we just have to do this.” These kinds of echoes are true, and help to advance the project.

If you hear the message however being merely parroted, that’s a cautionary echo. You’ve seen the signs up all over a workplace “safety is our number one priority”. Or “quality is job one”. When not followed up with any meaningful action, such as spending money on safety or actively rejecting inferior quality, they become meaningless slogans. And the echoes they generate are not quality returns, but are rather filled mocking and derision. That is when the message is lost, and its effect is not just empty, but it’s a failure. Safety is ignored, quality is a joke. The echo has become a rejection of the original. 

The good echoes come unprompted and with sincerity. The very best come during the heat of decision making. When you hear the echo that way, it’s not only genuine its actually useful.

The next facet is to examine the details of the echo. Is what you’re hearing a true reflection of the output message? Is it true to the original meaning?

Often you will hear in an echo people who shape the message to more effectively fit their situation or their style. Some of this is fine, the spirit and detail of the message remains uncorrupted and true to form. In fact, this refinement is often helpful as it clarifies the message or provides details that apply more locally.

An example might be an original message of “we want to be number one in our market”. A useful clarification might be “we want to be number one in the orange juice market”. A useful localization of the message might be “we want to be number one in OJ in the Louisiana market”. These are true to the overall messaging, the carry same spirit, and just serve to clarify the market for the situation or the team. These kinds of echoes of the message are healthy and often even beneficial.

But another alternative echo might be “we want to crush all our competition in the market”. This is clearly not the same message. It has negative overtones, it wishes ill on others, it implies the only way to grow the market is at the competition’s expense, and so on. If you hear this kind of echo in return, clearly both the spirit and the text of the messaging has been lost. This kind of echo requires clarification and correction.

Another perversion of the message can be changing the goals. If, in response to a hard freeze in the orchards, you start to hear an echo of “we want to be top 5 in the market”, this can be a problem. If this choice is made without full vetting and careful consideration, it too is a corruption of the original message, and should be tamped down.

Yet, if done well, a similar clarification of the message is a sign of progress. Sometimes a message needs to bend and change given changes in the market, the environment, or the state of the project. For example, in the face of a broad decline in breakfast consumption the message might change to “we want to be top 5 in the drinks market”. This is fine if it’s a uniform and fully vetted change in the objective, made with broad input and consideration. If, however, it is heard purely as an echo from deep within the organization, it’s safe to say that someone has gone rogue and correction measures are necessary.

Lastly, the leader’s worst nightmare. What to do if you’re not hearing a return? If there’s no echo at all?

This silence can be due to several factors. If you’re being relentlessly consistent, and repeating the message yet getting nothing in return, the message is at fault. It doesn’t ring true with the team. It seems fake or hollow, or not useful. They’ve simply rejected it. This can be devastating and deserves a complete reexamination of the message. Along with the process that developed it and the methods used to communicate it.

A more common problem, however, is overload. The message is simply being drowned out. There are too many competing priorities, too many messages from too many directions, simply too much noise. The leader may be the source, either presenting too many messages or by not being clear. Or it might be external forces or internal politics that are drowning the message out or making it seem insignificant.

In any case, this is the reddest of red flags. If you are consistent in your message, not whipsawing the team this way or that, are repeating the message at every opportunity, using the message as a core part of your own decision making, and yet you still don’t hear it echoing with the organization, this is a full-blown crisis. You need to immediately retreat and craft messaging that is more relevant, more useful, and will be ultimately more effective.

Thankfully, there’s almost always an echo. It may not be what you want, but it will be there. You just have to listen for it.

Next time we’ll explore where and how to get good feedback. How to know when it’s real and when it’s not. And the people and places you need to go to get that feedback. But that’s next time. Until then remember to keep your ears open, it’s the only way to do bio-sonar, the only path to echolocation.

Leading Smart is from me, Chris Williams. You can find out more about the show and discover other resources for leaders at my web site

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That’s it for this episode. The next episode is another of my conversations with leaders. We’ll talk with Somasegar, whose origin story and career are fun, but his thoughts on what makes great leadership are even better. I hope you’ll listen. Until then, please remember that each of the several dozen decisions you make today are part of Leading Smart.