By Don Kennedy, Managing Partner
The best deals and the best jobs usually go to the best listeners…..
Early in my career, I left a Tuesday morning meeting with a prospective client on cloud nine. Our VP of Sales (my boss) was shadowing me for the day, and after the clinic of business development skills I had just displayed over the past forty-five minutes, I was convinced that he was probably now shaking in his expensive wingtips that this young upstart would soon be climbing the ladder and taking his job. I took everything that I had learned in my few months of classroom and field training and busted them out like some kind of junior sales ninja. Emboldened by my early morning success (and the new tie I bought the night before this important day), we visited another prospective buyer, and I killed it again. We repeated this five times that day. I was unstoppable. When my boss asked me if I wanted to grab a beer at the end of the day to debrief, how could I turn it down? This would be the grand end to a fantastic day, with him showering me with accolades on my performance. Or so I thought.
“You really know your sh*t”, he started, clearly noticing the hard work and practice that I had put into learning and memorizing our company’s value prop and key product and service features. “And if you ever learn how to actually listen to a prospective customer, you might even be successful someday.” Dagger. Might even be successful someday? Me? Seriously? He then spent the next thirty minutes asking me about what I had learned that day about the needs and strategic objectives of each client we met with. My answers were vague, and my grasp of what really defined a clear cut next action step needed to turn a prospective customer into a strategic partner was almost non-existent. I was humbled, and more than a little embarrassed. He was right, I hadn’t listened. I didn’t ask enough questions. It was all about me. Sensing that this young go-getter now felt about two feet tall, he told me he liked my new tie, so the day wasn’t a total failure after all.
Although the story I just told you took place over two decades ago, it still stays with me on a daily basis. Being a great listener is a skill that is developed over the course of years, and something that few will ever master (I know I still have a long ways to go). In my role as a revenue leader, we often discussed the difference between “presenters” and “sellers”. “Presenters” are charismatic, polished, and articulate. They are good storytellers that can hold a room of senior level executives and garner their attention. “Sellers” do their homework and ask the right questions to drive a meaningful dialogue, and most importantly, listen to the answers intently and apply what they have learned to the next stage of the conversation or process. “Presenters” drive some interest. “Sellers” close deals.
This same principle applies to the executive job market as well. I’m lucky to partner with high growth companies looking for transformative talent to help identify and land those individuals. At senior levels, most truly exceptional candidates come with their fair share of shining credentials on paper. Whether its education, years of experience, clearly stated quantitative wins, etc…, a lot of resumes look similarly impressive, and it’s not until the face to face interview process begins where you start to see what separates one candidate from another. We could spend all day talking about all of the nuances at play during this part of the process, but one of the biggest assessments that hiring execs and Boards make is “Are they a good listener?”. During the interview process, is it all about them, or does a candidate bring enough intel to the table to create a meaningful two way dialogue? Do they just sit across from you and regurgitate the same data that is easily already read on a sheet of paper, or do they engage in the manner one would when looking to close a long term business partnership. Whether it’s nerves, overconfidence, laziness, or a combination of factors…I see far too many talented execs fall into “presenter” mode when interviewing, only to turn off the decision maker (or me). When it comes to this dynamic, seniority doesn’t equal expertise, as depth of experiences sometimes just gives someone more to ramble on about. Meanwhile, the “sellers” ask the right questions with a high level of authenticity, embrace the answers, and adeptly bring their relevant perspective to the conversation. The “sellers” usually win out.
I’ve tried to be a better listener since that day two decades ago when my boss told me that he liked my tie, but not much else about me that day. It’s something I’m still working on to make sure I’m actively listening and not “waiting to talk” (I will always be a work in progress). I’ve also seen how great listeners maximize performance and unlock new career opportunities. Regardless of your level or experience or whether you are selling yourself in an interview or your company’s offerings, resist the urge to be a “presenter”. Remember we were given two ears and one mouth for a reason. Happy selling!