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The Importance of Listening to Employees

When I became GM of a Tier 1 supplier, I scheduled one-on-ones with every single worker. 550 meetings in all. Here’s why.

As leaders, it should go without saying the importance of listening to our employees. So why don’t more leaders listen? In our hectic workplaces, it can be hard at times. However, I implore you to consider the benefits of taking that time. They outweigh the investment tenfold.

In late 2012, I took a new assignment as general manager of a Tier 1 automotive supplier in Ontario, Canada. This was a 30-year-old division that had an established culture. I was familiar with the facility; it had been through a tough launch and multiple management changes in the previous three years.

In my first general meeting with the approximately 550 employees, I made a commitment to meet with each and every employee one-on-one for 30 minutes.

The intention of this meeting was to get to know each other. It’s important to take the time to connect, to show that you care about your employees as people. It also helps you understand what their expectations are, and gives you a chance to share what your intentions and goals are, so everyone can be aligned. I wanted them to understand my level of commitment to them as employees—and to driving a world-class manufacturing operation.    

So I set out to schedule a meeting with each employee. The criteria were as follows:

  1. I would meet with the employee on their shift
  2. The meeting would be scheduled for 30 minutes
  3. I would start with the highest senior employees and work from there

I was convinced it would be worth the investment, but had no idea just how impactful the meetings would be.

I decided to do the meetings one-on-one rather than in small groups because in my experience, a few people in a group do all the talking and have their own agenda, while the others are quiet. The one-on-ones forced every employee to talk to me—to have the opportunity to speak for themselves, and hopefully feel more comfortable doing so than they would surrounded by their peers.

I also decided it was imperative to give a consistent message to every employee. I followed a specific script and limited my talking, as these meetings were really about the employee, not about me. My script was as follows:

“Thank you for meeting with me. This is our one-on-one. The purpose of our meeting is to get to know each other. I would like to know about you, your family and/or whatever you are willing to share. I will do the same. I have three expectations of you, and I would like to know what your expectations are of me.”

  1. Honesty. Please always be honest with me; I will do the same with you.
  2. Integrity. Please maintain the highest level of integrity. I will do the same.
  3. Loyalty. While you are working here, please be loyal to the company.

After sharing my expectations with each employee, I asked them, what do you expect of me?  Surprisingly, many employees were taken aback that I would ask for their feedback and expectations. I explained that it is important that I understand what they expect—for example, you may expect me to do something I cannot. I wanted us to be very clear on that, to avoid misunderstandings.

Over the next year, I met with everyone. It was one of the most significant undertakings in my career. I thought I understood what our employees wanted. I was wrong to assume. I gathered a new appreciation for the skills and commitment our people had. I learned:

  1. Communication is extremely important to employees. Good, bad or indifferent, they want to know! I realized they didn’t know much about what was going on in the company—they didn’t know what business we were quoting, or what our quality performance was. If you are not communicating messages to the shop floor, the shop floor will create their own communication in the form of rumors. The more you can communicate, the more you have the chance to cut off that rumor mill.
  2. People want feedback. When I would ask employees about their expectations of me, the overriding answer was, “Please just tell me if I am doing something wrong.” Frankly, that answer shocked me, as did the number of employees who responded in that way.
  3. The employees were very committed. I was not surprised, but very impressed at the level each employee had towards achieving the company goals.

After completing the one-on-ones, I had a clearer understanding of our employees’ needs. Further, and equally important, I had a connection with every employee. I knew their names, and a little about them personally. They understood my expectations, and I understood theirs.

Thanks to these meetings, my strategy around communication changed. I added communication monitors throughout the plant. I created an “Ask the GM” box where employees could ask questions anonymously (and they did, often) and have them answered at our regular monthly meetings and on the monitors throughout the plant.

I wrote a weekly message that was shared on the television monitor each week, and started an open-door policy where any employee could come directly to me to ask me anything. If I was in a meeting they could schedule a time to talk or come back, or if the conversation looked like it was going to take longer than a few minutes, I’d ask them to schedule time for a longer discussion.) I emphasized that they should talk to their supervisors and managers first, and if they didn’t get a response or weren’t satisfied, my door was open. This also drove a level of accountability with management—and supervisors or managers who weren’t following up or were mistreating employees became obvious to me very quickly.

You may be asking yourself, why are a personal connection and mutually clear expectations important between you and your employees?  Shouldn’t they just do what you tell them? I believe they are very important; in fact, I feel they are necessary. Being the new GM and not knowing any of the employees, I wouldn’t assume they would simply just accept me as their leader. Aside from the fact that they must, I prefer that they want me as their leader. Those are very different perspectives!

If you are still skeptical that this is a worthwhile investment of your time, consider this: The employee survey, completed by all 550 employees, the year before I started this assignment was 74% positive. A year later, it was 86%. Over the next two years, we were awarded $200m in new business, received a supplier award by a customer for the launch of a new product and saw improved quality performance across all customers. Of course, this is not solely attributed to my meeting with the employees. But it is absolutely related to having an engaged workforce that has a clear understanding of the company goals, how their actions impact the goals, how those goals are measured, and having open lines of communication to and from the shop floor. 

As the saying goes, nothing great comes easy. I challenge you, every leader, to consider the benefits for your employees, and the benefits for you in taking the time to sit one-on-one and listen.

Mark Whitten is the U.S. director of operations for Martinrea International, a Tier 1 automotive supplier.

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