Excerpt from
The Spirit to Serve: Marriott's Way
by J. W. Marriott, Jr., and Kathi Ann Brown
HarperBusiness (1997)
(Copyright: Marriott International, Inc.)

Chapter Four: He Who Listens Well, Learns Well

It takes two to speak the truth—one to speak, and another to hear.
–Henry David Thoreau

Many years ago, a group of Marriott executives was waiting in our boardroom to update me on a hotel project I was particularly excited about. Senior-level representatives from all the key functions were there: feasibility, finance, design, construction, operations, etc. The group apparently killed time by talking about what an absolutely terrible idea the project was.

A few minutes later, I walked in the door, clapped my hands together enthusiastically, and asked, "So, how's my project looking?" Everybody responded, "Well, Bill, it's looking good, really good." Everybody except one fellow, a junior executive who had not opened his mouth.

Turning to him, I commented: "You haven't said anything. What do you think?"

He proceeded to rattle off all of the reasons why the project was a disaster in the making--the same reasons that everyone around the table had been airing just minutes before I came in.

I paused a moment, and then replied: "You know, you're absolutely right. Kill it."

I walked out. Jaws dropped around the table, and that was the end of the project.

I tell this Marriott version of The Emperor's New Clothes to make two points. One, most people will do anything to avoid being the bearer of bad news, and two, thank goodness there are a hardy few who won't. The episode was also an excellent reminder that I needed to keep working on my listening skills.

After more than forty years in business, I've concluded that listening is the single most important on-the-job skill that a good manager can cultivate. A leader who doesn't listen well risks missing critical information, losing (or never winning) the confidence of staff and peers, and forfeiting the opportunity to be a proactive, hands-on manager.

I'm convinced that there are few natural-born good listeners. Somewhere along the way, good listeners learned to be good listeners. I suspect they discovered that there are rewards for keeping your ears open.

One key to effective listening lies in recognizing what kind of listening works best in different situations. For example, sometimes good listening simply requires keeping your mouth closed. Whenever I make this point, I think of a prescription a pundit once suggested: To say the right thing at the right time, keep still most of the time.

Keeping still isn't always easy. In fact, it can be torture to hold your tongue and let someone else talk, especially if the talker is slow about getting to the point. Still, it's a vital skill to learn. So is mastering the body language that shows that you're interested in what's being said. Keeping quiet won't get you very far if the speaker can see by the glazed look in your eye, or impatient tapping of a pencil, that you'd rather be somewhere else.

In working on my own listening skills, I've found it useful to watch and adopt the body language of people whose listening skills I admire, people whom I enjoy talking to precisely because they listen to me so well. Folks like that have a knack for making you feel like you're the only person in the world they want to talk to at that particular moment. Sometimes, simply by mimicking their alert posture and eye contact, you'll find yourself slipping into being genuinely interested in a conversation you thought you were too tired or impatient to pay attention to. Better yet, you soon learn that you don't have to act the part; you've reaped enough benefits from keeping still that you do it automatically.

When you open your ears, open your mind, too. Listening should be an opportunity to learn. You won't learn much if you've already made up your mind before you've had a chance to hear anything. In my case--as I found out in that revealing boardroom session--it's especially important not to signal that I've come to my own conclusions too early in a meeting. The less I say, the less I sway the discussion. I'd rather have people feel comfortable suggesting wild-eyed arguments or pie-in-the-sky concepts, than take the chance that someone is holding back a good idea because they're picking up signals that I've already come to a decision. I especially want people to feel comfortable about raising red flags. If ever I need to be reminded of this point, all I have to do is think about how much money might have been wasted on a bad idea if that young executive had not spoken his mind that day.

Another former Marriott executive--now a CEO himself--said recently that one of the things he most appreciated about working at Marriott was the fact that he could promote and try to win support for his ideas up to the very end, the final vote. No one cut him off or shut him out before he'd had his chance to make his best case, no matter how off the wall the idea.

I've also found it's a good idea to be conscious of subtle, potentially negative signals that your listening habits might be sending out. Managers, in particular, need to be alert to how they divvy up their 'listening time.' Occasionally I've heard the criticism that I listen to too many people, and seem to give equal weight to what each has to say, regardless of how knowledgeable or senior.

Let me turn that criticism on its head. What kind of message would I be sending to the organization if I gave an hour to finance, but only ten hurried minutes to human resources? Or if I never gave anyone under the senior vice presidential level more than thirty seconds of my time? I'd rather err on the side of hearing more, not less, than I might need to make a good decision, and in the process keep all the troops in the loop.

Along those same lines, I believe strongly in the practice of 'listening' to the organization's heartbeat myself, instead of relying exclusively on my direct reports and senior staff for information. I make a habit of calling directly into our various divisions and levels to hear straight talk from associates. In part, this is simply a reflection of being a hands-on manager. But it's also because I think the organization benefits from knowing that I'm accessible to more than my senior staff. And I benefit from having multiple points of contact in the organization.

Sometimes good listening means not keeping still. It calls for action, to combat the natural tendency of staff to avoid telling the boss bad news or rocking the boat. This more active version of listening requires asking questions in order to break through someone's hesitancy, and get to the heart of a problem. It's a particularly important skill for high-level leaders (presidents, CEOs) who, by their lofty positions, often intimidate junior staff. I'm a great believer in the phrase, 'What do you think?' It works wonders.

On a recent visit to a hotel managed by one of our franchisees, I noticed that guest scores on the attitude of the dining room hostess were below Marriott's standard. I asked the manager what he thought the problem was, and he said he wasn't sure. But I could tell by his uneasy body language that there was more to the story.

Then I asked what the hostess's pay was. When he told me, I realized she was being paid at least $2 per hour less than market rate. The manager proceeded to explain that headquarters needed to okay her increase, and that he was reluctant to ask.

In a thirty-second conversation, I had discovered three serious problems. One, the home office was exerting too much control; the manager should have been able to raise the hostess's wages to market level without seeking permission. Two, senior management was obviously placing more emphasis on profits than on customer satisfaction. And, three, the fact that the manager was afraid even to ask about a raise suggested that the attitude of senior management was not a friendly one. In essence, his superiors had shown themselves to be inferior listeners.

All three problems were solved in short order, and soon the receptionist's score on guest satisfaction climbed to where it should have been in the first place. All it took was breaking through the manager's reticence and showing him that someone was willing to hear him out--something his senior managers had apparently signaled they were not willing to do.

Listening certainly should not be limited to the heart of the house. At Marriott, we count on our guests to tell us what we're doing right and wrong. It's the only way we can know for sure whether we're giving them what they want. Over the years, our guests have suggested many incidentals and small touches. Today, most of our guestrooms now have irons, ironing boards, blowdryers, brighter lightblubs, handcream and one item that our female guests uniformly clamored for: hangers with skirt-friendly clips.

One of our newest innovations--The Room That Works--grew out of a listening-to-the-customer exercise. A couple of years ago we set out to design a better guestroom for business travelers. We pulled together some focus groups and quickly discovered that high on their wish list was a change in the placement of electrical outlets in our rooms. Guests wanted them to be visible and accessible.

At first glance, the request seems odd. After all, for more than thirty years, our interior designers had gone out of their way to hide electrical outlets. Holes in the wall weren't exactly considered an attractive design element.

That was fine in the days before laptop computers. Today, business travelers bring their laptops with them, and want to be able to plug in quickly and easily to work on documents, check e-mail, etc. They were sick and tired of crawling around under desks and moving furniture to find a free outlet.

If we had not asked the question and been willing to listen to the answer, we might never have known how much this one simple change meant to the comfort of our business guests.

Valuable as they are, focus groups are not the only time or place for listening to customers. Part of the attention to detail and bias for action that Marriott's associates strive for includes picking up on a guest's needs or desires--even anticipating them, if possible.

During a stay at a Marriott hotel a few years ago, one of our senior executives came down to the dining room one morning and ordered a bowl of cereal with fresh fruit for breakfast. He selected strawberries from the menu choices. The waitress, who had no idea who her customer was, delivered the bad news that there were no strawberries to be had that day. Would he like a sliced banana instead? she asked. He hesitated, said okay, and went back to reading his newspaper.

A few minutes later, the waitress materialized with his bowl of cereal, complete with bananas and strawberries on the side. She had found strawberries in the kitchen after all, and, since he had sounded unsure about settling for a banana, she'd brought him some of each, so he could choose, or enjoy both, as he wished.

He beamed as she walked away. Thanks to that single, simple gesture of listening to the customer's uncertainty, the waitress got that guest's day off to a terrific start.

Unfortunately, not everyone listens as well as that waitress did. I can think of at least one long-time executive who gained a reputation for being a poor listener toward the end of his career with Marriott. He never liked anything that anybody had to say. If someone offered a new idea, he would shoot it down with the same repetitive set of reasons. Too much money, waste of time, too risky, whatever. Soon, no one wanted to tell him anything because they knew what his response would be. He lost his credibility as a listener, and, as a result, found himself cut out of substantive discussions and decisions. Soon, he forfeited the support of his people, and finally lost his job.

Selective listening is almost as bad as not listening at all. You don't do yourself--or anyone else--any favors when you filter out bad news. We learned that lesson the hard way at the end of the 1980s, when we chose to downplay signals that the hotel industry was on the verge of being seriously overbuilt. We wanted so much to believe in our own invincibility that we focused only on positive news, and turned a deaf ear to anything that we didn't want to hear. The price for that kind of half- listening was high.

Our 'it-won't-happen-to-us' attitude was exacerbated by the persuasiveness of one executive whose reassuring eloquence overcame my gut feeling that the company ought to have exercised more caution. His arguments for continuing to build hotels in spite of signs of recession were so smooth, so reasonable, so apparently logical that I let myself believe everything would be fine. What I learned, of course, was that just because someone is a polished speaker or presenter doesn't mean that his or her ideas are always right. Conversely, someone who is a bit shy or awkward about speaking up might be well worth listening to. For me, the episode provided an excellent, if unwelcome, lesson in not judging the substance of a message by the appealing style of its delivery.

Ultimately, even the most skilled listening has limits. At some point, debate and fact-gathering must come to an end. A decision must be made based upon what's been learned. This is the juncture at which the true mettle of an organization's overall listening skills is put to the test. If the environment for discussion has been an open one in which people know that their ideas, insights and concerns are treated with respect, the result will be well-informed choices. Not every decision will be perfect, of course, but when a decision does turn out to be wrong, there will be comfort in knowing that it wasn't because someone forgot to ask the $64,000 question: "What do you think?"

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