Active Listening, and the Difference Between a Team and a Family in Business

Several years ago during an interview process, I was asked to provide references. Of course I gave the names of the five people in the business who loved me most. Once I got the job, I became more friendly with the HR Director and asked how prospective employees providing their own references ever yielded anything but gushingly positive and therefore woefully unhelpful results? If you’ve ever wondered about the validity of the reference process, take note. The first thing he said is that he evaluates the references themselves – are they known and well-respected people in the industry? Secondly, and most importantly, he said I’d be surprised how easy it is to read between lines – length and tone of response, depth of detail, any trace of discomfort in answering a particular question. So one big takeaway: if you’re asked to provide references, make sure you know damn well what they think about you! But the other takeaway is that active listening bears fruit. It’s especially helpful when you’re interviewing.

In a recent conversation with an ad agency founder, I asked about the culture of his firm. He started by sharing a story about a job he’d had earlier in his career, where it felt as though everyone was walking around carrying a knife. And while this environment produced some great creativity sometimes (you know, gun to your head kind of stuff!), he was quite motivated to ensure the opposite environment in the place that now carries his name. He described his current agency culture as a family, and then he paused. “But I think we’ve gone a little too far; I’m actively trying to shift it into more of a team.” I think many use the terms “family” and “team” interchangeably in business contexts, and yet I understood the distinction he was making.

My 7- and 9-year-old kids play lots of sports. We of course want them to be active, not glued 24/7 to a screen. But our motivation in getting them so involved had more to do with our belief that sports provides a type of education that sitting in a classroom just doesn’t: how to be part of a team. Perhaps for some this comes naturally, but for most it needs to be learned. It’s the reason why my high school required every one of us to join a team every season. Not all were varsity athletes. Some sat on the bench 75% of the time. Some carried the medical supplies around for four years. But regardless of the role, we all learned how to be active members of a team fixed on a common goal: winning. Of course we didn’t win all the time, but that common goal kept the hard work meaningful and allowed us to regroup quickly after a setback. While being part of a family is comfy, being part of a team just simply raises everyone’s level of play. And the games become more fun. And you win more. No knife-wielding necessary to get to a proud result.

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So the founder’s relatively short response to my culture question was actually quite telling: while people love working at his agency and things are going well, the business could use some fresh energy and competitive spirit to push the thinking and output. Sold!

Too often when I ask about culture, I’m thrown a word like “collaborative” – it sounds good on the surface but over-use has rendered it almost meaningless. And I’m left with the sense that culture isn’t something that’s terribly valued: a big red flag for me! So a non-answer or a generic one can be just as telling if you actively listen, something I don’t think many do well. Just like learning to play on a team, it takes practice but the pay off is well worth the effort.

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