The Transformative Power of Listening

An interview with Whit Mitchell and Kevin Toth

In the world of leadership development, we often hear words like “problem solving,” “goal setting,” and “talent,” but very rarely do we hear about the importance of listening and how learning to master this art can transform our workplaces and our organizations.

In this interview, Kevin Toth, Regional Vice President of Mid-Atlantic Operations at Harleysville Insurance, lets us in on the power of listening, his transformative experience with the Inner Circle Coaching method, and why he has a rubber duck on his desk.

Q: What led you to begin working with Whit Mitchell and the Inner Circle coaching method, and what was the biggest insight you had about your behavior throughout this process? How did these insights impact your work and your life at home?

Kevin: I started working with Whit when I reached the point in my career where I knew I needed to learn to really listen to and learn from others. My teams knew ten times more about underwriting than I did.  But in the past, I’d always been rewarded for the answers or ideas I had and for results I delivered.  That got me far, but it wasn’t the skill I needed to succeed at a higher level of leadership.  I had reached a level where my “success” had little to do with what I actually “did” – but it had everything to do with the conditions I was creating for others.

All of this told me I needed to get really good at listening.

The amazing thing about Inner Circle coaching is that it starts with observing our behavior.  What do I do?  When do I do it?  How does it impact others?

This simple act held powerful insights for me:

I would ask people questions, but I wasn’t really interested in their answers.  One day I came home from work and asked my wife “how was your day?”  She no sooner got the word “fine” out of her mouth and I was rambling on and on about my day.  The lesson?  I wasn’t actually asking her about her day; I was asking for permission to tell her about my day.  I realized I needed to start putting other people in the center so I could truly listen to them.
I would sit in meetings and try hard not to interrupt with ideas or solutions.  It was painful.  “These people must think I’m an idiot” I would think. “I’m not solving any of their problems.”  At that moment, I had a life-changing realization:  I equated “speaking” with “value.”  If I’m speaking, I’m adding value.  If I’m not speaking, I’m not adding value – and I’m a bad leader.  Of course, others didn’t see it that way at all.  In fact, the more I listened, the more value they felt I was giving because they could share and explore ideas in a safe and non-judgmental environment.
These observations were huge turning points for me. So I began focusing on asking questions, “playing back” what I had heard and asking the other person, “Have I got it?”  I knew my behavior was having an impact when people began opening up, sharing ideas, and coming to me to see what I thought.  It’s funny:  The more I let them talk, the more interested they were in what I thought.  And I came to see that when you ask good questions and genuinely seek to learn from others, they feel affirmed and empowered.  And they see that they have the tools to solve problems – so I don’t have to be the idea factory anymore.

For example, one of the teams in my organization was small but very high-performing.  One month, they failed to hit their goal.  Their manager came to me and shared that the team was afraid I would lose confidence in them.  “Okay, let’s meet with them” I said “but one rule:  You and I will not make a single declarative statement during the meeting.  We will listen.  We will understand.  And we will ask questions.”  How did you do this month?  Why do you think you didn’t meet your goals?  Why are you worried about it?  Why do you think I would lose confidence in you?

After a few questions and some long pauses, the group slowly started to speak up.  With each question, the group fed off of one another.  They were talking to one another rather than directly to me.  It was clear that the questions were helping them to process their concern – and to see that they had the ability to overcome it.

I ended with a question:  “So what do you think I think about this group?”

“You think we’re a strong team that had a setback this month, but that we are fully capable of delivering our goals for the company.”

Let me ask you:  Who feels taller coming out of that conversation? They do. But so do I, because I saw that when I listen well, others tell better stories about themselves.  That’s really what I take away from my work with Whit.

Q: Why was the Inner Circle Coaching model a good fit for you and what you were trying to achieve personally and professionally? What was your experience as you went further along with this type of coaching?

Kevin: When people think of coaching, they tend to think of one-on-one coaching. He’s the coach and I’m the player, right? But Inner Circle coaching is different. There is a small group of people involved.  I got to choose the group.  And I got to choose the behavior I wanted to work on.  I chose colleagues and peers at various levels of the organization.  But I also asked my wife to be part of the circle.  She understands my mindsets and my attitudes better than anybody. She keeps me honest and humble.

Allowing me to choose the behavior creates a safe, supportive, and forward-looking environment.  It’s not an exercise in rehashing the past.  Instead, it’s “I want to be a better listener.  Will you help me?”  No one is allowed to come back and say “well, that’s great, but don’t you think you really need to work on financial statements, Powerpoint, or putting?” (All of which I do need to work on!)

When I invited people to join the Inner Circle, they were honored and happy to help.  This is the real magic of Inner Circle coaching: We’re creating a community. We’re coaching each other.  We’re creating a commitment to help one another.  When I would sit down with folks from the inner circle, I would say, “We had a meeting the other day — how well did I listen?” It was a safe, supportive and natural conversation to have.

In my Inner Circle, everyone decided to work on improving a behavior.  And they got fabulous results. Just imagine what it would be like to create that kind of commitment across an entire organization.

I wanted to find out.  So I decided to invite anybody who wanted to be a part of my inner circle to be part of it. I got a big rubber duck and put it on the conference table in my office. When people would sit down for meetings, occasionally they would ask, “Hey, why do you have a rubber duck on your table — is there a story there?”

I’d say, “There is, and I’ll tell you but you have to agree that you’re going to help me.”

“Sure I’ll help,” they’d say.

“I have that duck on the table because I’ve decided I want to be a better listener. I’m going to ask you to do something: if you see me not listening, if you see me tuning out, if you see me interrupting, if you see me distracted, if you see me just waiting for my turn to talk, can you pick up that duck and put it at the center of the table? ”

“Absolutely, absolutely.”

“Now here’s what I’m going to ask you — is there a behavior you want to get better at, and can I help you do that?”

It’s amazing the power that conversation has. I’m sure some people think, “Well, that’s a little weird.” But what most people say is, “This isn’t a senior executive who sits in the corner and thinks he’s got everything all figured out. This is somebody who’s serious about improving behavior.”

Q: What type of leader would benefit most from Inner Circle coaching?

Kevin: Inner Circle coaching can benefit anybody. Inner Circle coaching is most helpful for a leader who wants to get serious about picking a single behavior and getting really good at it. Somebody who’s willing to turn themselves a little bit inside out. If you’re ready to create change and to create community in the organization, Inner Circle coaching is a good fit for you.

Whit Mitchell is part of The Complete Leader faculty and the author of Working in Sync: How Eleven Dartmouth Athletes Propelled Their College Sports Experience into Professional Excellence.