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What Apple CEO Tim Cook Taught Me About How to Lead Better

One of the most remarkable business lessons I have ever learned took place in a meeting room in Cupertino, California. The “instructor” was Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple.

I was there as part of the executive team at Adobe, in a top-to-top meeting with Apple’s leadership. My role in the meeting was small, so I had ample opportunity to carefully listen and watch everyone in the room.

Tim Cook amazed me. He was humble and genuine, spending nearly all of his time listening, acknowledging and nodding. Whenever someone aimed a question at him, Tim would redirect it to the executive in charge of that particular area.

It was clear to all of us that he is a brilliant person who understood exactly what was going on, but aside from asking a few reframing questions, he deferred to his team. He could very easily have dominated the entire conversation — every time he spoke, the room fell to eager silence. Yet he said maybe 20 words in an hour and a half.

What Tim Cook demonstrated that day was active listening, and it was the best example of it that I have ever seen.

Really good active listeners typically leave a positive impression because they demonstrate genuine interest and authentic engagement. Active listeners don’t rush people and they take time to understand by asking meaningful, reframing questions. When done properly, active listening helps people feel heard without feeling managed.

As Tim Cook demonstrated, active listening is a crucial art for every interaction, not just one-on-one meetings. The following are a few key meeting objectives that have helped me focus on active listening at every opportunity.

Start with the intent to understand, not direct

We have two products at my company, BambooHR — the first is our actual product, and the second is our culture. As the CEO, I’m really the product manager for the executive team. In that role, it’s vital that I understand exactly what’s happening with both of our products.

Engaging in active listening with the intent to understand helps me focus my attention during important conversations. We’ve all been in meetings where nobody seems to be listening to each other, and everyone is just waiting for their turn to say something. During those deeply unsatisfying moments, every participant comes away believing their problems have not been heard or understood.

It isn’t always easy to connect and communicate without being the center of the discussion, especially for the person in charge. Beginning with the intent to learn rather than direct will help ensure the needs of the team are clear and the best ideas for solutions make it to the table. Active listening will guarantee any leader’s focus isn’t limited to giving orders.

Give other people a chance to shine

A leader practicing active listening quickly learns they don’t need to be the center of every narrative. In seeking to understand challenges and uncover the best solutions, a leader also gives other people the opportunity to grow and thrive.

I have a friend who put a sign above his door that reads “I.N.A.Y.,” which stands for “it’s not about you.” The job of a leader at any company is to do everything they can to help their employees succeed. Active listening from the top places others squarely in the spotlight, which leads to better ideas, more competent organizations and greater potential for success.

As a leader, you simply don’t have all the answers. Tim Cook demonstrated his understanding of this by letting the subject matter experts speak to our questions rather than insisting on being the center of attention. Active listening helps me remember that our success is not about me, but about our people and our products.

Encourage more actionable feedback

At BambooHR, we are always asking our employees what the company can do to improve their working experience, as many companies have learned to do. Most of the time, we have as many different answers as we do people.

As leaders, it’s our responsibility to dive into all of that feedback and diversity of thought in order to create policies that improve the lives of our people. I visit one-on-one with hundreds of employees every year seeking their input, and active listening is a critical tool for finding the heart of experience issues and developing actionable solutions.

Employee well-being is also an area where it’s more important than usual to pay attention to my “Say:Do ratio.” The practices of active listening help leaders understand the genuine concerns of employees and commit to addressing those challenges, and will have a much bigger influence on employee engagement.

Active listening doesn’t mean being invisible or less of a leader. Although he probably said fewer words than any other person in the room, my meeting at Apple was indisputably Tim Cook’s meeting by virtue of his listening. In other words, although he’s a very different leader from his titanic predecessor, he was every bit as much the person in charge.

Leaders can build strong companies when they seek to understand rather than only instruct, give others due time in the spotlight and encourage people to share actionable feedback. Bringing these active listening practices to every meeting and interaction will leave a powerful impression and demonstrate your care and concern for the success of others.

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