Don’t Underestimate the Power of Listening

By Marty Parker

Often when we think about communication, we think in terms of providing information – sending a newsletter, updating the website, posting a message on Microsoft Teams, hosting a town hall meeting. What gets overlooked is the important role that receiving information – or listening – plays in communications. Especially in the workplace.

I sat down to talk with Phil Verster, president and CEO at Metrolinx about building trust within a corporate culture. The conversation kept coming back to the importance of communication in trust-building – and the vital role that listening plays

The interview has been edited for length, but you can listen to the full conversation here.

Marty Parker:
Kick us off by describing the culture that’s been built at the organization and how your role plays out in culture as the president and CEO.

Phil Verster:
Marty there are two things for me in terms of cultures that really matter. Organizational cultures. The first one is trust. And that’s a difficult one and a challenging one to achieve, and you have,  as a CEO, you have to put a lot of effort into figuring out how to build trust in your organization.

And the second thing for me that I’ve always felt, and maybe it’s the engineer me, but you’ve got as a management team, you’ve got to be very professional. You’ve got to drive standards in your business that are professional standards. And what I mean by that is you can’t just have a suite of KPIs. You’ve got to have a balanced score card. You can’t just have a verbal commitment to engagement, you have to get down and dirty and do the right stuff to fix your organization and to make sure that there’s true engagement and true listening.

And I think those two things of bringing a business focus, professionalism to your organization, and then focusing on how you, day-to-day everyday, build trust is crucial.

Marty Parker:
What are some of the challenges of building and communicating a cohesive culture when your team is so dispersed? How have you managed to work through these challenges?

Phil Verster:
Many years ago when I took on one of my first leadership roles, I had a CEO that asked me the following question, he said to me, ”Phil, what’s the best way to communicate?” And I had all of these answers about internal communications, messaging. He said to me, ”No, none of that’s the right answer. The best way to communicate is by doing, just do. If you do, you’re going to get a result. If you do, there’s nothing that speaks louder than your actions.”

And so what we have done, and I’ve been in many organizations where we’ve had engagement programs, and how do we engage employees and dah, dah, dah. And it’s lists and list of actions. And what I’ve seen in my time, in the last 10 years or so, what works best is you come up with five things – four or five things –  that you just do continuously. We call those the five leadership actions, and they are things like hold monthly meetings about your business KPIs; hold your one-to-ones; walk the floor, get around, walk the floor and talk to people; hold your town hall meetings. And then the fifth and last one is, as leaders hold coffee mornings. We call it coffee mornings. It’s basically informal gatherings where you say to everyone, ”Hey folks I’m in the reception area. There’s 15 chairs. I’ll be there on Wednesday morning. Any topic goes, just come have a coffee with me.”

And so we’ve taken those five things and we’ve done that relentlessly. We hold best practice learning sessions among the teams. We get the teams to present to us. We get people from the teams to present to us and we focused on those leadership actions.

I’ll give you a sense of this. Our employee engagement score … our employee engagement score is typically and always around 70 or just about 70 per cent. And about a year ago we got it to 78 per cent. And in the beginning of the pandemic we are now up to 84 per cent employee engagement. So that’s 84 per cent of our people that say, on a five score quadrant, that it’s good or it’s great…The score is less relevant than the fact than the comments we get that are uncomfortable from that score are the best value. It’s to go and figure out what are those singular things that are still not resonating?

Why I’m convinced this is the only way to work with people and to build trust in your culture is that we’re all really busy, and engagement and culture is not built by rules. It’s built by natural behaviors. It must be second nature for you to listen. And if it’s not second nature for you to listen, you’re not going to listen. And so what we’re trying to do with the five leadership actions is to make it second nature. And Marty, then your question about communication is answered to the best possible way. If my leadership stick to those five actions, communication would come naturally.

Marty Parker:
What role has culture played in getting you through some of these incredibly challenging times?

Phil Verster:
Yeah, it’s been a really big factor for us. I’ll give you a sense of it.

The fact that we’ve got an open culture meant that we could listen. And I was not convinced, I must tell you, I was not convinced. My team came to me, and I remember that vividly, on the 14th of January and said to me, ”Phil, there’s something here that we need to kick off.” And I said, ”Well seriously is this real?” And by the 26th, we had everything lined up and we kicked off our pandemic response. The 26th of January. That was before there was anything on the ground over here. And we bought equipment and we pre-stocked and we were ready when others were thinking that we were overreacting. I think for me that’s the type of thing that gave me a sense of the fact that we’re listening and can listen whenever anyone speaks.

Within two weeks we had all of our office-based workers working from home. Everyone. In July, I started to talk at my town halls to people about the need to come back into the office, into teams. The way I put it is we are social creatures and we live and succeed not on our own, but in how we work in teams. And I’m missing all of you and working together in teams … And people said to me, ”Phil we’re not ready to come back in July.” And we said, ”Okay if you’re not ready then we’re going to take more time. And we’ll listen to you carefully.” And we’ve extended. We’ve now extended the return to work to early January of next year.

And so I think what’s been really crucial is… I don’t want to say Marty, I don’t want to say we’ve got the perfect culture; we haven’t. We can do more. We can always do better, but I’ve just got a sense that if we keep on doing what we’re doing by listening to our people and working with our people, this will just get to a richer and a stronger organization.

Marty Parker:
My last question is maybe more of a personal one. And that is what’s the one piece of advice Phil, that you would give someone, a young person say who’s on the early stages of their journey to building a high performance leadership or team, culture type journey. What counsel would you share with them?

Phil Verster:
Yeah, so I mentor students, I mentor young leaders in my organization and a few leaders they refer to me from other organizations, Marty. And again forgive me this may sound like a well-trodden path, but there’s just one thing that I think of the many years that I really only now am starting to truly understand, and this is this thing about just being authentic. Just be authentic.

There’s so much for all of us to understand about how to lead and how to interact with other humans … But at the end of it all, the people around you they just want to know truly who you are, truly what’s expected of them and truly what you want from them, and what they can do and how they can do their best. Now, I have in 30 years of my professional life not met one single person that gets up in the morning and says, “I’m going to go to work today and I’m going to be awfully difficult and I don’t want to do anything with anyone. I’m just going to upset everyone.” Everyone comes to work to do something of value. And if you are authentic and if you can respond to those very important things that people want to do, and if you can lead authentically, you’re in the right place.