Listening leaders guide - Sideways 6-01

The C-suite guide to listening leaders

Nobody knows your business better than your employees. The problem is, most companies fail to truly capture their invaluable insights and ideas. Enter: the listening leader.

Listening to employees has a number of proven benefits, from improving employee engagement and retention through to increased innovation and reduced wastage. Put simply, happy employees equal a happy company.

This is why, at Sideways 6, we truly champion the power of leaders in giving their employees a voice. Who is better positioned to empower employees and develop this mutually beneficial relationship?

Enter: the listening leader. 

What is a listening leader?

Put simply, a listening leader is anyone who gives their employees a voice. Listening leaders enable and encourage their colleagues to have opinions and ideas about the business and to voice them in a constructive, mutually-beneficial way. 


Listening Leader

Listening leaders are organizational leaders who, for the benefit of their company, the employees and their own performance, choose to make actively listening to the ideas, insights and inputs of their employees a key part of their leadership strategy.

As a leader, this probably won’t be the first time you’ve come across the well-meant wisdom of ‘talk less, listen more’. It’s covered in every C-suite level publication, with specific topics ranging from the personal benefits of listening as a leader to the pitfalls you may find along the way.


When employees say they want their voices to be heard, they are really saying they want leaders who will not just hear them, but really listen to them.

-----  Glenn Llopis, Contributor @ Forbes  -----

It’s clear that success is not a solo sport and, challenging or not, it’s one that any leader ignores at risk. 

The prolific nature of commentary on listening as a leader has gradually led to what we’ve coined the rise of the listening leader, where CEOs and their counterparts are taking personal responsibility for opening channels of communication to their employees.

Most importantly, as our own CEO has noted, a big part of the concept is that you need a structured, consistent way of listening, and establishing the framework within which employee voices can grow is the first step.

Is your leader a listening leader?

If you think your leader deserves to be on our Top 50 Listening Leaders list you can nominate them here

The rise of the listening leader

As the concept of listening leadership is gaining traction, with famous examples such as this one from Tesco’s CEO, Dave Lewis, the advent of listening leaders is having a monumental impact on the ways in which employees engage with their companies.


The role of a leader is not to come up with all the ideas, but to create an environment in which great ideas can happen. (Source: Simon Sinek)

For example, the leadership team under CEO Pascal Soriot at AstraZeneca, a leading pharmaceutical company, realized that they could engage their employees in their ambitious aim to not only double the number of medicines delivered but also to double their revenue by 2025. 

They launched AZ2025, an employee ideas campaign and, over the course of just three weeks, 77,000 ideas, comments and likes were contributed by AstraZeneca employees scattered across the globe. Many of these were so insightful that they will go on to influence the direction of the company in years to come.


Getting senior leadership buy-in, ensuring they viewed the campaign as something important, was paramount to success.

-----Scott Wilkins, Enterprise Innovation Director @ AstraZeneca-----

Given an adequate channel of communication, employees are able to positively affect everything about a business from the top challenges to the bottom line. 

Listening leader formula - Sideways 6

The benefits of being a listening leader

We’ve looked in detail at the benefits of being a listening leader and, unsurprisingly, the most valuable outcome is often increased employee engagement. Losing an employee means losing their specific knowledge, plus the financial demands of having to hire and train somebody new. 

In fact, research from HR Review shows it costs more than $38,000 to replace an employee. Not a pretty number, and the overall impact of staff turnover can not be downplayed.

A recent study into workplace culture showed that millennials in particular (those pesky guys again!) are favoring organizations whose purpose aligns with their own, and prioritizing great culture over money – while only 16% of CEOs said their culture was where it currently needed to be, it's  no wonder that leaders are increasingly looking for ways to give employees a voice.

On a more personal level, listening leaders are distinguishing themselves from the crowd of C-Suite executives vying for the top accolades. 


If you want to stand out as a leader, a good place to begin is by listening.

-----  Richard Branson, CEO @ Virgin  -----

It’s no secret that we’re fans of Simon Sinek and, alongside his infamous ‘start with why’ sentiments, Sinek also advocates for listening leadership as a way of improving your leadership style.

By letting colleagues speak first, you’re empowering them to voice their ideas without bias or influence. You thereby become a smarter leader, Sinek argues, as you can harness these thoughts and suggestions untampered from the source.

Don’t just take our word for it, though. There are streams of studies around how listening is an overlooked leadership tool and the importance of proactive listening. In other words, the best leaders ask questions and really, really, listen to the answers. 

In our research on the state of employee ideas, we found that 4 in 5 employees have ideas to improve their business and that actively listening to them creates an environment of safety and encouragement. Yet, for some reason, most are overlooked.

Did you know?

34% of employees surveyed said that they feel their company doesn’t value their ideas. (Source: CEO Today)

We’ve already touched on how being a listening leader improves the bottom line, but there are endless examples of where household names have used employee ideas campaigns, led and backed by their C-suite, to make significant financial improvements to their business.

Incredible examples include British Airways’s utilizing employee ideas to generate savings worth more than £20 million – for context, that’s the cost of fuel for 550 flights from London to New York.

A similar story, as shown in the video below, tells of multinational energy and services conglomerate, Centrica, saving £5 million from a single employee idea in an initiative backed by the C-suite team.

How to be a listening leader

The importance of listening to employee ideas is well established, but how can you go about implementing this culture within your own business? 


A big part of the concept of listening leadership is that you need a structured, consistent way of listening to employee ideas.

One of the most important steps when considering how to be a listening leader is to begin with top-down engagement – if you’re never reaching out to your employees, chances are they won’t feel like they can reach out to you, either.

A sure-fire way to start is to pose a specific, targeted question or problem to employees: Looking for methods of improving customer experience? Need to find ways to speed up logistics?

Ask your employees for input on a specific headache and you’ll benefit the bottom line not only through the innovative ideas that come rolling in, but through the improved engagement garnered in the process. 


“What are we doing that is stupid?” Just sit down and ask that question because your team members are really the ones that know what's getting in the way of things.

-----  Max Piet, TooJay's Deli CEO  -----

Perhaps you could even ask your employees what the most stupid thing you’re currently doing is? For Max Piet, this method famously puts complete trust in employees, establishing an uncensored state of openness to their ideas.

Is there a niggle in your organization that you can’t quite solve? No one knows the day-to-day operations of your business like your employees – engage them for specific insights.

Did you know?

Over three-quarters of employees have a clear understanding of the challenges faced by their company. (Source: The State of Employee Ideas 2018)

One of the best ways to do this is with a targeted employee ideas campaign, where a specific business challenge is posed to employees and their innovative ideas are requested to help solve the challenge (and if you’re new to the concept of employee idea and innovation management, don't worry – we’ve got you covered here).

Here are some of our top tips:

  • Develop the right framework and allocate the right resources – find the best people to head and support your campaigns, including those who will inspire engagement across the business
  • Create specific branded ideas campaigns or initiatives – take inspiration from successful campaigns such as ‘My Contribution’ at Balfour Beatty where the CEO, Leo Quinn, even contributes his own ideas (more on this later).

Perhaps most importantly, adding senior leadership endorsement in the sourcing of employee ideas makes a significant impact.

Did you know?

Employee ideas campaigns with leadership endorsement garner 30% more engagement on average. (Source: The State of Employee Ideas 2018)

In this age of instant communication, everyone seems to be in such a rush to communicate what’s on their mind, and there is an ensuing failure to realize the value of listening to and collaborating with others – especially those at different levels. 

Similar to the methodology of the AstraZeneca example, one expose on the importance of listening in leadership points to the importance of creating a platform on which employees are empowered to speak up about any challenges or issues they perceive within your business.

Opening yourself up to potential criticism is never easy but, to really iron out the kinks and benefit from the knowledge your employees have garnered, it’s essential.

Smart leaders are, therefore, utilizing modern technology, meeting their employees where they are (i.e. on internal messaging platforms such as Microsoft Viva Engage, Slack, or Workplace by Facebook) as a means of opening up the floor to hear the valuable voices of others. 

Examples of leaders who listen

We’ve put together some examples of successful leaders who listen and, as a sign of the changing times, we really didn’t need to look too far to find them.

Richard Branson

The most prominent example is Richard Branson whose advocacy for listening as a leader is prolific.

Branson famously rates his employees as the most important asset in his business, believing that innovation can and should start from within your company.


Those working on the frontlines, day to day, or dealing with the products or services, first-hand, are often best placed to make improvements and come up with solutions.

-----  Richard Branson, CEO @ Virgin  -----

A culture of intrapreneurship is encouraged across all of the Virgin brands – from trains and planes to media, it's a theme that comes across consistently on Virgin's own public blog such as this commentary on the best place to find original ideas to improve being within the workforce.

Marissa Mayer, CEO of Lumi Labs

Marissa Mayer, formerly the president and CEO at Yahoo, started her career at Google and founded and led the company’s famous Associate Product Manager (APM) program.

Google’s management structure had been famously decentralized, and this APM program created a circulatory system through which this structure could evolve. Google had grown organically, with ideas and teams sprouting from the bottom up, largely driven by engineers with big ideas. For Mayer, working closely with these teams meant insights into how this kind of controlled chaos can actually foster innovation.


In technology, it's about the people. Getting the best people, retaining them, nurturing a creative environment, and helping to find a way to innovate.

-----  Marissa Mayer  -----

The key successful element of the program was the open channel of communication between employees at all levels, allowing ideas to spread and resources to be assigned to new projects, not to mention the innovative ideas discovered to improve the existing ones.

Taking her insights and beliefs around the potential of employees to innovate internally to her next company, Yahoo, where she served as CEO, Mayer successfully issued something she called the “CEO Challenge,” inviting anybody, from any level or department within the company, to propose new ideas to build the business. 

Leo Quinn, CEO of Balfour Beatty 

Leo Quinn consistently drives employee ideas with the weight and experience of his leadership, encouraging employees to actively contribute innovative ideas to improve the company. 

At both QinetiQ and current company, Balfour Beatty, Leo has initiated a campaign called ‘My Contribution’ to encourage employees to put forwards their business-changing ideas. 

So far this year, ideas from Balfour Beatty's employees have saved the company £4m! No small feat. Leo covered the scheme when announcing Balfour Beatty's financial results, which you can see in this video below.

The Top 50 Listening Leaders

For more great examples, you can check out our list of the world's Top 50 Listening Leaders here. We're sure you'll recognise a few names...! 

Further reading

For more on the importance of listening leaders, we've found the below to be excellent resources:

Drop us a note at if you'd like to recommend any others! 

Happy employees will always equal a happy company, and it's the ever-growing prerogative of leaders to build an environment in which employees can truly thrive.

One of the best ways to start is by simply listening.

Share the love