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If there’s one key thing we’ve learned from studying some of the world’s most successful leaders, it’s that the value of listening to employees can never be understated. We call them listening leaders.
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.
The benefits of listening to employees are almost endless. From increased employee engagement and reduced employee turnover to increased productivity and innovation. Put simply, no one knows your business better than your employees.
In a world still adjusting and responding to the coronavirus pandemic, it’s never been more important for leaders to listen to their people and adapt the way they do business. The leaders and companies who do will emerge more agile, more competitive, and ultimately changed for the better.
A quick note about how we collated this list and the impact of COVID-19. At the end of 2019 we made a public call, asking people to nominate someone they thought was a great listening leader.
We're looking for the world's best #listeningleaders and we need your help! If you know someone who deserves a place on the list of Top 50 Listening Leaders, please nominate them here! 🤩https://t.co/icNa4oa9qV#ideasfromanywhere pic.twitter.com/Kdv719482m— Sideways 6 (@Sideways6Ideas) November 22, 2019
We had originally planned to close nominations in March and publish the 2020 list in April, however in light of coronavirus we decided to leave the voting open. This has given employees a chance to highlight those leaders who have continued to listen even during the crisis and involve their people in a time of challenge and change.
Thank you to everyone who got involved and submitted nominations, the wait is finally over. Here’s our list of the world's top 50 listening leaders of 2020!
Indra Nooyi’s LinkedIn cover photo fittingly quotes Epictetus: “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.”
Nooyi credited her success at PepsiCo to creating a culture of recognition and diversity, unleashing the power of the people there through actively listening to them.
In 1974, aged 19, David Abney joined UPS, loading packages onto vans at the local depot at night to make some extra money while he was studying. 40 years later, he’d risen up the ranks to become the CEO of UPS.
Abney credits much of his success with listening intentionally to employees.
One of the first things Abney did upon being named CEO was to go on a worldwide listening tour. He let the company’s employees and customers tell him what they thought the company should focus on going forward.
When David issued a call for ideas, many of which were actually implemented, it was almost earth shattering. We couldn’t believe leadership was finally listening and taking action on our recommendations.
----- Anonymous UPS employee -----
A legendary story when it comes to listening as a leader, Dave Lewis, on his first day as CEO of Tesco, messaged every single employee asking them how they thought the declining business could be improved.
Almost half a million employees were encouraged to email back with ideas and suggestions.
I will always communicate openly and transparently with you and I’d like to encourage the same from you in return. I want to hear your thoughts and ideas. I want to hear what you think we could do differently or better.
----- Dave Lewis -----
Nestle's InGenius innovation accelerator has celebrated world acclaim, but its real measure of success for Filippo Catalano, CIO, lies in the levels of employee engagement reached across the business.
In one way or another, since 2014 over 62,000 employees have interacted with the initiative - enough to fill a football stadium! Over 4,800 ideas have been shared with 300 prototypes developed and 69 projects taken to market. Our favourite? Korean rice-cake flavoured Kit Kats.
You want to encourage people to be curious, innovative, courageous and collaborative. This means also empowering our employees and harnessing their passion and knowledge to bring innovation to the company.
----- Filippo Catalano -----
Priding himself on being an authentic leader, Kevin Johnson admits that he prioritizes employees and encourages them to be part of the company's growth.
Proving that action speaks louder than words, whilst working at Microsoft, Johnson launched an internal program where any employee could submit an application for funds to create their own project.
There aren’t many restaurant chains where the CEO will serve you a slice of pizza, and that’s what makes Pizza Hut’s Jens Hofma a stand-out on this list.
Taking a hands-on approach to managing the business, Hofma takes shifts at busy Pizza Hut branches as a way of listening to his employees and his customers first-hand, discovering any niggling issues facing front of house staff and better understanding the business.
It’s very easy when you are running a largish organisation to lose a sense of reality. You are going from meeting to meeting and sometimes you pop into a restaurant and it’s a bit like a celebrity visit and you don’t get a true picture of what it’s like.
----- Jens Hofma -----
As soon as Chris Kempczinski assumed the role of McDonald's CEO in 2018, he began reaching out to employees for feedback about the company.
In an open invitation, Kempczinski asked employees to reflect on and share things they are proud of in their working life, and what the CEO could do to make them prouder to work for the business.
Change also brings opportunities for discussion, introspection and, ultimately, renewal. So, as I start this journey as your CEO, I'd like to hear from you.
----- Chris Kempczinski -----
At Wharton’s annual People Analytics Conference, Mary Barra cited the act of asking staff for feedback as the first important step to success.
Maintaining that this open level of communication is one of the most important things that leaders can do, Barra recommended asking employees whether they were getting what they needed from particular meetings and, the most simple and effective question, ‘what is your opinion?’
When Satya Nadella took over as CEO of Microsoft in 2014, one of the first things he did was transform the meeting culture.
In an interview with Wall Street Journal in 2015, Nadella shared his simple three-rule method for better meetings and it looks like this:
Listen more. Talk less. Be decisive when the time comes.
----- Satya Nadella -----
And the proof is in the pudding, with Nadella receiving a whopping 98% approval rating from Microsoft employees on Glassdoor in 2019 - a phenomenal achievement for the CEO of one of the biggest and well-known tech companies in the world.
For Angela Ahrendts, listening with empathy is a key skill leaders should look to develop.
When asked during an interview on ABC Radio’s 'No Limits with Rebecca Jarvis', “What advice would you give to a new chief executive?” Ahrendts has a one word answer: “Listen.” And what is the greatest mistake a leader can make? “Not listening.” It doesn't get simpler than that!
Inspired by an old mentor who preached that 'one minute of your time matters,' Alex Gorsky spends time speaking to employees at all levels of Johnson & Johnson, and thereby maintains a pulse on what's happening across the business.
By asking employees what they're working on and what they're worried about, Gorsky gains a 360 view of his business and employees feel listened to.
As Google’s Chief Executive Officer, Sundar Pichai is no stranger to meetings, as you’d expect. What’s interesting, however, is how Pichai’s empathetic and thoughtful leadership style is reflected in his behaviour during meetings.
According to Business Insider, he has a habit of quietly listening to everyone on his team. Once everyone else is finished speaking, he’ll often throw out "an idea that could work for everyone".
If you are in a meeting, the higher up you are it is tough to understand what's going on so speaking less as possible and listening more to what is around you is important.
----- Sundar Pichai -----
You can definitely see some similarities between Pichai and fellow tech CEO Satya Nadella who also features in this year's list. Perhaps we should all heed their advice of talking less and listening more, and bring an end the unrelenting curse of bad meetings!
During his distinguished commercial career, Emmanuel Faber is credited with exemplifying principled leadership needed to advance gender equality, address climate action and encourage innovation, all through building integral cross-sector conversations and listening to the wisdoms and experiences of others. Inspiring indeed.
With the arrival of CEO Emma Walmsley came new goals for GlaxoSmithKline, including innovation as a long-term priority and a determination to ensure that every employee felt like part of the business.
To achieve this, Walmsley introduced ‘Let’s Talk’, an ambitious initiative enabling employees to engage with the CEO on matters important to the business and provide a safe space for honest feedback and communication.
Michel Aballéa believes that every single Decathlon employee has the power to change things by listening to customers and by finding the best solutions for them.
He also believes that everyone within Decathlon evolves in the same dimension, with no specific title or hierarchy, status or proeminence. In fact, every employee at the company is considered to be CEO - accountable to customers and not managers.
With an aim to stimulate employees (and thereby better serve customers), Aballéa asked employees three questions: What do you like to do? What are you good at? What do you want to develop?
By listening in this way, Decathlon ensured its employees were in the roles right for them, and able to make decisions freely in the best interest of customers.
As a way of encouraging transformation within the company, Amel Hammouda believes in making the right tools and channels of communication available to employees to allow them to contribute their ideas and enthusiasm.
Listening to employees has become a cornerstone of Air France’s approach to innovation.
We see a direct correlation between empowered employees and satisfied customers. This means ensuring that our employees have the right tools to contribute their ideas and enthusiasm.
----- Amel Hammouda -----
Soon after becoming BP's CEO, Bernard Looney spoke to investors, partners, policymakers, NGOs, academics – and, most importantly, his colleagues at BP – to discover just how the business needed to change.
Looney is a huge advocate of open dialogue as a force for solutions and change and cites his mother as quoting: 'We were given two ears and one mouth, and we should use them in that proportion.'
We are listening. Both as a company – and myself as an individual . . . listening, thinking, planning, testing ideas and concepts.
----- Bernard Looney -----
Arguably the king of all listening leaders, Richard Branson summed up his success as a leader in five simple words: ‘Listen more than you talk.’ Recognising that nobody learns anything by listening to themselves speak, Branson’s belief in listening as a key soft skill is encouraged across all of the Virgin brands.
Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.
----- Richard Branson -----
AZ2025 is the amazing story of how AstraZeneca's CEO, Pascal Soriot, AstraZeneca, used innovative crowdsourcing to boost employee engagement and place the company’s strategy in the hands of its 64,000 employees.
Over the course of just three weeks, the AZ2025 Think. Transform. Together campaign produced 77,000 ideas, comments and likes from employees spread across some 70 countries, plus an incredible 23,000 unique ideas. Listening to employees is now part of AstraZeneca's DNA.
It’s not a world where everybody can stay in their little camp and do their work, it’s a world where everybody has to come together to manage those costs.
----- Pascal Soriot -----
Acclaimed author of the New York Times best-seller, ‘Lean In’, Sheryl Sandberg understands that the key to being a better leader is being open to feedback. The Facebook COO regularly asks colleagues: “What could I do better?” and makes a point to thank them, often publicly, for voicing their honest opinions.
I firmly believe that you lead best when you walk side-by-side with your colleagues. When you don’t just talk but you also listen.
----- Sheryl Sandberg -----
In a time of evolving global uncertainties, Jacques Jean-Sébastien, CEO of global mining firm Rio Tinto, believes that a business can survive only by speaking honestly and directly to employees, and actively listening to what they have to say in return.
All Rio Tinto employees have the opportunity to put forward their ideas and make a difference through the company's Pioneering Pitch initiative.
KLM's CEO, Pieter Elbers, launched an email address devoted entirely to asking employees to share their questions and ideas for improving the business, eventually allocating employees to help analyse and implement the best business suggestions as a result of the initiative.
The company unsurprisingly saved money and increased employee engagement metrics across the board.
In addition to her client responsibilities, Vivian Hunt is a recognised leader within McKinsey on leadership and diversity. She was previously named as one of the top ten “most influential black people in Britain” by the Powerlist Foundation, and The Financial Times identified her as one of the '30 most influential people in London”.
Accolades aside, she makes it onto our top 50 list of listening leaders because she’s someone who explicitly recognises the power of listening, especially to those on the margins of the organisation.
Leadership means being aware that people working in the most surprising places in your organisation know what’s really going on.
----- Vivian Hut DBE -----
A long-term advocate of the belief that great ideas can come from anywhere, Leo Quinn cites listening to employees as a key element of success.
To date, Quinn has saved the business £4m through their campaign called ‘My Contribution’, an initiative encouraging employees to contribute their knowledge and ideas to help improve the business.
More often than not, the best ideas and innovations come from your employees.
------ Leo Quinn -----
When asked about the success of AirAsia, Tony Fernandes credited his ability to find great people and knowing how to keep them.
A key element of retaining great staff is enabling direct communication lines between himself and all employees, and Fernandes happily admits to waking up most days to hundreds of messages from his staff that allow him to build a better business.
Most entrepreneurs think they know it all, but you have to listen to all the others around you.
----- Tony Fernandes -----
Antofagasta’s CEO, Iván Arriagada, credits much of the company’s recent progress on creating a culture of continuous innovation.
Arriagada listens to employees and contractors in order to source new ideas, enabling investment in large-scale strategic development.
Our workforce has been a continual source of ideas for running our operation more efficiently, maximising uptime and improving reliability.
----- Iván Arriagada -----
During the process of transforming Weight Watchers into WW, CEO Mindy Grossman , was faced with the challenge of reaching employees across diverse locations.
Grossman realised how important it is to listen to them and make sure they're voices are heard even if they aren't in the room.
Encouraging employees to participate is a sure-fire way to make them feel valued.
The thing that alienates employees is not feeling like they’re being heard or included, so the more you can engage, the more valuable that’s going to be.
----- Mindy Grossman -----
As the Hershey Company's first female CEO in its 125-year history, Michele Buck epitomizes the qualities of a listening leader.
She’s known to call herself a “Chief Energy Officer” in reference to her opinion that her role is to inspire and harness the energy of the Hershey Company’s employees in reaching towards the company’s overall vision.
One of my most important leadership principles is listening to people in different parts of our business. Listening to other people's perspectives really helps me make well-informed decisions.
----- Michelle Buck -----
Creating 'The Leeds Way' has singled out Julian Hartley, CEO of NHS Leeds Teaching Hospitals Trust, as a perfect example of a listening leader.
The initiative places staff at the heart of decision-making and ensures that every voice is heard and, as a direct result, places the Trust amongst the best performing in the national staff survey.
Mike Haigh is recognised as an important driving force behind Mott MacDonald's belief in employee ownership and the creative, innovative and economic benefits that can arise from listening to employee's thoughts and ideas.
Haigh has also been recognised for his work on tackling gender inequality in the workplace by the Women’s Business Council and Management Today.
Bob Chapman famously shares his belief in the power of people-centric leadership, one under which people feel validated as individuals and have a huge opportunity to contribute individually within their role.
This idea of 'truly human leadership' embodies empathetic listening at its core, and Chapman argues that successful leadership comes down to this ability to listen to employees, placing yourself in their shoes and understanding their needs.
We have paid people for their hands, and they would have given us their heads and hearts for free if we had only known to ask.
----- Bob Chapman -----
In 2019, Oxfam put the future of its organisation in the hands of its employees as part of CEO Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah’s bold and future-oriented 10-year Strategic Framework.
The aim of the initiative is to bring staff, partners and volunteers together through conversation and debate, all with the goal of defining Oxfam’s goals and position in the future.
Working her way up through the ranks at Severn Trent, Liv Garfield knew that employees at all levels of the business have insights and ideas that could make a huge difference.
The company runs a number of initiatives for employees to share their knowledge and actively contribute to the future success of the business.
Severn Trent is its people. They’re the ones on the front line, the ones who talk to customers, the ones who innovate and implement the bright ideas that help us deliver a service you would choose to have.
----- Liv Garfield -----
On joining the business in 2020, CEO Edel Harris knew that listening to the people at Mencap was going to be key to learning as much as possible about the organisation.
Explaining her approach to starting at Mencap, Harris said she planned to spend her first 90 days "getting out and meeting people and learning" before focusing on a new strategic plan. Listening and learning are never too far apart.
United Utilities’ CEO Steve Mogford recognised the potential for innovation that already existed within their business.
Realising that employees were the key to unlocking this, Mogford developed the ‘CEO Challenge’, an annual initiative asking graduates to develop innovative solutions to business problems. The success of this challenge lies in its recognition of employees as an invaluable asset, and in the decision of its leader to really listen to them.
New ideas can come from many sources, which is why we encourage it at all levels, from our annual CEO Challenge before implementation on a larger scale.
----- Steve Mogford -----
Every year, Northumbrian Water run an innovation festival, a week-long endeavour engaging employees across the business in ideation and innovation for the future.
Their CEO, Heidi Mottram, has already won multiple awards for her leadership, and places emphasis on engaging with all of Northumbrian Water's employees though roadshows and regular site visits.
As pioneers in customer loyalty, family-run Collinson Group is one step ahead of the game when it comes to innovation, and Joint CEO Christopher Evans is passionate about listening to employees.
Collinson takes a people-centric approach to innovation, stating that a company's 'environment and its culture should allow people to express themselves and experiment.'
The CEO of Lucid, Karl Sun, credits his success to the team around him, saying that most of his time is spent in meetings where he actively gathers the ideas and insights of his fellow 'Lucidites'.
In an effort to better understand what it’s like to be both a TaskRabbit customer (a user who hires someone to perform a task) and a “tasker” (the person being paid to do some work), Stacy Brown-Philpot is a big believer in listening to all parts of their company and marketplace.
Speaking to Reid Hoffman on the Master’s of Scale podcast, she recounts one such occasion when she hired a tasker to fix a light switch at her home and how through chatting with him and listening to his story, she got to understand the impact of the TaskRabbit marketplace and the power of the community behind it.
The young and ambitious founder of Social Chain, Steven Bartlett believes in making all employees feel part of a close team.
Everyone is included in a WhatsApp chat called 'Ever-Changing Landscape' where they're encouraged to share interesting articles and other useful media, making sure everyone has a voice in the wider team.
Despite a hectic workload, Brandie Deignan is commended for carving time to engage with employees whenever they need it, and for encouraging every employee to bring their ideas to the table with room and support to test them.
With individual personal development plans, employees at Birchbox are encouraged by CEO Katia Beauchamp to speak up about opportunities they want to be exposed to.
The company anniversary is celebrated with Birchbox Day each year in which they look at the big challenges and the big opportunities and create conversations around the exciting future of the company.
We send culture surveys around at least every quarter, so it helps us understand what pain points exist and have an open dialogue about what’s working or what’s frustrating us.
----- Katia Beauchamp -----
Frontline store employees are, by the nature of their job, privy to the success of a business on a day-to-day, nitty-gritty basis.
Max Piet, TooJay Deli’s CEO, realised that these employees had an untapped pool of knowledge about what the company was doing well, what it could be doing better, and how it could best improve.
Piet now goes to great lengths to incorporate employee input into every facet of marketing and business strategy.
Having quite literally written the book on the subject, Simon Sinek's authority on listening leadership assures us that letting colleagues speak first empowers them to voice their ideas, free from bias or influence.
Harnessing thoughts in this way creates smarter leaders.
The role of a leader is not to come up with all the great ideas. The role of a leader is to create an environment in which great ideas can happen.
----- Simon Sinek -----
In fact, that’s the basis upon which Seenit was founded. Through their video crowdsourcing platform, their mission is to “enable any business to engage their own employees and customers to become their storytellers.”
The Seenit platform allows organisations to listen to and amplify the authentic voices of their people, helping build trust and create genuine ambassadors and brand advocates.
Our vision is a world where everyone’s story can be told and voice can be heard.
----- Emily Forbes -----
Taking the beauty world by storm can never be an easy feat, but Sharmadean Reid learned that success is rarely a lonely road.
Recognising that it’s easy to be a CEO who doesn’t delegate, Reid managed to avoid the pitfall of attempting to build a business alone and actively listens to the advice and wisdom of people with knowledge to share.
Listening as a leader isn’t just effective when it comes to employees; listening to those who have already been there and done it is just as beneficial.
At Beautystack we do continuous feedback loops, not just an annual performance review or a six-month performance review. We talk a lot, but we also listen.
----- Sharmadean Reid -----
As Yahoo’s CEO, Marissa Mayer successfully introduced an initiative called the “CEO Challenge”.
Employees across the business, from any level, office or department, had the opportunity to propose new ideas to improve and innovate within the company.
Looking for an example of true listening leadership during a crisis? Look no further than the prime minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern. She has been lauded, amongst several other female leaders, for her decisive response to the Coronavirus pandemic. When leaders and scientists overseas painted a bleak picture of the impending spread of the virus, Jacinda Ardern listened.
"[They were] saying, 'Go, just shut down, because here I am in lockdown with thousands of people dying. Just shut down'," she told Stuff's Coronavirus NZ podcast. This ultimately influenced her decision to "go hard and go early", and to close New Zealand's borders and enforce a lockdown.
We might have listed Ardern down as leading a 20-person cabinet but she's truly led the 4.9 million people of New Zealand through an unprecedented crisis. At the time of writing New Zealand has recorded just 18 deaths and public trust in Ardern’s government is greater than 80%.
At just 23 years old, Grace Beverley is the youngest person to feature on this year’s top 50 listening leaders list.
The hugely popular social media influencer turned entrepreneur already has three successful companies under her belt - all of which are aimed at making affordable fitness products that are sustainable, ethical and inclusive.
With 1 million followers on Instagram and nearly 600K subscribers on Youtube, Beverley has made a point to listen to her audience at every stage of her entrepreneurial journey.
The fact that I can ask my audience and get a genuine engaged response is huge. It’s been so important as a growing brand to be able to get that opinion.
----- Grace Beverley -----
Claudia Chan challenges individuals to recognise their unique value and ability to bring a distinct, insightful perspective to the company they work in.
Listening to these individuals is, for leaders, the key to success, and she recommends starting an internal initiative relating to intrapreneurship that will ultimately benefit employee culture.
Sideways 6 exists to build better businesses through employee ideas.
We believe that great ideas can come from anywhere and that giving employees a voice is the secret to business success.»