Here is a brief excerpt from an interview of Amgen CEO, Kevin Sharer, during which the biotech giant’s chief executive describes the epiphany that made him a better listener and explains why listening is a survival skill for leaders and organizations. What follows is an edited version of the full interview, adapted from a conversation with Thomas Fleming, a member of McKinsey Publishing based in the Chicago office.
To read the edited version, watch a video of the conversation, check out other resources at the McKinsey Quarterly‘s website, and sign up for free email alerts, please click here.
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For most of my career, I was an awful listener in almost every possible way. I was arrogant throughout my 30s for sure—maybe into my early 40s. My conversations were all about some concept of intellectual winning and “I’m going to prove I’m smarter than you.” It wasn’t an evil, megalomania-driven thing; it was mostly because I was a striver, I wanted to get ahead, and getting ahead meant convincing people of my point of view.
The best advice I ever heard about listening—advice that significantly changed my own approach—came from Sam Palmisano [President and CEO of IBM from 2002 to 2011, and now chairman of the board], when he was talking to our leadership team. Someone asked him why his experience working in Japan was so important to his leadership development, and he said, “Because I learned to listen.” And I thought, “That’s pretty amazing.” He also said, “I learned to listen by having only one objective: comprehension. I was only trying to understand what the person was trying to convey to me. I wasn’t listening to critique or object or convince.”
That was an epiphany for me because as you become a senior leader, it’s a lot less about convincing people and more about benefiting from complex information and getting the best out of the people you work with. Listening for comprehension helps you get that information, of course, but it’s more than that: it’s also the greatest sign of respect you can give someone. So I shifted, by necessity, to try to become more relaxed in what I was doing and just to be more patient and open to new ideas. And as I started focusing on comprehension, I found that my bandwidth for listening increased in a very meaningful way.
The cultural environment, of course, is going to define every aspect of communication. If you’re in a fear-driven, toxic environment, listening is going to be almost impossible, and I’ve been in places like that. Being the CEO, however, means that you can define the culture by whom you pick for positions under you and by the standards you enforce. I’ve always tried to emphasize an environment of partnership, teamwork, trust, and respect—and anyone with a bullying tendency, we fire. Of course, it’s not perfect; we’re human beings. But we try hard to have every aspect of our culture and of the way we operate encourage the sharing of information—to listen to the facts, listen to the logic, and draw well-formed conclusions.