Andrea Learned

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Listen to Learn, Learn to Lead


How often do you hear a leader described in the media as a “good listener?” Not often. That may be because, both in theory and by tradition, descriptions of leadership still tend to focus more on the output (decisive! charismatic!) than the input. But, the best leadership in practice today gets noted for its calibration toward the latter. And, social media is an incredible source for that.

One business leader currently well representing the listening and learning “input” approach is Deidre Paknad , founder and CEO of Workboard (her third company). I first came across her, of course, via Twitter, which led me to the many articles she has written on the topic of leadership. In my experience covering the social leadership space, Paknad is clearly someone who understands and practices social engagement to its utmost effect.

So, what drives her to be on social media so consistently, and to commit significant time writing about her experiences and thoughts? What she shared with me in answer to those questions should inspire many others.

Listening to Learn

For Paknad, actively engaging on social media is a critical part of a necessary leadership perspective shift.

You always want to be learning, not spewing. By changing your lens on it, Twitter should be your earphone, not your megaphone.

What those newer to social media seem slow to understand is that being (actively) on the various networks is much less about broadcasting and (so) much more about taking in information. So, why are so few diving in to such an accessible, powerful tool? A 2013 McKinsey study confirms that leaders should see constant learning as critical:

It’s imperative to keep abreast of such emerging trends and innovations–not just their competitive and marketplace implications, but also what they mean for communications technologies…

And, yes, while listening to learn definitely takes time in an already time-crunched business world, developing true and adaptable leadership, as well as a pipeline of future such leaders, takes dedication to study.

Paknad refers to the idea of pursuing “deep expertise” in whatever your domain. As she saw in building one of her previous companies, this is not a concept for titled “leaders” only, but for all in an organization. The next generation of the most successful leaders in any business, frontline managers to C-suite, will most likely emerge from this type of company-wide, culturally encouraged deep learning effort.

Learning to Lead

And, as Paknad reminded me, leadership capacity in most businesses is much different today than it was twenty-five or more years ago. Having lost the 1980s version of a full-time administrative assistant, leaders still must consistently ensure that everyone in a company is engaged, held accountable, given feedback and made aware of exactly what they are part of, and why.

According to Gallup numbers: only 13 percent of employees are actively engaged in their work; 20 percent are deconstructively engaged; 76 percent of managers have a to-do list, but only 7 percent know what actions to take. While it should still be assumed that any person in a position of leadership understands the opportunities and has a clear, compelling vision for the way forward, Paknad sees the following aspects, too, as absolutely fundamental:

  • Having the capacity to engage others in realization of the problem/opportunity and achievement of solutions.
  • Being highly aware of continuous external change and adept at monitoring that, then refactoring problem/solution statements.
  • Being able to drive change in point of view both internally and externally, by providing genuine value to those “listening.”

Social Learners Lead Better

For those striving to be great leaders today, having capacity (i.e. time), being aware of change in many sectors and being able to communicate about that change both internally and externally all speak to the benefits of social media learning. When Paknad goes on Twitter daily, for example, she does not bemoan the time or obligation of it, but instead thinks: “I’m going to go learn.” She actively participates, knowing that the time spent will result in her better understanding of the collective conscience, and help her walk away with new wisdom for her role guiding and communicating Workboard’s vision.

What she learns there also inspires her to then write. In Paknad’s opinion, this is a form of communication not embraced enough by leaders today (the capacity excuse, again), but that has the power to drive change for the range of company stakeholders. Having written work archived online, for her, is about providing “genuine value to those who are listening,” where that value is not judged by the one speaking, but judged firmly “in the ears of the ‘beholder.'”

As Paknad has realized and I have seen with my own clients, regular social media engagement paired with consistent online writing helps develop authentic “relationships without presence.” And, though it may sound odd, that’s what is needed today. Love it or not, we live in a world where more businesses operate from sometimes multinational locations, and the ability of a leader to truly build relationships — with employees, communities, vendors and investors — while not being physically present, can be the ultimate advantage.

To achieve the necessary trust and build from a position of strength, modern day business leaders must, themselves, start with the input. By listening and learning through social media engagement, and creating their own content, they are building authentic personal relationships. And, they are gaining influence that matters.

Using social media is far from a waste of time, as Paknad is happy to attest:

I use social media not for the sake of social, but as another tool for being a leader, and building new leaders every tweet of the way.

This article first published in HuffingtonPost, February 6, 2015.

Special thanks to Tony Hall for use of the image.