Leaders Listen


National news recently quoted a speech by a Microsoft executive who said women should trust the “system” to take care of their pay raises. Previously, few of us knew about The Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing (GHC). The gathering began in 1994 with 500 attendees. By 2010, over 2,000 were attending. Last year 4,750 took part. And their most recent convention in Phoenix attracted 8,000 participants from around the world. All but six percent of attendees are women. It is billed as the “world’s largest gathering of women technologists.”

The truly good leaders know that listening is as critical to communication as speaking.

Their 2014 event received substantial news coverage and social media buzz. Most of it came because of comments made by keynote presenter and Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella. In an interview style format, he said at one point, while discussing pay gaps between men and women, that women should trust “karma” instead of asking for pay raises. Nadella suggested that the “system” would reward their work. The criticism was immediate. In an apology, Nadella said he was “completely wrong.” He also committed to attending the event the next four years.

Another conference component that caused considerable criticism from participants was the addition of a “male allies plenary panel.” Four men from top technology companies with mixed records on the treatment of women were expected to discuss what their companies were doing to make women more welcome. Instead, they offered “advice.” As women feared, they heard only the conventional advice given to women that seems not to be working in the tech field for many of them. In preparation for the panel, some women prepared “Bingo” cards with those stereotypical phrases in the boxes. As they heard the phrases used, participants could check them off until someone stood up and called out “Bingo.”

So two innovations by the conference planners backfired. But there is more to the story. One member of the “male allies” panel, Alan Eustace from Google, sent a Twitter message saying, “Let’s reverse the male allies panel. You talk. I listen.” A new session was scheduled in which three of the original four male panelists came to do nothing but listen to the women. The irony of the first panel was that they were telling women to “speak up,” but none of the attendees were allowed to ask questions.

Comments by women participating in the second “reverse panel,” as some called it, were positive.

  • “As draining as it was, I’m excited about what I’m seeing of their openness to hear problems.”
  • “This time they’re listening to us — and that can make all the difference in the world.”
  • “So amazing to see so many women sharing their experiences and suggestions.”
  • “So many truths being named by amazing women.”
  • “Rare and beautiful — three high power tech guys silently listening.”


When Eustace send a follow up thank you message to all who spoke for their “courage to tell it like it is,” he added, “We have a lot of work to do.”Leaders love to talk. They are expected to talk. They are asked to talk. Much of a leader’s day is spent in some type of communication with others. The truly good leaders know that listening is as critical to communication as speaking. Leaders are expected to know more, but they never know everything — and they do not know nearly enough to lead well.

Listening is a way to practice “reverse mentoring” when those with less experience and status actually “school” formal leaders. These leaders learn aspects of what is going on that they will never know without the wisdom that can only come from listening generously and regularly.

The next time someone asks you to “say a few words,” try finding a graceful way to ask a good question and then listen to those who may have far less influence and power than you. They become your consultants and guides because, no matter where we lead, we “have a lot of work to do.”

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About Author

Dr. Lovett H. Weems, Jr.

Lovett H. Weems, Jr., is senior consultant at the Lewis Center for Church Leadership, professor of church leadership at Wesley Theological Seminary, and author of several books on leadership.

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