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If the President can do this every single day, so can you and I

Every night, the President goes home with a homework binder. Amongst several other things, that binder has a selection of 8 letters, hand selected from amongst the thousands of letters the President gets every single day. Every night that he is in town, the President will read these letters and even respond to a few himself. In other cases, he will make extensive notes and have his team send a letter in response.

Let us think about it. Even if the President does nothing beyond reading these letters, every letter he reads brings him closer to the American people, educates him on what people are feeling, influences what he says on the road and in his talks and eventually, impacts the policies he puts in place. Unfiltered, real words from real people has GOT to have an impact on him.

Unlike almost everything else that reaches the president, these letters have not been fact-checked or committee-reviewed. And because these letters are so direct and unfiltered, many of them are quite personal.
“Our office deals a lot in emotion and empathy,” says Reeves, “because we are absorbing so much of what people hope and fear.”

The President of this nation of 320 million people has found a way to listen to the real voices of his people every single day.

Then, what excuses do you and I have for not listening …to our teams, our employees and the real users of our products?

As founders and leaders of companies, are we listening to our users/customers every single day? As company CEOs, how often are we really hearing the completely unfiltered voices of our employees, teams and users? Are we listening as closely to the real people as we do to data, competition, markets and strategists?

Throughout my time as a founder/CEO and a product leader, “listening” to the community/users has been the cornerstone of my existence. (I have worked hard and continue to work hard to get better at listening). I always step into every role with a very spoken agreement that my purpose is to always be a “voice for our users”. My everyday revolves around shipping “insanely useful products” for our users, while moving the key metrics for the organization. In the video above, as I listened to the President talk about the letters he reads, I was reminded of why the voices of my users/community and team have always been of utmost importance to me.

Why Listen?

Listening to users (internal and external) and my teams is a rather selfish thing for me. It makes me a better person, a better product leader and helps me perform my job better. I am just way better off when I listen then when I don’t. Here is why —

  1. Listening creates and encourages a growth mindset — The idea that I have a lot more left to learn and hence a lot left to contribute always creates an incredible amount of excitement in my life. Listening to users talk about their experiences and problems is always eye opening to me. It is a constant reminder of how much I don’t know. It ignites my creative spark and fills my brain with ideas. It puts me in a forever-learning-mode. And I can tell you from experience, that new ideas, sparked by honest needs are great for business and business metrics.
  2. Listening is a humbling experience — The truth is that, most often, when users (and employees) talk, they want to complain. Much like what our President experiences, most emails, phone calls and user sessions bring more requests than gratitude, more complaints than stories of joy. That is the reason we all shy away from listening…but it is the very reason we should listen. The frustrated but patient users will pull you in the right direction when you are distracted with solving the wrong problem. You will have to apologize for a broken or delayed feature and request they hang in there. When they point out mistakes, you will have to apologize. You will have to stand strong on your mission but will have to say “I don’t know” a lot. While all of this does not sound like victory, your employees and users will see you as a real person, vulnerable like them and will come to respect your intense focus on the mission. You will build an intense respect for each other amidst all your disagreements and that will result in a strong company culture and solid product. All in all, a huge win no matter which way you look at it.
  3. Listening brings people together and helps sell ideas — If you watch that video above or any speech by Obama, you will notice how often he shares stories of real people. Listening to users will arm you with the best stories to help you sell product ideas, create consensus and move ahead as one team. Bringing people together and getting consensus is the primary job of product leaders and senior leaders in companies. In addition to metrics, user stories and experiences are a great way to bring companies together to double down on their mission.

How to Listen

  • If you are a founder of a company, just talk to your users. You have no excuse not to. Listening to your users will shape the company direction in ways you never imagined. Join product roll out calls, hear their frustrations and their joys, listen in on training webinars, talk to people on the street …
  • If you are a founder or product leader, bring those stories into the organization. Share them within the company. Create a platform/space/recurring event for sharing that. There is no better way to unite a company than around the impact their work is having on real people.
  • If you are a product manager, lead your meetings with stories from users. Heck, just bring a real user or two into your meetings. The harshest of your opponents will jump onboard when they learn that your agenda is about nothing but improving the lives of real people.
  • If you are a PM, find a way to get those user frustrations in front of senior leadership. Initially it can feel like we are failing when we send user frustrations up the chain, but soon enough, a leader/leaders that care/s for users will see this as an opportunity for growth and improvement.
  • No matter what your role is within your organization, make it your job to build a culture around really listening to each other. A company culture built around listening will be a strong one.

As you get bigger and more successful as a company, it is easy to get distracted by all that success and growth. It is easy to feel like you have all the answers. It is easy to feel like you don’t need anyone to tell you what you need. But please, shut all those internal voices out and listen to your users and employees more than ever.

Listening can be a scary but humbling exercise. Let us all listen a bit more — to everyone around us. And let us listen very keenly, to our users, our co-workers and our employees, especially if we are in the business of building responsible technologies and companies for the future.

If you enjoyed this article, please recommend and share! Thank you for listening/reading :)