Listen twice as much as you speak: emotional intelligence and stakeholder engagement

“…While the impulse may be to say that this is unfair, one of the lessons I’ve learned over time is that change comes from self-reflection. So it’s worth examining how we got here. The truth is that there is a high cost to a bad reputation. Irrespective of whether we did everything that is being said about us … it really matters what people think of us, especially in a global business like ours, where actions in one part of the world can have serious consequences in another…”

It’s rare one sees such #emotionalintelligence from a CEO, let alone one who has been in the job just a few weeks, but this came from newly installed Uber CEO  Dara Khosrowshahi after just a couple of weeks in the job. It came in an email to employees after the announcement that the City of London would not be renewing Uber’s operating license.

Khosrowshahi realized that society will judge you not just by what you say, but by what you do and unless what you do aligns with what people expect of you, then the ‘expectation gap’ can damage your reputation and ultimately impact on your own freedom to operate.

Today, a company’s freedom to operate is given to it not by regulators or even governments, but by the communities in which it operates and this can be challenging because society may know nothing about your business, or in fact even care too much about what you do, but they sure as eggs care about the way you do it.

As crisis and risk management guru @PeterSandman says, “people want to know that you care before they care what you know”.  Unless you can show that you can legitimately understand and help address the objectives of society through what you do in business, you cannot legitimately hope to stay in business.

It got me thinking about some issues I have been dealing with lately – the specifics don’t matter, but what was very clear to me was that sometimes, being right, or being the smartest person in the room, does not matter if you cannot take your critics and your detractors with you on the journey.    And to do this requires you to be attuned to the concerns of society and to understand the objectives of our stakeholders – my Dad used to always say, “son, you have two ears and one mouth, so listen twice as much as you speak’. Wise words.

It is right for a company to have the courage of its convictions and to stand behind the decisions it makes, but be prepared that others might not always agree with what you do and when this happens there will be disputes.  How you respond to those disputes is often equally as important as how you have behaved in the first place.

Organizations have to move to a place where they engage with a more human touch; where they genuinely listen; where they work hard to understand the objectives and concerns of their stakeholders; and where they help stakeholders understand how the organization can help meet stakeholders’ objectives – equally and adequately addressing their concerns while having a successful and profitable business.  I really believe this is possible and achievable.

It is the job of a company’s Corporate Affairs or FTO team to translate the needs and objectives of the company’s stakeholders into something that the business can understand and then work to address while being successful commercially.  And for as long as organizations engage with the outside world and for as long as there is the prospect of a disconnect between what the organization thinks people want, what they actually want and then understanding how the organization can deliver that, Corporate Affairs professionals will always have an important role to play.

In the 1992 US Presidential Campaign, Clinton aide James Carville, insisted that everyone working for Clinton should remain focused on the plight of working people. “It’s the economy, stupid,” he said over and over until it became a mantra and now part of the American political lexicon.

In agriculture we often say, “it’s all about the science, it’s all about the technology”. Well as Clinton learned, there is more to it than a strong mantra to build trust and credibility.  Equally for the agriculture industry and its players, there is more to it than the science.  The science is a necessary but not sufficient condition.

As an industry we have to be able to paint the bigger picture – how does the science and the technology we advocate contribute to what society wants to achieve – safe and nutritious food, an environment that is protected for our kids, profitable and productive farmers and rural communities, consumers with confidence in the food they eat and the agricultural system used to produce it, a role for all producers, large, small, organic and traditional.

To do this we have to be able to meet regulatory conditions and advocate for this; advocate for sensible science based regulation; we have to demonstrate real thought leadership on big issues like climate change, the health of our waterways, our pollinators, our soil; we have to ensure that our products are used safely and the risk associated with use is managed; we have to tell our story in an engaging way, with a strong and credible brand; create partnerships with the unusual suspects; and we have to take our own people who have passion for this industry on the journey.

The crucial first step is to do as my dad has said, listen twice as much as you speak.  Or perhaps to paraphrase James Carville and the Clinton campaign, “its emotional intelligence stupid”.

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