Of the skills business leaders have to master, organizational listening \u2014 not just listening, but organizational listening \u2014 is, for most leaders, most of the time, in most situations, the most essential.\n\nThe art of organizational listening\n\nGoogle \u201chow to listen\u201d and, in approximately .023 seconds (depending on bandwidth), you\u2019ll find yourself inundated with a lifetime supply of techniques for improving your one-on-one listening skills.\n\nTechniques for organizational listening? Not so much, and what you will find is focused on public relations, not on leadership.\n\nAnd yet, of all your leadership responsibilities, organizational listening is arguably the most critical one to master.\n\nWhat is organizational listening? It\u2019s the practice of knowing What\u2019s Going On Out There and keeping that knowledge fresh.\n\nIt\u2019s the most important activity for leaders to engage in because of this syllogism:\n\nTools for organizational listening\n\nIt\u2019s easy to say (or in my case write), \u201cMake sure you take time to listen to your organization.\u201d But what you need isn\u2019t an exhortation. You need a toolkit you can use to put together an organizational listening plan you can execute.\n\nLike any toolkit, each tool in your organizational listening toolkit has its own mix of characteristics.\n\nSome are more efficient than others; some give you a more objective perspective; some are filtered while others tell you everything about everything; some give you nuance while others eschew subtlety; and some are better than others at revealing major issues that require your immediate attention.\n\nThey\u2019re summarized in the table below:\n\nTaking them one at a time:\n\nMetrics: You might not think of metrics as listening tools, but that\u2019s what they are, and done well they can be quite useful. They\u2019re efficient, objective, and unfiltered. But they\u2019re devoid of nuance, which means that by themselves they can easily lead you astray.\n\nChain of command: The chain of command \u2014 the managers who report directly to you and to whom the rest of your organization reports \u2014 is the organizational listening tool of choice for the lazy.\n\nSure, from the perspective of the time you need to invest it\u2019s efficient. But that\u2019s all it has going for it. Your direct reports can be strongly motivated to conceal from you everything you need to know the most.\n\nIt\u2019s called the chain of command for a reason. It\u2019s a dreadful way to get an accurate picture of the situation, but it\u2019s the tool managers must use to assign work. Managers who don\u2019t respect the chain of command give employees twice the work they can handle \u2014 forty hours a week from their manager and forty more from their manager\u2019s manager.\n\nManagement by walking around: Popularized by Tom Peters, walking around is just the ticket when you need nuanced, unfiltered information. Regrettably, in an era of multinational corporations, branch offices, and hybrid workforces, walking around is likely to exacerbate the \u201cfield vs. staff\u201d challenge, namely, that managers who are close to the action (field) are the ones who know what\u2019s going on, while those who work at headquarters, who have the most access, have no firsthand knowledge of the actual situation.\n\nHaving lots of informal conversations with those who do the actual work of your organization is still an excellent idea. But call it \u201cmanagement by calling around\u201d and you can quickly see how it is a whole lot harder to structure this listening tool so that it seems natural and informal on the part of the individual-contributors you most need to reach.\n\nOpen door policy: This mainstay of management advice gives you unfiltered, nuanced information that lets you know about major issues that might be emerging. Four pro tips about establishing one: (1) Make sure you\u2019re available on your side of the open door often enough that employees can take advantage of it; (2) make sure there\u2019s enough privacy that those taking advantage of the policy are confident that you\u2019ll keep what they\u2019re telling you \u2026 well \u2026 private; (3) make sure you have an \u201cOpen Zoom\u201d policy that effectively mimics a physical open door; and (4) take the time to verify what you hear, so your open door policy doesn\u2019t turn into a backstabbing-for-fun-and-profit policy.\n\nSuggestion box \/ anonymous mailbox: This venerable tool is efficient and unfiltered. As its anonymity is assured, it can reveal major issues. Sadly, the suggestion box usually seems to accomplish the opposite \u2013 to devolve into irate complaints about trivial situations, while encouraging dissatisfaction when management doesn\u2019t follow up on the trivia.\n\nEmployee surveys: When constructed and administered well, employee surveys provide everything but nuance. But all it takes is for one round that leaves no room for employees to reveal serious issues, or for the tool to reveal serious issues that management ignores or does nothing about, and cynicism will overwhelm it. Once this happens you might as well put the program on hold for a few years to let the skepticism abate.\n\nEmployee roundtables: If you and your whole organization are located in one place, you can invite small, random samplings of your indirect reports to \u201cskip lunches.\u201d A free meal is a nice incentive to participate, and provides a good atmosphere for an informal small-group conversation about what they know that you need to know.\n\nOtherwise, you have little choice but to make these meetings virtual. But conduct them anyway.\n\nWhat\u2019s on the agenda?\n\nNow that you have their attention, make it clear you don\u2019t want their attention. What matters is that they have yours.\n\nNow that they have it, your agenda is simple: You want to know where the organization is running smoothly, and where it has sand in its gears that you need to hose out.\n\nAnd, even more important, you want to take the opportunity to practice the \u201cconsultant\u2019s edge\u201d \u2014 to take advantage of their expertise to figure out solutions.\n\nPutting an organizational listening plan into practice\n\nSeven tools. Each one takes time to do well. Add your seven time estimates together and you\u2019ll realize the time you have is far less than the time you need.\n\nWhich leads to two suggestions. The first: Be brutal about pruning your current time budget. Clear as much time from your calendar as you can to make room for organizational listening.\n\nThe second: Take a page from the agile book. Don\u2019t try to institute all seven tools at once. Sequence them, stage them, and ease them into your weekly work habits, one at a time.\n\nMaking the tools second nature works far better than making them major events.