Leader Listening Tours were originally launched at travel technology company, Skyscanner, to give employees a safe space to voice their thoughts and opinions to their leaders.
Skyscanner’s leadership team recognised that some employees felt apprehensive about speaking up and, as they grew, people felt further away from the leadership team and decision-making.
Listening Tours were launched to address this, where each Director would hold sessions specifically dedicated to listen to team members.
Running the Listening Tours allowed Skyscanner’s leaders to understand key issues and concerns affecting employees. Leaders were able to be more ‘visible’ with teams, particularly with teams distributed across different geographical locations.
It also enables leaders to hear of rumours and office gossip, that might need leadership answers to reassure people or set the record straight!
Skyscanner’s employees developed a deep appreciation that they were being heard by their leaders. People also valued that each session would result in their message being heard by the broader leadership team and actioned where possible.
For example, in one listening tour session employees shared that they weren’t getting enough time to ‘make things’ as they were always in meetings. Responding to this, Skyscanner implemented ‘Maker Time’ to enable teams to carve out time, without meetings. Maker Time has now been running for two years. Now, Skyscanner leadership are running another Listening Tour to adapt ‘Maker Time’ so that they can continue to meet employee and business needs.
We spoke to Steve “Buzz” Pearce who is the Global Design Director at Skyscanner, to understand more about how their Listening Tours work.
“As a leader, you’ve got to know what people thinking. All good leadership teams should be doing it.”
You can adapt their model to your own business – we’ve broken down the key elements below to inspire your thinking on how it could work in your organisation:
At Skyscanner, leaders will aim to run a Listening Tour every time they visit one of their regional offices and at regular intervals in their main office.
Every Skyscanner leader has ownership over holding Listening Tours with their team/department.
No more than 12 people should attend one. Ideally, they should be from a range of departments (engineering, design and marketing, for example). Listening Tour participants should be randomly chosen and across all levels. However, if need be, key influencers in the business or in a team can be chosen for their insights and encouragement to others.
To enable the ongoing success of listening tours, attendees are asked nominate a colleague to attend a future tour.
Skyscanner believes it’s vital that attendees of a Tour meet in person – nobody dials in. Listening Tours take place in a meeting room, that is ideally soundproofed so that people feel able to speak freely.
Chatham House rules are reinforced from the start and everyone is given time to contribute. If someone is taking up a lot of the time, then attendees are encouraged to hold up their hand to enable others to have their turn to speak.
The same themes and topics may often crop up time and time again throughout Tours. A common topic at Skyscanner is employee wellbeing.
To begin a Listening Tour, it can help to have an initial question or to touch on an issue previously discussed at another session. Some good opening questions are:
The job of the leader is to ask questions and listen to the answers given.
Sometimes the leader is asked a question that needs an answer. In these cases, Buzz sets a timer to two minutes and answers the question before the timer goes off to ensure that he doesn’t speak for too long and take time away from others in the room.
The actions post-Tour are incredibly important, as it is the follow-through that will add value to the organisation and imbue trust. First, the Tour leader will summarise the discussion back to the attendees.
Then, as a whole, the group decides on what information can leave the room. This information is not attributed to specific individuals and nobody in the session knows anyone else present – ensuring everyone can say things in confidence without fear of repercussion. The leader will then write this information up and share it with the group for their approval, before circulating the findings around Skyscanner’s leadership team.
There are some potential challenges that leaders of Listening Tours may encounter. Simple sitting and listening without jumping in with solutions and ideas can be tough.
During a Tour’s usual course, a leader will have to focus on being present and listening to what is being said, without trying to initially fix things in the session. The only exception to this is when serious misconduct or something similar is discussed.
If you’re part of a global organisation (or planning to scale your business into one) then your Listening Tours can be rolled out across the company. By providing a template/format for leaders to refer to – like the one above – you can create an approach that is easily scaled and understood by everyone.
Listening Tours need to feel part of the fabric of your company culture. Skyscanner has increased its growth ten-fold several times over the past few years, expanding to over 1,000 employees based across 10 global offices. Its Listening Tours have adapted and grown too.
Relying on Listening Tours alone aren’t enough. As Buzz explains:
“Listening tours are not silver bullet. It’s a fallacy of leadership to think that there’s one single method. Treat people how you want to be treated.”
As well as Listening Tours, Skyscanner have monthly catch-ups, all-hand sessions and even ‘ask me anything’ events where leaders in the business answer any question.
Regular methods of communication that run both ways are the only way to break down the barriers between management and employees and get everyone working together for the greater good of the company.