In this solo episode, I explain what leaders should read and listen to to get insights and perspectives. Contrary to popular belief, leadership is less about talking and more about listening. I tell you what I read and consume and how you can get out of your bubble to get the crucial perspective that will make you an effective leader.
As a leader, you must stay up to date with current developments. You must work on your brain, get inspiration, get input, and how you can best do that this is something that we will talk about today.
Welcome to another episode of the Wholegrain Leadership Podcast. My name is Matthias Catón. Today will be a solo episode where I will talk a little bit about what I think you should be reading and listening to as a leader. Often, when people think about a leader, they see the primary task as being active sending out messages, talking to other people, giving instructions. And that is certainly true. That is important. You need to give people direction. You need to let them know where you want to take your company or your organization. But in order to do that, the most important thing is that you need to get input.
You need to get perspective. Listening and taking in information is more important than blurting it out or communicating it. It’s hard to say how much exactly the percentages should be, but try to spend at least two-thirds of the time taking in and processing information and only one third at most to communicate actively in the sense, you talk to other people and let them know what you want them to do or what your vision is for the future.
Leadership is about listening, reading, taking in information, and of course, also thinking about it. There’s never enough time, especially if you have operational responsibilities as a leader as well, which is quite common for most positions. There is always someone who wants something, a little crisis; somebody needs a decision, something that interrupts you.
Take enough time to get your juices flowing, to get the input that you need. And it should not only be input that is from the immediate surroundings. Make sure that you leave your little island and you go somewhere else as well, because after all leadership is about having perspective. You need to be high up not to command other people around, but you need to be high up to have perspective. Only then you can fulfill the requirements of your position, which is to analyze situations, recognize patterns, which is primarily done through comparing situations in your case to adjacent cases in other companies, but also in completely different sectors. And then finally also innovation, which in most cases is adapting things that have been developed somewhere else and fitting them into the circumstances of your company or your enterprise.
You can’t do that if you only always stay in your little bubble. And then of course you also need to motivate people and you cannot really do that if you’re not an interesting person, if you don’t have perspective that you can share with others.
Very important to take in information. The best way you can do that, or the most obvious is to read. And I try to read a lot, both current affairs, daily information, the news, but of course also longer-term things. Depending on which industry you’re working in, depending on your interests, there is a plethora of publications that you can subscribe to, things that you can read.
I’ll just share a few outlets and platforms that I find particularly interesting and important. As a leader, no matter which area you’re working in, you have to have a good understanding of global affairs. What is going on in the world around you right now?
I read a couple of global leading publications: the Financial Times, the New York Times, and the Economist. The first two are daily newspapers, the Economist is a weekly magazine, and they cover pretty much everything that is important on a global level, in a politics, business, economics, but also in society in a broader sense.
If you pay for a subscription to these three media outlets, then you are already pretty well informed. Bear in mind that the interesting thing often is not the news because the news you could get from any source. What is interesting is the commentary that again, puts things into perspective. I can’t read everything every day. What I do is read the most important articles and then I read it a lot of the op-eds, the opinion pieces that give me a specific view on a topic.
I also subscribe to Harvard Business Review, which is interesting because they publish articles that are relevant for management and leadership positions. They have a new edition coming out every two months. They’re very good at presenting research driven ideas in a way that is understandable, easily digestible and applicable for leaders. Just by reading through those articles, you will find a lot of practical ideas that you can implement in your daily leadership tasks.
I’m a social media fan. I spent quite a lot of time on Twitter, for example, both reading stuff, but also interacting with people. Of course there are other social media platforms as well, but I think for information Twitter is the most interesting one. Instagram is very popular. It’s a lot more visually appealing, but for information exchange and interaction with journalists Twitter is still the gold standard.
Don’t forget books. Long-form gets sometimes forgotten in today’s world, but books are really important. Of course, you can read business books, but you should also read books that are a little bit outside of the daily needs of your job. Read novels, you can learn a lot from biographies or autobiographies from interesting people. You can see how they behaved in different situations.
The next thing, and that is often a direct alternative to reading. Is listening. Audio content have surged tremendously over the past couple of years. One prime example of things that you can listen to are, of course, podcasts. Since you are listening to my podcast, I probably don’t have to convince you that podcasts are interesting. I find them tremendously useful, very interesting format. I’m not only a host of this podcast, the Wholegrain Leadership Podcast, but also listen to a lot of podcasts from a whole range of different topics. I can’t keep up with all the episodes, but I try to listen to different episodes from different podcasts, different topical areas, as much as I can.
Also, on the rise, are audio books. Often you have a choice. You can read a book in print or as an eBook, but you can also listen to the audio book. I recently signed up for Audible, the audio book service from Amazon.
Audio is not an exclusive medium. When I read it, I can’t really do anything else. When I listened to an audio book, I can do that while going for a run, while riding the subway or driving a car, while doing my supermarket shopping, whatever it is, I can often do something else.
That saves me a lot of time or, put differently, I can consume more input in the same amount of time because I can do it while multitasking. Of course, the possibility has existed for a long time with radio, many people listen to radio and you can still do that.
There is this new platform called Clubhouse for open talk radio shows. You can sign up if you have an iPhone as of now, because there is no Android app, and you need an invite. Everybody can join or set up impromptu or scheduled talk shows to listen, but also to contribute. I’m really curious to see how that will develop and if it’s something that will have staying power.
Finally, it’s important not just to consume information through a medium, either print or digital, but to meet people in real life and talk to them. Use lunch or other opportunities as much as you can to meet and to talk to coworkers. Right now, we’re still in the middle of a pandemic. So, this is a bit difficult right now, but we’ll get over it eventually. And once that’s the case, you should absolutely embrace those opportunities.
But again, try also not just to meet your colleagues, the people in your team, the people that you see every day. Get outside of your bubble as much as you can, because only then you will get perspective. You will find these nuggets and tidbits of information that might make a huge difference when it comes for example, to innovating at your company.
If you’ve all that input, we have a major problem and maybe you’re in the same situation as I am. I forget a lot. It’s amazing how much you forget. I absolutely would recommend you record key pieces of information in some way. Take notes of the key ideas that you come across in books, that you listen to on your podcasts or that some people tell you over lunch. I use electronic means to do that because I’m a bit of an IT geek or at least I have a big affinity to electronic techniques or electronic possibilities. I use platforms such as Evernote or OneNote. If you haven’t tried them out, have a look at them. They’re note taking and note storage services. They work on any kind of device, computer, a laptop, a smartphone, or a tablet.
The data gets synced through the cloud and you cannot just type things, but you can also add images, or you can handwrite, if you have a tablet that has a pencil, you can classify information and so on and so forth. So, both of them are extremely useful as your brain in the cloud. Evernote is an independent company and OneNote is offered by Microsoft. Both have free versions.
As I mentioned before, I have an iPad with a pencil so I can write notes without having to type them, which is quite useful in meetings or when you’re on the go. If that’s not what you like, you can always use a physical notebook or simply a bunch of papers. For me that doesn’t work because I tend to lose these set of papers or misplace them and when I need them, I can never find them. For me, this electronic way works much better because then I can use the search function and normally, I can find what I’m looking for much easier.
Also, I recommend that you keep some kind of a diary. How extensive this is is up to you also a matter of time, of course. Spend five to 10 minutes maximum every day in the evening, to just note down what you found remarkable in the day. It doesn’t have to be a complete record of what you did the whole day. That’s not the point, but just some ideas on what went through your mind, how you perceive things, key events that happened. That will be very useful if you want to go back later and look something up, find out how you were thinking at that point in time.
In conclusion, spending time taking in information is fundamentally important for any leader who wants to be effective. You need that to get perspective, to be good at analyzing situations, to innovate, to see the challenges that lay ahead for your organization. You can’t do that without it, and you cannot do it if you’re too narrow in the scope. Go for serendipity, the haphazard thing. Go to a museum, for example. I like art, so when I’m traveling and I have time to visit, for example, an art museum, I will do that. And it’s not something that is directly useful for my work, but it gives me perspective. It makes me think. And I try to put myself into the perspective of the artists and try to understand what their message was, what they were trying to explain or express. Sometimes suddenly something makes click in my mind and I have it have a good idea for a problem that I was mulling.
As I said, initially, if you have an operational responsibility, it’s very easy for these more important, but not so urgent things to get drowned out by the immediate operational needs. It’s important that you schedule times where you want to indulge in these activities. You can, of course also do it very well while doing something else, listening in particular. I read a lot when I travel.
Of course, don’t get sidetracked, in particular with social media. I think there is a huge danger spending unreal amounts of time on Twitter or on your Instagram feed, that’s not the purpose.
Make sure that you do it with a little bit of direction. Allow for serendipity, but don’t get sidetracked watching cat videos on YouTube, because that is not what I meant when I talked about perspective.
In conclusion, if you want to be a successful leader, you need to have perspective. You need to have a fantastically working, very creative brain. You should strive to be an interesting person because that will make people want to talk to you. That will make people want to listen to you. And that will also ensure that you always have the broad capacity to really come up with great ideas that will propel your organization forward.