What Alfred P. Sloan Can Teach You About How Being a Listener Makes You a Better Leader

Contrary to popular belief, great leaders are not the best communicators because they talk a lot; but because they listen more than they talk. Listening is a superpower. Here’s a short story on how Alfred P. Sloan led the transformation of General Motors with a listening-driven mindset.

In 1920 General Motors was struggling, accounting for only 12% share of car sales in the country. Alfred P. Sloan took over, dreamed bigger, and decided that the most impactful way to change the game was to go directly to his dealers to improve sales. He visited each and every dealership personally and listen to the salesmen’s ideas.

As reported by the New York Times:

“It may surprise you to know,” he said at the time, “that I have personally visited, with many of my associates, practically every city in the United States, from the Atlantic to the Pacific and from Canada to Mexico. On these trips I visit from 5 to 10 dealers a day. I meet them in their own places of business, talk with them across their own desks and solicit from them suggestions and criticisms as to their relations with the corporation.”

When meeting with dealers, he didn’t try to win them over or convince them of his ideas. He once said, “I prefer to appeal to the intelligence of a man rather than attempt to exercise authority over him.” He was nicknamed Silent Sloan because “When he listened, it was with extra intentness of the deaf.”

By the time Sloan’s tenure at General Motors ended in 1956, GM was one of the world’s most succesful companies and had over 52% of market share. For three decades Sloan led with what he heard, not with what he said. He listened with intent and then followed up with action.

Sloan practiced a listenind-driven management style. How did Sloan hack the art of listening?

Here’s how he worked:

  • Sloan spent six days a week in meetings, three with formal agendas and three to address problems as they arose.
  • Other than stating each meeting’s initial purpose, Sloan attended each meeting in silence. He almost never took notes or spoke except to clarify something with a question. According to Drucker, he ended each meeting with a brief pointed summary and thanks.
  • Following each meeting, Sloan would pick one executive to be accountable and composed a short memo with a summary of what was said, next steps, work assignments, and a specific deadline. A copy of the memo was sent to everyone in the meeting.

That’s it!

Bottom line: Being a great listener makes you a better leader.