Continuing my Listen Well series, I recently interviewed Doug Mitchell, a successful guy who likes working at startup companies. Doug had some keen insight into listening, and his chief point is this: to listen well, you really need to suspend yourself and see it from the other person's perspective. We also talk a bit about the struggle to listen well while multitasking - no easy feat.
You can read the rest of what Doug had to say below, or you can listen to it. Panera is in the background.
Brett: Hi Doug.
Brett: I'm here with Doug Mitchell, who has his own blog. And he is a vice-president of a company and he is working remotely a lot of the time. He works with a lot of different dealerships. And Mike Sansone handed Doug off to me and said Doug would be a great person to talk to about listening so I'm talking to you today.
Doug: Great. Sounds good!
Brett: So, you have an interesting job. You don't work in an office like everyone else does.
Doug: That's exactly right. I work at my home office and I share time with various coffee house offices around the Des Moines metro.
Brett: Such as Panera, where we are.
Doug: That's right.
Brett: So, what is it you do in your company?
Doug: I manage a relationship between our company and - specifically - Caterpillar, as in the tractor company, and their 50-some-odd North American dealer network. I handle all aspects of that, whether it's getting the resources to manage that relationship in terms of marketing, whether it's telling our company back at the office to write software code to make something work better - and what we provide them with is a solution, a dispatching or transportation-style solution that helps them run their businesses more efficiently.
Brett: Gotcha. So, what's your background? How'd you get into this?
Doug: My background is mostly technology, mostly software, but not from a technical point of view - mostly from a marketing business development point of view.
Doug: I started right out of school in 1994 with a computer memory manufacturing company, progressed through the sales ranks, so I started to understand the technology industry - the bigger picture - and I kind of grew out of that sales job. Went to work at AT&T for a while, got to understand a little more of the Internet side of things. So then, got bored, didn't enjoy corporate America any more, didn't want to climb the ladder for the next 15 years, so I jumped ship and started with a software startup company that told me that we have one month of salary to pay you. If you can write a business plan and we can get funding, you'll have a job. And if not, probably you won't.
Doug: So, these guys I had known before, but it was a very good relationship and we put our heads down and we wrote a business plan and we got the funding and within about 45 days we had a million bucks in the bank, which was amazing back then.
Brett: Wow, yeah.
Doug: We launched that company, and grew it up, and got it sold off to CNET, the online marketing company. They bought that and another one that we had sort of launched in parallel. So, very exciting. That's how I came to love the startup environment.
Brett: Right. So, how did you get from there to the current position that you're in today?
Doug: After the companies were sold, back in California, where I lived, that when those two companies were sold, I spent about 6 months thinking about "Hmm... what should I do next?" That was some of the most enjoyable time I've ever had. I golfed about 5 times a week and said, "What should I do?" Ultimately, I couldn't figure it out. I said, "I don't want to jump right back into something." So actually, what I did, this is something that I've written once about it, I took a job as a store manager of a Starbucks right in my town.
Doug: I spent about a year doing that. I connected with my community, I met all kinds of - the same kind of community you would have here [waving at Panera, where we sat]. I met people in international business, people that worked at home. Of course, they came and worked there [at the Starbucks]. And I actually almost launched a company with some of the guys as funding - you know, it was fantastic. And we can talk about that any time you want. That was a great opportunity to just learn about - I mean, it was a high-volume store with 25 employees, so it was fantastic. I kind of grew tired of that. It was a short-term thing, and I was going to move from California to somewhere, either where family or friends were located - that's what my wife's stipulations were. So, we were about to list the house when Dispatching Solutions, my current employer, they called me up. I had known in a previous relationship, had done a little bit of work for them. They said, "We're ready to take this company up and grow it bigger. Do you want to give it a shot?" I said, "Well, I'll give it a try, but I'm gonna move at some point, and I just want you to be prepared for that." They said okay, fine, let's just do this. So we did, and I did, about two years ago now in October. We came here from southern California. Moved here by choice. We stayed away from the places where family are located - not because we didn't want to be near family, but because the areas weren't too exciting. And we had very good friends that were born here, moved here to the Des Moines Metro, and we visited and absolutely loved it. We chose here. That's how I ended up working remotely for Dispatching Solutions and living in Des Moines and loved it.
Brett: So you're a husband, you're a father, you've been part of a startup company as an employee, you've been a manager with a Starbucks, and you're a VP today. Across all of those experiences, how would you define listening?
Doug: Listening is probably best described as coming into a two-way conversation and suspending what your brain is telling you to say.
Doug: It's the best way I can think to describe [it]. I especially had to do this in the Starbucks environment.
Brett: I was going to ask you more about that.
Doug: Oh yeah.
Brett: Because it's rapid-
Doug: You have not only 25 youthful employees - ask anyone who's done retail and the issues are the same and they're always drama - and you have to take off your "I have so much more experience than you" hat to really understand what's going on
Brett: Connect with them.
Doug: Yeah, to really connect with them. And the same thing with your customers. To come out, sit down and have a face-to-face and really connect with people as part of Starbucks culture, and it's something that I enjoyed thoroughly. I wish Starbucks was setup to give managers more time to do that. That's a different conversation.
Brett: So Starbucks [as a company] didn't really help you understand how to listen better, it's something you had to figure out on your own?
Doug: It's something that I think I had half of a clue at, but if I didn't listen appropriately and I had - these conversations would always end the same way... it would be somebody telling me why this and that were wrong and me saying, "Well, you don't understand. Here's the reality: boom boom boom." And it didn't really solve anything.
Doug: And in a team environment, especially among various managers and then a district manager, there was just, um - the company at that level fostered more of that environment where they would actually... I mean, they would do a lot of training with the upper level managers.
Brett: Uh huh.
Doug: And so I think a lot of that stuff filtered. I didn't receive much direct training in that listening, but I think it filtered down. When you saw the results and you had the kind of conversation where you were engaged and you did suspend the urge to go, "Yeah, but you don't... but you're not... what you're not getting is..." Just shut that off, and then you found new things that really helped you connect with those people to help them do better at their job, to help them do better for you, and to make it more fulfilling for you, and stick around longer because, after all, the lifespan of somebody at a retail operation is 3 to 6 months.
Brett: Right, right. So what happens when you suspend yourself, so to speak, when you sit down your own thoughts... what happens, then, that allows you to receive somebody else, do you think?
Doug: It takes off the filters. It helps you to appreciate what that person might be going through. It helps them drop their barrier of communication - if they're experiencing things at home or here or past experiences, you know. That all comes in when you're sitting face-to-face with somebody. It's really an amalgam of everything that you've ever experienced. If you've always had really tough situations communicating face-to-face, then you're bringing that to the table. And I know that - I wouldn't say I wasn't tough about stuff like that, but I was very much willing - I would bring myself to the table, waiting for you to say the right thing so I can shut it off.
Brett: "Here's my opportunity!" Boom!
Doug: Exactly. So taking those things down really gives you the opportunity to understand the person, to get inside their head, to really help them progress as an employee and as a person. It's very helpful.
Brett: Now, as a dad, how have you found - especially with little ones like that - how have you found listening to work for you?
Doug: Wow. That's probably the most challenging thing ever. The part about being - it's easy enough to listen to your kids and to hear what they're saying and sort of treat that part... I think the hardest thing is that, in the mix, is your wife. And so the kids, and the wife, and then you have yourself - there's this communication triangle. You know, you get so used to automatic response with your kids, just "I want to..." [and you say] "Wait. Wait." And you find those things entering into your relationship with your spouse - at least I did. I still do. I fight it all the time. So being able to get rid of that and actually treat your wife - this is what I heard one time - treat your spouse like your best customer, or like somebody - you're really trying to win them over. Listen to them that way.
Brett: Like something that won't take them for granted.
Doug: Exactly. That's exactly right. And man is it tough when you're busy with life, busy with the kids, when they're screaming and you're "Yeah, yeah." I find myself not even looking when my wife is at the home office. [Makes typing gestures] And I'll be typing away. I don't even know what you said, but she'll get a text message to me about five minutes after she leaves recapping the conversation because she knows that I missed it and I wasn't listening.
Brett: So she's learned how to read you to know when you're really listening.
Brett: What cue does she know to look for when you're on or off? Keep in mind - she's gonna read this interview [wink].
Doug: That's fine [grinning]. It's when I actually stop and look at her and make some kind of eye contact, you know. And I stop what I'm doing. And we're usually just like ants at an ant farm at the house. If I actually stop - it helps to make contact. Same with the kids. Put a hand on a shoulder or something like that, to actually say, "I'm here and I'm engaged in the moment." Tough to do, tough to remember, but I think that's critical. It really helps me.
Brett: Right, I get that. Being married myself, I understand that completely. You've got to disconnect like that and make sure that you connect with them, right? Whatever you're doing, you have to disengage. You know, something that I believe is that multitasking is the complete enemy of listening.
Doug: That's exactly right.
Brett: You're multitasking big time, because you're juggling the relationship - I'm assuming that you're working with some employees.
Brett: So how do you manage multitasking and listening?
Doug: Man. I try to get better at it every day, but I mean I think multitasking as a concept is totally flawed. I mean, it is possible, but what that really means is that I'm doing a lot of things moderately well in most cases.
Doug: What you want to get done and what you need to get done will actually happen the right way, but email, reading blogs to stay up on your industry, what have you - interacting with customers, clients, managing the employees - all of this remotely in my case - talking to them about marketing materials, whatever... it takes discipline, I think, to be less active in terms of these information management needs. I think you become better by doing less. I mean, less is more. I believe that. I think we should hone down what we do. Limit our saying yes to everything. The more you can say "No," the better.
Doug: And I don't mean that negatively, of course.
Brett: No, no.
Doug: It's purely a resource dispersal tactic.
Brett: Right. Something that - a concept that I like is that there's a To-Do List; there's also a To-Don't List. Usually, the To-Don't List is more important than the To-Do List.
Doug: Exactly. That's exactly right. I mean, multitasking is a reality, especially when you work at home. We've trained the kids. They can look through the glass in the door, and they can knock, and if Daddy goes "No" - I wave my hand "No" - they simply walk away. They're really good about it. But all in all, when you're at home, and you come out, and you have this question and that question and you're trying to get in the zone of a project, it's very difficult to break away from that stuff to become a good listener. It's almost like you need to schedule time to be a good listener.
Brett: Right. Because you have to make sure that you have nothing else on your plate to devote yourself to the activity.
Brett: Which then brings me to the next thing, your customer relationships. You manage how many different customers? I know Caterpillar, right, but you deal with all the dealerships.
Brett: And how many of them are there?
Doug: There are approximately 55-ish. 55, 57 - depending on who's buying who this week. There's about 55 dealerships, and then there's the corporate entity in Peoria. Then I guess you could say that my duties beyond that extend into other enterprise clients, which one of them is a top-five heavy equipment manufacturer kind of coming online with us. It's mainly the large dollar enterprise-level clients that I talk to and they're all over the United States, so far. Sometime in the near future we might have Canada, we might have Latin America, we might have one or two in Europe. So things could really heat up at that point in terms of listening and communication.
Brett: So I would assume that most of your conversation is either email or your conversation is either phone, right?
Doug: It's probably 80 to 90% email. Which I'm a huge fan. Maybe not what you're supposed to do. I love the written word because I feel as though people that read my emails understand very clearly. I think I'm a reasonably good writer so that people get it. They get it. There's not a lot of fluff. It's done in a way that's forceful but appropriate. You know what I'm saying?
Doug: It really works. And on the phone, I don't like tracking people down and I can't stand getting to voice mail.
Brett: So how do you show that you're listening via email?
Doug: Thoughtful response, that if you read an email from me, I believe - especially in those corporate ones where you're really answering key questions - that I've listened, I've understood, and that I know exactly what I'm talking about when I'm writing it. And I elaborate enough and I give it the attention that I would give in a phone call. In fact, probably more because I'm able to actually read through the words that I've written and dissect them again to make sure that I-
Brett: That the meaning is right.
Doug: Yeah. Is that word the appropriate word to use? Should we use robust, or should we use this word instead? You know, so I spend probably longer than most people writing just an email back, answering the question.
Brett: How do you do that by phone?
Doug: By phone? You know, when I have a conversation in my business most of it is - well, a lot of it is centered around when companies, Caterpillar dealerships, are interested in what we have to offer. I usually interact with either dealer principals or sort of the highest end person - owners - or Six Sigma black belts. Are you familiar with Six Sigma?
Brett: I am, yes.
Doug: Okay, so I am a Caterpillar-trained Six Sigma black belt because we used to get phone calls, "Hi. I'm doing a project on transportation. We're trying to reduce expense. I'm a Six Sigma black belt." And we'd say, "Excuse me? You're a karate expert? Why are you calling?" Well, we quickly figured out that Caterpillar is absolutely dedicated to the process of Six Sigma and saved billions of dollars and all of these great things. We actually took it upon ourselves to become, at the time, a twelve-person software company that was Six Sigma - boom. I went through the training, became the black belt at our company, so I have to have these interactions with folks who are very smart. They've analyzed the process. Most of them aren't like me. Most are typically more statistical in nature or numbers in nature. And they really tend to know what they're talking about - they're excited by statistics - whereas for me, it just mortifies me and I could care less. I always said, "I'm never gonna have to use this again in my life," when I was taking it in college, and I'm pretty much right - because I used it in Six Sigma training, but I don't do that any more. Now, I leave it to somebody else. So these conversations on the phone are about details and numbers and very "We've analyzed the business process" to the point where they have a fantastic process, chart, and this and that. So, you know if I'm not really clear on what our system can do and what the points in the process where we can interact, and blah blah blah, and if I'm not just on the same page as them, things completely blow up. I try to use the right words and the right context to match - if it's even possible to mirror the behavior of someone on the phone, I guess. I try to do that on the phone.
Brett: So getting back to what you first said when I asked you to define listening, you said listening is kind of suspending yourself and putting yourself in the other person's perspective and on the phone then you want to try and look at it from their point of view.
Brett: And get to that level.
Doug: Exactly. And that comes from doing your homework, you know? If I thought about the expert - I'll remember as we talk - but one of these gurus in some area talks about "preparation, preparation, preparation." Of course, it works for everything, but if you know about your business, their business, you know the key issues and you've done that kind of research that it's easy to model somebody else if you have, you know, half of a clue in terms of trying to put the pieces together so that they understand it. And so that's what I do. We tend to know as much or more about the pain that people go through and when you can accurately connect with them on that pain level-
Brett: You can solve problems.
Doug: It's almost like a sales tool. I guess it is.
Doug: I'm usually trying to say, "Look, we have something that solves your problems. Whether you do it now or not is really insignificant. Eventually though, you're gonna want to do something like this..." you know, and then "Yes, yes," and we can get that kind of agreement on the phone or in person.
Brett: So, Six Sigma being a process improvement practice - a lot of businesses use that. And I've heard Six Sigma called everything from "the salvation of our business"-
Doug: To a complete waste of time?
Brett: To a complete waste of time and it has totally killed the innovation in our company.
Brett: So I wanted to ask you then, does Six Sigma help or hurt the listening that needs to go on in a company?
Doug: The proper answer to that question is "Yes" - to both.
Brett: Now why is that the proper answer?
Doug: It does both and it depends on organization, the culture. Most people, when they deploy Six Sigma - well, I don't know about most - let me put it this way... in many situations it's done when somebody up at the top says, "We must do this." And if they are like in Caterpillar's organization where they say, pretty much, you have to. Culturally, ready or not, here we come. As a choice, if the company is adopting it and the says, "We're doing Six Sigma so get used to this culture," they don't really address - there's tons of naysayers and the people who will poo-poo the process the entire way... the saboteurs?
Doug: They don't listen closely enough to what's happening at that ground, trench level to get that out of the mix and reinforce and then bring them into the fold because without the culture change, Six Sigma will not work. Especially if certain people at high levels are saying, "Let's just do that project and just kind of make the numbers work out right, but we really know right here in our gut what the truth is, don't we? Yeah." That happens all the time. So you get companies that adopt it, but not wholeheartedly. You get companies that say, "That sounds great!" at the top, but then they don't reinforce it at any other level. And then you get the companies where they are so focused on Six Sigma - and remember, in Six Sigma you want to narrow your project scope to something manageable. Well what have you done in many cases? You've put on blinders-
Brett: "This is what we're doing."
Doug: Mmm-hmm... and I'm only going to look at the problem and they miss the root cause. Because they're not listening. There's a guy over here saying, "Look, you know, really we have a company-wide issue here and it's called 'not training our people to do the right thing in this area.'" You want to solve that by your little segment buying, say, GPS to track your vehicles, or something like that. That's not the solution. The solution is much larger in scope. You almost need two layers in the Six Sigma process to make it work. So it's great and it's detrimental depending on the company and depending on the leadership and how they listen to what's happening down below.
Brett: Now you've probably had it be the case before where you've embarked on a project and you found out part way through that you're really headed down the wrong direction. You learn that you're headed down the wrong direction really by listening. By paying attention to feedback by somebody or looking at how it's working. How do you derail everybody to get everybody to listen to you now to understand your perspective that we need to change our path or we're going to fail?
Doug: Yeah, well, that's interesting. I'd say the way to do it is to have a good foundation with the team to begin with. You know, first of all, you build a team of green belts, or the semi-trained but not fully trained in the statistical methodology folks who are sort of indoctrinated. They understand it. They've been given minor introductions. They're on board. But those people have another set, exponentially, of people that they deal with and talk to. So the stakeholders, outside, it's all about how your relationship is with the team and how you're getting that communication out to those stakeholders that when you need to change, if they don't understand or they don't understand why - "This has all been wasted" - that doesn't get back appropriately through those stakeholder communication channels, etc, you know, you've lost. You've really lost. You've lost your team, you've lost your focus, you've lost all - and then, oh man, here we go again. Another Six Sigma thing totally [wasted]. And you know, a lot of this comes from early communication about what the problems are in the first place. You know, you can do a lot of good project filtering by really looking at the entire business and - again - it's always going to come back to that communication and that listening. Really understanding why a division is doing poorly, or why it costs so much to do transportation. Asking the right questions, listening appropriately, and you can usually narrow down those things so that that doesn't happen. But if you do have to change, you just have to have clear channels and give them the tools to communicate out to those other stakeholders and then you'd be good.
Brett: And again, email is probably a really good tool with that because you can be completely clear with your thoughts.
Doug: Yeah, and there's a record.
Brett: It's a CYA move!
Doug: Very much so. But what I prefer, which most companies have not adopted, is collaboration software.
Brett: Hmm. What do you use?
Doug: I use Central Desktop. The first startup that I mentioned a while back? Those guys went on to create this other company called Central Desktop. It's like, if you've used Base Camp, this is like Base Camp, but it's much more applicable in a corporate environment. It's very powerful and still very inexpensive and fantastic... anyway, the bottom line is if I can say something once and have it be in that record, it acts - there's Wiki, there's RSS feeds of the project collaboration site, there's discussions... it's fantastic. I prefer to use that on projects.
Brett: That sounds like a great enterprise web 2.0 tool.
Doug: Big time. Big time.
Brett: I'll have to check that out. We've been looking for that also.
Doug: Yeah. It's, in my opinion, the best.
Brett: Well, you use it.
Doug: Absolutely. I have probably 48 different project workspaces that I use and, you know, individual collaboration with external people, internal people. We use it for our corporate Intranet... it's fantastic.
Brett : Alright. Well, we're about at the end here, but I wanted to ask you the Big Question that I told you I would ask you. We've talked all about listening. We've talked about relationships, how you show that you're listening, how it is that you go ahead and communicate better so that you can get others to listen. You do have a great perspective, and when Mike introduced me to you, he said, "Hey, talk to Doug. He'd have a great take on this." I had no idea what I was getting into, but really, it's good stuff. So I wanted to ask you: who would you pass this off to who's a blogger? Or somebody who's not a blogger who would have a really interesting perspective on this who you think might add to the conversation?
Doug: Sure. I think, especially locally, I don't know if he's been recommended to you before, but do you know Cory Garrison from REL?
Brett: I'm aware of who he is, yes. I read his blog. I subscribe to that and yours also.
Doug: Yeah. I think he would be a great one because his company, they're all about listening to what you have to say about your company to figure out your brand. Their brand discernment process. And I've had numerous meetings with them and I think they really get it. So, they get you in a room - I haven't done it yet, but I can tell. And I've had one-off meetings as well. So, I think you'd get a tremendous value out of that because that's what they do.
Doug: They listen, and figure out how to embody what your company is into a brand and image and everything. That takes deep listening.
Brett: It does! Well, I'll send Cory an email. Thank you very much!