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Podcast Episode 025: Listen like a global business leader – Karen Borg outlines who to listen across cultures, countries and companies

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Most organizations, which are groups of people led by someone, are poor at listening. But the tone at the top drives it all. As a leader, if you don’t listen to both verbal and non-verbal communication, as well as proactively engage others, then your approach or method of listening will not cascade through your organization and down to customers. Create a connection that is powerful and deep. Karen Borg is a commercial businessperson who discusses the role of market research in commercial organizations and how money is wasted by repeating research and ignoring what customers are saying.

Karen brings many different perspectives on how to listen to different opinions to reach a great outcome. What are the roles involved with listening? As a result, you may have to change what you are saying.

While in boarding school in Germany, teachers taught Karen about listening. In the German language, there is a formal and informal use of “you.” The language and the culture is more of a formal way of communicating. Therefore, listening is predicated on whether you are being addressed formally or informally.

Concessions are made for people who have not grown up in such a culture. But you should consider certain things when interacting with someone from another culture. Such as, appreciate any effort someone has made to understand your culture. If they don’t put forth effort, then others may view their engagement style as insulting and inappropriate. Karen describes the importance of appreciating and respecting different cultures and demonstrating that you want to learn more.

Tune in to Learn

  • Karen describes the difference in commerce cultures in the East and elsewhere, such as whether to shake hands or not.
  • In Japan, Karen went to a supermarket and thought she bought some kind of dried fish. She shared it with others, which made meetings with them much easier because they had shared something together.
  • Karen attended boarding school in Germany, in a culture where she knew nothing about it. She was very much a foreigner. Eventually, she could listen to others who were speaking German and understand everything they were saying. Her experience in Germany, though, helped her to become independent and adaptable.
  • Karen was born in Australia, and eventually moved back there. When she returned to Australia, she discovered how much more informal and acknowledging teachers were in schools.
  • Karen moved from academic learning into commerce, which took her to some amazing far and away places. She wanted to experience the intersection of commerce and creativity, so she first got into advertising.
  • Business is about the delivery of outcomes. Ultimately, you have to deliver results. Customers, shareholders, and others expect that.
  • Briefing Process: To write a good brief is an art. Language, when well used, can tell a very clear story about the objective you are trying to achieve. When briefs are done poorly, the outcomes can be diabolical. People are not well-trained in how to articulate their thoughts and structure briefs.
  • A common element across all great briefs is when you start out with the end in sight – what you are trying to achieve. Develop the structure of the objective first, and then fill around it.
  • Karen decided to move away from advertising to become a client instead, where she could experience owning everything – from making decisions to handling budgets. She went to a chocolate company to learn how to build and maintain a business.
  • Money is often wasted on market research. Hear what the customer said and do what the customer asked. Customers are usually emotionally attached to specific brands and products. Determine whether research results have changed or not and how people view the packaging and products – do they find them tiring or not. It’s the trusted and the loved that keeps customers coming back.
  • Nobody has bad memories, only good, about confectionary – sunny times and good feelings.
  • Karen shares an experience with a dissatisfied customer in a hospital in Japan about a sterilization product and a lightbulb malfunctioning in it. In Japanese culture, a product must work the same way, every time. When it does not work the way it should, a customer’s anger becomes intense. In response, Karen was sincere, apologized, and expressed that she would try to solve the problem. She listened to the customer and acknowledged their frustration. It comes down to cultural norms.
  • Organizations are typically poor at listening and engaging others, and that approach comes from the top. The leader of an organization setting up metrics around customers and their needs that need to be followed, measured, and responded to quickly via dialogue.
  • Leaders are listeners who consider what others say and offer support. Trust that the other person has heard you and is willing to respond in some way. Judge by action, not words.
  • Set up an engagement model that works for everyone. Acknowledge that something needs to be addressed, but not calling it out or identifying the “elephant in the room.” So that in ends positively and resolves issues.


Episode 25: Deep Listening with Karen Borg

Oscar Trimboli:    

In this episode of Deep Listening, in this episode of Deep Listening, Impact Beyond Words, we jump across from Europe to Japan and then to Australia as we talk to Karen, a global citizen and a commercial business person. Listen carefully for the salty fish story in Japan and how food can help you listen to other cultures and create a connection that’s much more powerful and deep.

Listen carefully as Karen tells her favourite story about chocolate and the role of market research in commercial organisations and how money is wasted by doing research over and over again, but not actually listening to what the customers are saying. Listen carefully to the role of listening in a German boarding school as Karen grew up and her friends then discovered that she could hear exactly what they were saying in German, and how they had to change what they say as a result.

Karen brings so many different perspectives to the conversation. And what I love is her perspective on diversity and how you need to listen to different opinions to come to a great outcome. Let’s listen to Karen.

What do you think the teachers taught you about listening back in those boarding schools?

Karen Borg:           

The German education system is certainly different. And I can compare it to, obviously, the Australian system because I was educated here as well. It’s a lot more traditional in some respects. The engagement between teacher and student is certainly there’s a greater depth of the teacher’s role being at a high level. And the student’s role being essentially at a, dare I say, at a much more respectful level. It really was never the engagement that I think I then experienced here when I came back.

And I think the other thing was also that here, teachers are much more informal. So that’s really the thing. One nuance to the language, for example, in the German language, you have a form of courtesy in terms of how you address people. So, it doesn’t even exist in English. Everyone is you in English. But in the German language, you have a formal you, which is used for people in higher authority positions. In the shops, you would always use the formal you. So, people you don’t know. And really, it’s only in a friends and family context, you’d use the informal you.

And it’s actually considered to be quite rude in German to address someone with the informal you who you don’t know. So, it’s the language and the cultures are really set up around a more formal way of communicating. And to some extent, you have to, when you listen then, to go to your question. The listening is immediately predicated on, “Am I hearing myself being addressed formally or informally? Am I being treated with courteous engagement or is there, dare I say, a little bit too much laissez-faire going on here?

Oscar Trimboli:    

And when you think about modern English business people coming into those markets, whether they’re from the UK or from the United States or Australia where they are a little less formal, how do you think they’re received in those markets?

Karen Borg:           

I think people always make concessions for someone who hasn’t grown up in their own culture. And so there’s always a sense of, “Well, this person doesn’t understand, if you like, our norms.” But there are things which I think are to be always considered in when you’re engaged with people from another culture. And I think there is always a great deal more understanding if someone has made the effort to understand some of the culture they’re entering into.

And I’ve travelled and been to a lot of different cultures, so I know that if I don’t at least do a little bit of due diligence before I go to another place and understand some aspects of their culture, then that will ultimately lead to potentially not so much that you have a problem, people are often, they would never say anything, but they now find themselves in a way at a disadvantage because they haven’t been able to say, “Look, your engagement style is actually a little bit insulting or inappropriate.

I went to Iran a few years ago and that’s a country that’s a theocracy and has quite a different culture in many ways. And women, in terms of how they’re dressed, these are done very differently. You cover your hair. And one of the things which I wasn’t made aware of until luckily just before I went in to meet some people there, was women don’t shake hands. And that’s how you transact in most cultures. So, I found myself immediately in a way having to control the natural urge to shake hands, which to me is a sign of wanting to say hello.

Oscar Trimboli:

How does that translate into Eastern cultures? What are the bigger differences that you’ve noticed when you’ve been in commerce in the East?

Karen Borg:           

Yeah. Every country, of course, has different cultural norms. I guess in some respects, I was always a little different. So I was given a bit of a leave pass because, obviously, no one can see me in this podcast but I’m 6′ tall and I normally wear high heels as well just in case anyone is confused. And of course, I was always in quite a senior commercial position. So in these cultures, I’m quite unusual. I’m a little bit of an odd beast because I am female, which most Eastern cultures, there isn’t necessarily the elevation or the equalisation of the genders there, certainly in the business world. And then I’m so physically different as well, so much taller and clearly fair.

And I’m very confident. But the other thing is, what they love is that I really love the cultures that they’re in. I’ll try the different foods. I’ll talk about things that I’ve seen, which are often quite small things that within their culture, they know they’re quite different. In doing so first of all, I would say that they suddenly realise that beneath this very different exterior lies someone’s who actually in many ways not just appreciates and respects what this different culture is about, but in some ways wants to learn more. And in doing so, by opening yourself up and demonstrating that you want to learn more, people want to share more.

And I’ll give you a little example just to bring that to light. So, Japan obviously has wonderful food. And many of the foods that they have are very difficult, if you’ve come from a different culture, to understand what they are and what the heritage is. But I love food, although I try not to too much. But one of the things I love to do is going to local supermarkets to sit and see what people are eating.

So, I had gone to a local supermarket and I bought something, which it sorts of looked like fish. It was in a little packet. It looked like snack food. I don’t know what I thought it was. But when I opened the packet, it was most definitely fish. Anyway, but I thought, “Look, I’ll try it.” So, I tried it. Anyway, we went to a meeting then later. And anyway, I was fishing around in my bag for something and then I pulled out the pack and I said to the people I was seeing, it was in a hospital I think. And I said, “Don’t you wanna try some.” They said, “Have you eaten these?” I said, “Yeah.” They said, “Don’t you think they’re too strong.” And I said, “Well, they are a little, but actually I think they’re quite nice. They’ve got a really nice salty taste.” And so, we all sat around sharing my packet of dried fish.

And the meetings that we had were so easy after that because we’d shared food together. And we shared food that they knew a Westerner would normally ever have in her handbag.

Oscar Trimboli:

You were in boarding school in Germany and then you mentioned your move to Australia. So just take us back a little then, talk us through that change.

Karen Borg:           

So, I was born here in Australia. But as I mentioned, my parents are obviously from Europe. And one of the things my mother really wanted was for me to able to speak her language at least. And so, when I was 10, my mother took me to a boarding school in Germany and that’s basically how I got into boarding school in Germany. And I didn’t really speak much German at that point. But nothing like immersion. I have to say, that is definitely the way to learn very quickly. My parents obviously were back in Australia because they were working again. And so, for me, it was both as a child but also from the perspective of learning about another culture, it really was very much an immediate experience of being literally in a culture that I knew nothing really about.

And I think also from more the perspective of becoming independent. These days, that sounds so young, but actually children are incredibly adaptable. So, for me, once I realised that everything was roughly the same except my parents weren’t there, you just kind of got on with it. I learned to speak German fluently within about three to four months. And then I guess German is easy in some respects to learn to speak, but it has a lot of rules; grammar, and how you use the tenses and everything. So that probably took me another nine months or so.

For certainly, in terms of the German culture that’s quite unusual is that the nature, if you like, particularly this was far in the north, was that you do sort of … Particularly because I was in a boarding school, which was mixed with a normal comprehensive school, was that I was very much a foreigner. And I didn’t speak any of the language when I first started. And I remember sitting down … We’d have three meals a day, so obviously breakfast, lunch, and dinner. And I was sitting at a table with other girls, but I really didn’t know anybody. And I couldn’t really speak. Anyhow, but I certainly could understand. And I realised as I was sitting at the table that for the first time, I could understand everything that everyone was saying. But of course, I couldn’t really respond that well, apart from basic stuff.

So, I was sitting there minding myself ’cause I didn’t think I had the confidence to say anything, and then I noticed one of the girls, she was looking at me. And I think she suddenly realised I could understand everything. And she looked at me and she said in German, of course, she said, “Are you actually following all of this?” When you’re 10 years old, you don’t resort immediately to not telling the truth. And I sort of nodded. And she looked around the table and she said to everybody at the table, she goes, “Okay, so for those of you that don’t realise it, Karen can understand everything. So, we now have to make sure that we say things that are appropriate around her.” It was like, “Okay.” I could have actually kept that probably secret for a while longer probably.

Oscar Trimboli:

What were those little observational things that you notice coming back that were equivalent to the salty fish story from Japan?

Karen Borg:

For me, coming back to Australia … This is gonna sound a little bit trite. But one of things that I think is quite different between the older cultures, particularly of course the Europeans and the Australian culture, is I mentioned before about the engagement style. Germany is quite a formal and hierarchical environment in many ways. And when I got back to school here, I remember sitting actually in one of the classes and the teacher looked over my shoulder and she said, “Have you already finished that work?” And I said, “Oh yes, yes I have Miss Whatever.” And she goes, “You actually got through it really quickly.” And I said, “Well, yes, thank you,” or something like that. And she goes, “Well, that’s fantastic. That’s really good.” She goes, “Well, why don’t you just get yourself outside and you can start lunch early?” That would never have happened in Germany. You would have just sat there. And if the teacher even really acknowledged the fact that you’d done well, she would never have done it in that way.

But it was such a relaxed and easy way to acknowledge me for having done something well. But actually, in a way, to reward me in a way that was meaningful to me as a child by giving me some early freedom. And to me, that was a very small example, but it’s how people in this country I think are quite different. Because they’re informal. And they don’t really believe in necessarily the hierarchy for the sake of hierarchy. They say, “Well, that’s just silly, when you can be outside. Why sit here?”

Oscar Trimboli:

And for those of you who aren’t watching, that have to listen to the interview, the moment Karen moved from a formal description of Germany, where she was in quite a rigid body position, the minute she described her Australian teacher, she moved into a very animated state. And her hands started to gesticulate as she talked about earlier. So ultimately, I think this is about as far south as you can go if you’re comparing Southern Europe-

Oscar Trimboli:    

And then you made the move into commerce and it took you to some far and amazing places, but that probably kicked off in Australia. So just help our listeners understand how you moved from academic life and learning into commercial roles.

Karen Borg:

So, I don’t know how many of the listeners have had the same situation that I experienced, but I really didn’t know what I wanted to do. So, I left university with not necessarily a plan. And I’ve changed a lot since then. I now have a 20-year plan, which goes to show you go from one extreme to another, don’t you?

Oscar Trimboli:    

Frightfully German…

Karen Borg:           

A little, isn’t it? Or maybe it’s even Chinese these days. But the thing that I think for me was of interest is I wanted to be somewhere where I could see the intersection of commerce and creativity. So I got into advertising really as the first industry. And I guess positioned advertising is being in this lovely intersection between those two areas. In fact, of course, it’s a business. And it happens to maybe express itself through a creative product. But the creative product is the outcome of a brief. So really, you have to be able to respond to a client’s idea of what is going to be creative. So that’s quite a difficult path to go on, I must say, because it’s entirely subjective.

And I think in going through … I was there for about four years. One of the things I learned early on is that business is certainly about the delivery of outcomes. No one can be confused. Whether you have a shareholder or whether you have an owner, ultimately you have to deliver results and certainly your customers expect them.

But ultimately, it’s also about the behavioural. And early on, and certainly in the advertising industry, it’s a very simple world. If you have clients, all their accounts, then you put on people. And if you lose accounts, then you lose people. And it’s immediate. It’s not, “I wonder when we can do that?” The moment an account is lost, you can assume that you will lose people from a number of different areas of the business. And that was a really valuable lesson for me to learn very quickly.

Now, the other thing that I also learned, it took me a little bit longer, but I picked this one up too, was that when organisations do have to ultimately cut resources and cut people, you have to look at what sort of people are they actually removing from the organisation. And what often happens is, is that they try to hold onto the people that they like. They don’t necessarily get rid of the people that they … What they do is they tend to focus on the people that have, if you like, cutting edge competency that no one else has, which is quite unique to a person in some instances. And they hold onto the people that they actually behaviorally find easiest to get along with.

The people that don’t fit into either of those two categories are often the ones that you see leave an organisation. Now, I don’t want to generalise. Obviously, if you’re talking about large-scale reduction of resources, then it’s obviously not done that way. But if it’s the shaving that you often see, then it does often follow that scenario. And also, people want to help people they like. And it sounds pretty obvious, but they don’t wanna help people they don’t like.

Oscar Trimboli:    

Back in agency land, one of the things I spend time with my clients talking about is the institutional nature of briefing and how that, done well, is a great example of listening. And done poorly, is a spectacular failure and often you’re losing the pitch. What do you think is great about the briefing process? And what do you think is broken about the briefing process?

Karen Borg:           

To write a good brief is an art actually. And good briefs … And advertising is one industry that uses briefs, but I work in government now. So, I see a lot of briefs too. And the skill in terms of writing a good brief is first of all, it sounds really obvious, but actually understanding that language when well used can tell a very clear story about ultimately the objective you’re trying to achieve. And when poorly done, as you said, can be extremely … Well, let’s just say the outcomes can be quite diabolical.

I think one of the challenges is, is that even though we have a good education system, that actual piece is not often … People aren’t well-trained in that. To actually be able to articulate your thoughts, understanding how to structure appropriately, to use grammar and punctuation in the appropriate places. These sound like very small granular details, but I hate to say it, but a comma in the right place, a sentence that stops in the right place, that actually is all part of the delivery of a message. And it needs to be done very succinctly as well. So, it’s an art to say just enough, not too much, not too little.

Oscar Trimboli:    

If you are briefing the briefers, what’s the one thing you find as a common element across all great responses to briefs?

Karen Borg:           

Starting out with the end in sight, to me, is the most important thing. What are you trying to achieve? I always, when I’m speaking to people about how to write a good brief, it’s structure first, and then, if you like, fill around it. Because really what you wanna be able to do is lay out what the actual objective is. And if after you’ve read that brief when it’s complete, have lost sight of that objective, you’ve actually written a poor brief.

Some of the aspects of, I guess, good writing … Maybe I can use an example. So many years ago, the system for divorce was quite convoluted and so you’d have to do all sorts of things to prove the reasons for the divorce. And so luckily, during the Whitlam years, they actually simplified the divorce process. And you didn’t actually have to write down why you were getting a divorce, you just pretty much could leave it blank.

But in one instance, I heard about one particular case where a woman, I think, responded very well. Because there was an area which said, “List causes for divorce if you wish.” And I don’t know if this is appropriate to share this in this particular podcast, but her response was, “Well, Frank told me to bugger off, so I did.” And that was it. And I thought, “Well, she’s listed very clearly exactly what the reason was. Not confusing. And there was an action, and she followed through.” And I think sometimes less language is better than more language.

Oscar Trimboli:    

So, the world of advertising sounded like it wasn’t for you.

Karen Borg:           

No, not quite.

So, I ended up with a, I guess, feeling that clearly my clients seemed to be able to hold a whole lot of the ownership of everything. They were able to make all the decisions. They had the control of the budgets. I thought, “Yeah, okay, I’d like to be on that side of the table, not this side of the table.” And so I moved to a client basically, and luckily I went to a chocolate company, which is always nice.

And so, I went and worked for, at that point, a company called Rowntree Hoadley, which is now Nestle. And it was just during a period when they’d just been acquired by Nestle. So apart from obviously eating a lot of chocolate, I was now much deeper in actually what is the true environment of building a business, sustaining that business, focusing on outcomes, and ensuring that all the different parts married nicely.

Oscar Trimboli:    

So, one of the things that an enormous amount of money is wasted on is market research. People do a great job of listening, but they don’t do a great job of hearing what the consumer says. When you think about all the market research dollars you probably spent in your time at Rowntree, what’s the one thing you wish you did better to listen to the consumer of that product?

Karen Borg:           

Well, I think one of the challenges that we always found is that in a way, accepting that things change. And customers and clients and certainly people that eat chocolate bars are often emotionally attached to the product. If you think about growing up, which were the things that you had as favourite sweets. We all have favourites.    

Oh, gosh. Look, I’ll be honest. I’m a Gummy Bears kind of person. Yes, and that wasn’t even made by Nestle. So, I have a specific brand, which I love, which is Haribo.

Oscar Trimboli:    

A German brand.

Karen Borg:           

Exactly right. So, you can’t hold me back from Haribo Gummy Bears, I have to say. I can’t say no to them. But I think what often can happen is that research sometimes becomes a crutch. And it doesn’t necessarily really go to the most obvious question. And you really just have to almost examine your own motivations for why and how you engage rather than necessarily wanting to spend lots of money on it.

And it thinks sometimes what happens is, you tend to want to double check and then triple check. And of course, to be fair, that in the nature of … I was working in the marketing department. You would get new product managers rotating on a regular basis. And they would simply just each time say, “Okay, now we’re going to do some new research,” when in fact, the old research that was done maybe two brand managers ago would have been just fine. Nothing has really changed.

So, I think the learning for me and where the waste is often is first of all, in what is essentially the iterative turnover of personnel, not going back and just doing a bit of due diligence and recognising that materials being collected and nothing has really changed that much.

And the second thing is that just because the person in the marketing department thinks that packaging is tired and advertising has been seen too many times, actually that’s not really the true world out there. Most people, it takes a long time before they get tired really of a product and how it’s ultimately dressed. And also, how it’s advertised.

And long-serving campaigns have confirmed that when they get brought back, products that have come back into form … Think about the VW Beetle. They’re not tired or boring. It’s often internally that people lose sight of what brings people back again and again. It’s the familiar, it’s the trusted, and it’s the loved. So, changing those things means that you actually lose your clients because they don’t know why this thing has changed or been repackaged or whatever.

Oscar Trimboli:    

Yeah, and a lovely example of the cost of not listening. Two or three market research samples ago, the customers actually told you what you wanted, but you didn’t do anything other than put in new packaging or new labelling. And so often a common joke where I hear MBA lecturers and marketing professors talking about, “How do you know when there’s a new product manager?” Because the product packaging changes and the core value proposition of the product remains the same. In a lot of professions, the listening through research is absolutely a crutch, and people don’t do the last bit, which is hear what the customer actually said and do what the customer actually asked. In a lot of cases, stick with the same, familiar, tried and tested formula. How long looking after chocolate?

Karen Borg:           

I was there for about four years. And I think, for me, apart from obviously getting exposed to a lot of chocolate, look I have to say, it was a great learning experience. People’s relationship with confectionary is really interesting. It’s something from their childhood. They don’t lose it. You find that people, to be honest even as they get older, it’s an association with a product that brings back only good memories. No one has a bad memory of confectionary. We have favourite moments where we shared them with our friends. Memories of school. Things that ultimately bring back sunny times and good feelings. So, it’s a wonderful product category in many ways to be involved with.

Research was always really fascinating. I think that you find out how people consume sweets, and at times be quite horrified at how much people can actually consume if they love and love and love something. I remember one group of young women between 18 and 21, one woman said, “I have like two Mars bars a day and like three cans of Coke.” And she did not look like she was consuming that sort of food at all. She looked in the peak of fitness and health. And I remember thinking to myself, “And why is she doing that? Because she just loves it.” And it’s her indulgence. And she was very honest about saying that. “That’s my way of feeling good. It makes me feel good.”

And to be in a product category that makes people feel good, that they do just because they can and it’s an impulse, it was a nice place to be working.

Oscar Trimboli:    

Yeah, and a really good example of listening at the fifth level, a level of meaning. What does this mean to that person becomes really, really powerful and creates amazing loyalty there as well.

Oscar Trimboli:    

And then we jump ahead to medical devices. And Japan with medical devices. I had the opportunity to hear a story you told once about being in a hospital in Japan with a very unhappy customer.

Karen Borg:           

Yes. Yes. So, I was working with Johnson & Johnson and we had products, which were in the sterilisation area. They’re very large products in basically like sort of a giant fridge, except there was these sterilised medical devices. And I had been told that there was a hospital with a customer that had some issues, but I wasn’t given much information. And the very nature of how senior people are exposed to problems in the Japanese culture is in itself quite different. So, you would expect, normally, you would be fully briefed if there’s a problem before you go in and see anybody. In that culture, it’s more there are some issues, the customer would really like to speak with you. And you have to, in some respects, almost dig if you want to find it.

But the trouble is, by digging, you’re actually embarrassing the salesperson because that’s reflecting that they’re not doing their job. So, they’re elevating it without necessarily briefing you, which is an interesting experience.

But I went to the hospital. And the gentleman who was certainly quite polite initially, it was clear when we got to the actual problem and we stood in front of the product, and he was describing how annoyed he was. And he wasn’t just a little annoyed, he was so incensed. It was clear that nothing could hold him back.

And now what we’re talking about, by the way, is that a light bulb on the product was malfunctioning. The product itself was still working, but this light was not working. And it flickered on and off. That was the extent of it. Now, in the Australian culture, if something is still working but the light is flickering, you kind of go, “Ugh, that’s a bit annoying. But it’s still working, so fine.” But in the Japanese culture, they ascribe to a very different set of rules around quality. And that is essentially that things must work the same way every time. And I have to say that when it comes to certain categories, I would understand why they would be very signed up for that.

I think about aviation or for that matter, manufacturing cars. You really don’t want things to suddenly not be working so well anymore. So that culture permeates. So, when they’re given a product that doesn’t quite work, their anger at you as the representative of the company, is intense and certainly, yes, quite in your face.

Oscar Trimboli:    

How in your face?

Karen Borg:

Well, he was not a tall man, I have to say. But it was clear that he … I don’t speak Japanese, but he was shouting, he was gesticulating, you could see he was turning red. You would have to have been blind not to notice it. But I think what was clear to me was that what he wanted, ultimately, was to be acknowledged and to have somebody to say sorry. Because he’d never heard anybody from the company really properly acknowledge him. And I represented the manufacturing part of the company. And so I did. And I apologised, and I apologised, and I apologised. And I made sure that he could see from every gesture that I was sincere, which I absolutely was. And that I would do my very best to try and rectify the problem.

But fundamentally, what he wanted to have was someone who was going to listen. And it didn’t matter that I didn’t understand because … Actually, I sort of did from the way he was certainly demonstrating. But even just as important was that by listening, that I truly was acknowledging the fact that I had let him down. I had let down his area. I had let down his hospital in many ways. So that’s a lot of saying sorry. But if ultimately, I wouldn’t have done that, there would have been no way that the relationship could have moved on, and it’s interesting.

So, after what felt like a very long time, he slowed down. And then actually, calmed down. And then it was all fine. And then we sat down and we shared tea and we talked about different things. And it was fine again. But the nature of that culture meant that I could have stepped away, I could have avoided the situation. I knew I was walking into, I wouldn’t say a trap, but I knew I was walking into something that was gonna be pretty uncomfortable.

And I think because maybe … And this is maybe the difference between the Australian and the American cultures, when I told my manager about it, who is an American, I don’t know if I mentioned this at the time. He said, “Why did you go? And why didn’t the sales rep essentially pre-warn you? And you should have said something to his managers and the sales manager. And for that person to be shouting at you, that’s completely inappropriate behaviour.” And I remember looking at him thinking, “Actually, no, I think it’s reasonable. He has purchased a product. It’s not working to his standard, and quite frankly, his standard is not a ridiculous standard. We work in medical devices. Things are supposed to work.”

So, I remember thinking all of this and realising … But again, because I was dealing with an American, he needed to be right. And for him, the fact that he could say how this other person was wrong and how I should have transacted differently was based on his cultural norms. So, I just said, “Yes, you’re right,” to him and let him talk a bit longer about how everything wasn’t right. And we finished off. Now, he never said another word about it again. But it coloured his view of engaging with that market. And it did jaundice him a little.

Whereas, for me, I just moved on. From my perspective, it needed to be done. And I also understand very simply that the client is always right, well pretty much always right. So that’s another part of, I guess, my ethos.

Oscar Trimboli:    

For many of our listeners, they sit there in their roles on top of systems that capture complaints, that capture customer suggestions for innovation. And yet, they’re rarely listened to. For an organisation like Johnson & Johnson, I’m sure there was a system that somebody had filled in a form and yet, nobody had done anything about it. What do you think organisations can learn about institutionalising listening and acting, rather than merely having a form that people fill in?

Karen Borg:           

Well, that’s a really good question because I think that fundamentally, most organisations are poor at listening. But organisations to me, there’s a disconnected way of describing what is essentially a group of people who are led by usually a person. So, to me, it really is the tone at the top that drives it all. I think if you don’t listen properly yourself, if you don’t look for the things that are non-verbal, not just the things that are said, if you don’t proactively engage at times when you realise that people aren’t gonna say something, then if you’re the leader of that organisation, then how could you possibly think that your approach, which might be not an active listener or proactive person in that respect, is it all going to cascade through the organisation then to what customers might complain about?

So, I guess the thing is that how would I say things need to change? It starts literally with the leader of the organisation setting up an organisation around metrics that are truly followed and truly measured around customers and their needs and making sure that they are captured fully and that they are responded to quickly. And that when they can’t be responded to, if something is too difficult for whatever reason or it takes too long, that you engage in dialogue so that you are immediately saying, “I’m listening to you. I’m working on it. I can’t fix it as quickly as you’d like, but I am working on a solution.” Which actually in itself says, “I’m trying.”

So much is forgiven when even irritation or all sorts of things, if there’s a sense that this is actually now an open dialogue.

Oscar Trimboli:    

Do any great listeners come to your mind when you think about leaders who are listeners?

Karen Borg:           

Yes. So, I’m really lucky right now. My chair for the organisation I’m in, Jobs for New South Wales, is fantastic. It’s interesting ’cause he’s not … I’m a very action-orientated person. If someone says something, I immediately wanna jump onto, “Okay, what can I do to fix it or address it or help?” He’s not quite like that. And it took me a little while to appreciate his style of listening and then subsequently engaging. Because he’ll hear what I have to say, and he’ll say, “Okay, fine.” But then normally within a short period of time, I’ll realise actually he’s absolutely heard what I had to say. And so now when I speak to him, I don’t expect him to be like me in terms of jumping immediately into action. But I know that inside, what he’s doing is he’s listening and he’s working on what is the best way to provide input or support or help depending on what the issue is that I might be raising.

In fact, something happened last Friday where … Because I have two managers, I’m very lucky. I’m very blessed.

Oscar Trimboli:    

Very common in the modern workplace.

Karen Borg:           

It is indeed, yes. And what was interesting to me is that I ruminated over the last, because this was a long weekend, over the last three days about this particular issue and was really stewing, as they say. And both of my managers came back first thing this morning and said, “Look, we’ve thought about this issue and here’s what we’re doing.” Now, in my world, I would have loved an answer on Friday, I have to say. ‘Cause it’s like now I’ve gotta sit on this. But at some level, I knew that they would come back to me on Monday. And that allowed me to manage my feelings a bit more.

It’s about not so much is someone operating at my speed, it’s about trusting that the other person has heard me and ultimately wants to do something to respond to that. And I think that is sometimes very difficult because everyone obviously operates with different perception lenses on time and how they want that response to be.

Oscar Trimboli:    

And you mentioned there was a point at which you realised you chair was listening. What was the thing that you noticed that moved you from they’re quiet to they’re actually listening?

Karen Borg:           

I’m a great believer in judge by action, not by words. In fact, that’s pretty much how I evaluate everything. And what happened was, and this is a story from my current role, is that I was having a really difficult time working with somebody. And look, I don’t normally get upset, but I have to say, there was one particular encounter, which was just upsetting. And it wasn’t upsetting because of the direct engagement, it was upsetting because someone else then called me afterwards and said some really lovely kind things to me. And that’s what upset me bizarrely enough, anyway. I know. What can I say? I’m a woman. There’s no logic to me.

But the fascinating thing was that when he came in … I was having a meeting with him. He could see that I was upset. He didn’t ask was everything okay. He didn’t put an arm around me to give me a hug. And to be honest, that would have been quite bizarre because I think I would have just probably cried. But I could see that he was moving through the conversation topics fairly quickly to get to the end. And part of me at the time was thinking, “Oh, well, that’s pretty typical. Let’s just avoid the emotional female in the room, i.e. me.” And that would have been at about 10:00 or 11:00.

Now, at the very end of the meeting, he said, “Oh, is everything okay?” And I said, “Oh, yep, fine.” And he said, “Are you sure?” And I said, “Yep.” And he goes, “Any issues with this person?” And I said, “Oh, just a couple of things, but I’m sorting them out. I’m just working them through.” And that was that.

That was about 10:30. At 2:00 p.m., I got a call from the person’s office who I was having the problems with. They said, “Look. We’d like you to come up straight away. Your chair is here. And we need you to be here now.” And I thought, “Uh oh, now things are really bad.” But what he had done was he had called me into a session, not in any way to embarrass anybody, but rather to just re-establish the actual engagement model. And that was what that topic was that he put on the table.

So, everybody saved face in that session because it was, “How do we set up an engagement model that works for everybody?” Without calling out what was effectively the elephant in the room. That one person was really not engaging very well at all. And I remember thinking, “Wow, you’re just so wise to have handled this like this.” Because I really just thought either that he wasn’t reacting or ignoring it. And then when I was called up, I guess I thought, “Uh oh, now there’s gonna be something awful that’s happened because he’s made it into a big deal. And now I’m gonna have a completely diabolical relationship with this person. But it’ll now be underground.”

But in fact, what he did was he re-established the principles of the relationship in terms of how we should be working together without even calling out what had happened. And he therefore allowed each of us to move forward and he allowed others who knew what was going on to, in a way, acknowledge that it had been dealt with, but in such a way where we all were able to shake hands and move on. It was a great lesson for me in, I guess, understanding that although you might wish for someone to come in and smack down the opposition, in business you can’t afford to have those relationships. And I think in life as well.

Tempting though it is to pretend that there’s good guys and bad guys and the bad guys get their just desserts. The reality in business is that we will always continue to have, if you like, people in our orbit, either directly or indirectly. So how to make sure that you continue to engage in such a way where your reputation is not of someone who smacks people down, but rather of somebody who is able to engage appropriately and professionally. But at times, can be firm too, but in the right way.

Oscar Trimboli:    

Karen, it’s been an absolute joy to listen to you. Thank you.

Karen Borg:           

Thank you very much, Oscar.

Oscar Trimboli:    

I think Karen did a great job of bringing to life the costs of not listening. Can you picture yourself inside that Japanese hospital working for Johnson & Johnson where this hospital administrator is shouting at Karen, wanting to not only be acknowledged, but also to be heard? And the contrasting perspective of how Karen was engaging with her American manager and the fact that he probably wasn’t doing a great job of listening to what happens in Japanese hospitals.

Is there a systemic way inside your organisation that you’re listening to complaints? And how could you improve that so that the situation in the Japanese fridge with the light bulb not working doesn’t happen for you and your customers? How well are you listening to your customers right now? And what systems, tools, and processes are you putting in place to do that?

What an extraordinary gift Karen’s manager shared with her, the chairman, as he listened really carefully, not only to what Karen was saying, but more importantly what she wasn’t. And the chairman’s role in being able to listen to what’s unsaid was extraordinarily powerful and, I think, moving for Karen as well.

As we go across the world in our global economy today, we deal with people from different languages, from different cultures, with different historical perspectives. I think Karen did an amazing job of explaining that diversity and not homogeny is the difference between good performing teams and high performing teams.

How deliberate are you about opening yourself up to other opinions and other perspectives while you’re listening? I think Karen role-modeled this really well. Karen listened well beyond the words in other cultures. She was a very deliberate student of their history, of their food, of their language. And that’s listening at a much deeper level. I wonder what you could do tomorrow to listen a little more deeply and understand the history of where someone comes from, whether they’re from your culture or not.

Thanks for listening.

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