Top CEOs employ a listen-first philosophy

Navigating a crisis can put the most values-driven organization to the test. Insights from Hyundai Canada CEO Don Romano.

Top CEOs Employ A Listen-First Philosophy: Insights From Hyundai Canada CEO Don Romano

While leading with values is easier when times are good, navigating a crisis can put the most values-driven organization to the test. I had the pleasure of sitting down with Don Romano, CEO of Hyundai Canada, recently to discuss consistently following the principles you espouse.

This is especially important for Chief Executives, as they are constantly in the spotlight. With this intensity and the strong desire for rapid communication, mistakes can be made. However, “don’t be afraid to say you’ve made a mistake or that you made an error in judgement. It’s amazing how forgiving an organization or customers can be, as long as you’re honest and open in your communication and own your actions.”

Romano does not just want to talk a good game; he is committed to walking the walk and has been enjoying the benefits of a listen-first approach since he took over the helm of CEO seven years ago. As a testament to that fact, Hyundai Canada was recognized this year by Hyundai Motor Corporation with the Platinum Award of Excellence, which is given to the top-performing country globally. It was the first time in history that the award was given to a North American country. Romano was also recognized by Automotive News as an industry All Star for turning the company around.

“When I came onboard, we were ranked as one of the worst relationship companies with the dealer body, and I recognized this wasn’t going to change overnight.”

So, he set out on a cross country tour to hold grassroots meetings with their dealers from coast to coast. Simplicity was the key to success. There were no fancy PowerPoint decks or handouts. They sat in a circle and talked openly with each other.

Romano admits that the first few meetings were very tough, as there was a lot of anger directed at the company. “We didn’t like hearing what they had to say, but we knew we had to listen.” Despite the less than warm reception, his persistence and empathetic ear won over the dealers. Lines of communication improved, as did their relationships.

The Bottom Line

This was not just a feel-good exercise, however. There were bottom line benefits as well. “We are now one of the top automotive brands in the industry with our dealers. On top of that, our dealers are performing at record paces, as are we. It’s a remarkable turnaround and shows what you can accomplish when you put your ego aside and listen.”

He does not just limit this philosophy to building relationships with his customers. Like other highly respected global CEOs, Romano applies this to his approach internally. Even before the pandemic, he routinely held town halls and got out of his office as much as possible. This created a more connecting and engaged environment, where people felt more comfortable sharing their concerns. These insights are invaluable for CEOs, as they provide an opportunity to course correct when things are not working.

“I like to go door to door with all of my employees and find out what’s happening in their lives and what’s happening in their area of responsibility.”

One key initiative that he launched to build trust with his employees was “Donuts with Don.” The power of the exercise lies in its simplicity. “We brought out some donuts and invited people to have a conversation with me; where they could discuss whatever was on their minds.”

Like the dealers, there were some initial speed bumps. In this case, it was because people weren’t talking. Once again, his persistence and demonstrated desire to learn won the day. When people started speaking more freely, Romano emphasized that it must be a safe space. “We showed our employees that we were not going to get even with them. Our goal was not retribution. Our goal was to learn and to address their concerns.” This approach clearly had an impact. Hyundai Canada has been certified as a Great Place to Work multiple years running.

CEOs shoulder an enormous amount of responsibility in their organizations. This is amplified when times are tough. While the natural reflex may be to feel that the onus to come up with the answers are solely on them, the experience and success of Don Romano highlights another way. Rather than taking on this burden alone, leaving our egos at the door and truly listening to the key stakeholders holds the path to improved relationships and business success. As the saying goes, “we have two ears and one mouth so we can listen twice as much.”