Think About It: OIWC asks, do you know the art of listening?

Are you and your company listening to employee needs? Use these pointers to ensure communication is a two-way street.

Have you ever seen the TV show, “Undercover Boss”? In each episode, a top-level executive goes undercover in his or her own company as an entry-level employee.The disguised executive toils on the production line, works the cash register, pulls orders in the shipping department and more. The executive is able to observe how the company operates, see how it can be improved, and most importantly, establish relationships with ”fellow” employees.

The show’s entertainment comes from watching the exec bumble through various entry-level job duties. The show’s beauty, though, comes from watching him or her listen to employees with an acute focus. Viewers witness these Undercover Bosses hearing, seeing and experiencing their employees’ thoughts, feelings and needs on a deeper level. The bosses get face-to-face engagement and connection with the heart and soul of their workforce. At the end of every episode, employees know they have been heard. New and desperately needed systems are created, people get the recognition and respect they deserve, and the audience gets a solid tug on the heartstrings.

The show holds lessons not only for each Undercover Boss, but for many of us. The outdoor industry is set up on a platform of communication. Our businesses thrive because we are all talking to someone about something, somewhere and at all times. But how can we, like the Undercover Boss, become expert listeners?

From its Berkeley, Calif., compound, GU Energy fuels an abundant number of international races, communities, athletes and teams on a daily basis. Brooke Kennedy, GU’s marketing manager, and Eleanor Eldridge, assistant marketing manager, offer a few pointers:

1. Indoctrinate listening.

It’s been a long-standing argument that listening is the most essential part of effective communication, but it seems that every company has a different way of practicing this craft. “Oh, there is a definite art of listening at GU,” said Eldridge, “I’d say the open platform style of our weekly marketing meeting has been a great way for us all to communicate better and, in turn, work better together.”

2. Be a proactive thinker and communicator, but be prepared for things to go awry.

GU is adept at working with an expanding team, multiple departments and a constant increase of demand. With so much juggling, it’s almost inevitable that something could go off beam. “Just this morning, an incident occurred that required intricate delineation, a HR intervention and a massive, last-minute overnight shipment of product to Hawaii,” said Kennedy. “In the end, it all came down to a textbook example of miscommunication. We turned it into a great case study of how to react quickly and professionally when we have a lapse in communication.”

3. Change is good…and it can be better when we capitalize on it.

During the past couple of years working at GU, Kennedy has witnessed first-hand the metamorphosis of GU Energy. The company has seen a surge of demand, new faces have entered the company roster and more voices need to be heard. “Our organization is currently spread out over three buildings, which can create the perfect set up for poor interdepartmental communication. Good listening skills are not something to be underemphasized,” she said. A thriving company is an expanding company. If the foundation for interdepartmental listening and communication is already set, it’s easier to spread out into those new endeavors much more smoothly.

4. To get to the top, be the support beams for others.

“Throughout the past few years,” said Kennedy, “I’ve learned that being a good listener is one of the most important components of excelling as a manager.” As a team leader at GU, Kennedy expressed that being a dependable sounding board is essential to her position and to those with whom she works. “I’d also say that GU is a very open company that allows for communication across all levels,” Eldridge added. “I know if I ever need to voice my opinion or be heard, the whole company is all ears. I can’t say the same for past companies I’ve worked for, so I really appreciate it now.”


>> Shafir, Rebeccah. “The Zen of Listening, Mindful Communication in the Age of Distraction.” Quest Books, 2000.

>> Sypher, Beverly Davenport. “Communication Listening, Communication Abilities, and Success at Work.” Journal of Business, September 1989, vol. 26, no. 4.

>> Focus Groups and Risk Communication: The “Science” of Listening to Data, William H. Desvousges, 2006

>>, “Every CEO Must be a Chief Listening Officer,” John Ryan 

Outdoor Industries Women’s Coalition is a membership community of professionals in the outdoor industries united to provide power, influence and opportunity for women in outdoor-related businesses and to generate champions to inspire other women. For more information, visit

This monthly column, a partnership between OIWC and SNEWS®, aims to address the issues that concern women in the industry most -- anything that is controversial, topical or newsworthy relating to women and the outdoors. The goal is to help, educate, inspire and grow. We welcome your ideas, gripes, thoughts and comments. Bring it on. E-mail us at

Devon Sibole is an account manager at OutsidePR, an outdoor-oriented public relations and sports marketing firm in San Francisco, Calif.