"In my experience as a senior executive in the competitive and fast-paced sporting goods industry, I have seen my share of good leaders.


Listening to Be a Better Decision-Maker


Has someone ever said to you “I hear you,” when they clearly were not paying attention? Was it frustrating or hurtful? Many people make the mistake of only being bodily present when others are speaking – meaning that they are not focusing on what the other person has to say. But as a leader and a decision-maker, you cannot afford to simply “hear” what those around you are saying. Everyone must be afforded the respect and attention of active listening. However, as a leader you will often be presented with problems, solutions, goals or other ideas that, using your judgement after careful consideration, are not the top priority for you or your business. It is this skill – prioritizing – that can help you listen to everyone’s voice but still keep your business on the right track.

For instance, imagine a large glass vessel is your life. If you fill it to the top with big, heavy rocks, it will appear full. But what if you add smaller pebbles? They can slide into the crevices between the bigger rocks, adding more volume into the jar than you thought possible. Surely now it must be full? Think again. Adding sand will prove how much empty space remains in the jar: there is room for a surprising amount of sand in between the little spaces leftover by the rocks and pebbles. And just when that jar appears entirely full, add water.

The purpose of this metaphor is to demonstrate how the little things in life can distract from what is most important. The big rocks that first filled the glass container should be your top priority – all the rest is literally filler. Use the “big rocks” analogy to ask yourself what is critically important to you, what matters but is not crucial and what is expendable. The “big rocks” can be applied across all spectrums of your personal and work life to help you prioritize and to decide what or whom to listen to.

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Hearing means to be physically but not mentally present. A person who is hearing may be daydreaming, worrying about something or focused on formulating their response. Though the person may even be able to repeat back the words that were spoken, hearing implies a lack of thought and understanding that comes from genuinely caring about the other person’s meaning. In short, hearing alone is disrespectful and a waste of time: the message has not been received and therefore cannot be considered.


True listening not only makes the other person feel valued and respected, but it also has great advantages to you as a leader and decision-maker. By giving another person your full attention and processing the information they present, you will be armed with a more complete understanding of the issue they present. Only after active listening can you properly review the ideas and use your judgement to decide whether or not to prioritize them.

Let’s examine a scenario. Imagine that an employee approaches you with an idea they have for a new service your business could offer.

Try this: Schedule the meeting for a time when you are energized and able to devote your full attention to the employee. Sit up and make eye contact with him. Take notes if necessary, ask questions or rephrase what he has said to make sure you understand. This is active listening.

Addressing Your Big Rocks

Whenever you are unsure about what to pursue and what to discard, ask yourself “is this a big rock?” Perhaps the employee’s idea presents a solution to a problem you know to be very important, such as improving the company website. Having actively listened to him, you can now choose to prioritize this idea and move forward.

By actively listening, you open up the circulation of great ideas and solutions. It is far easier to tackle challenges with the advice, support and brainpower of your colleagues rather than on your own. By employing the “big rocks” principle, it is easier to see what you should dominate your attention, and what is not a priority.

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Julie Nimmons

Julie Nimmons

Julie uses her 30 years’ experience to help CEOs, executives and business owners in her Vistage Group find success in their businesses and personal lives. With positive leadership, a firm sense of prioritization and the commitment to lifelong learning, Julie’s creates a constructive workspace for Group members where honesty, innovation and cooperation can flourish.