Leading by Listening

Irv Kieback

Irv Kieback’s thirty-six years at Procter & Gamble spanned six locations with multiple assignments in engineering, manufacturing management, human resources, and IT. Among other projects, he oversaw the shutdown of a major manufacturing facility and led the development of SAP for Procter & Gamble’s North American manufacturing plants.  He is currently president of Pragmatic Consultants, LLC., a small consulting firm focused on program and project management, engineering leadership, and organization and team development.

The late Alexander Laufer, author of seven books on project management, sat down with Irv to find out how he learned to lead. This article, drawn from Laufer’s interviews with Irv, chronicles Irv’s growing appreciation of listening as a key project management practice.

An Amazing Ability to Sit Down and Talk

When Irv Kieback first joined Procter & Gamble, most of his higher-ups were all business, telling you what needed to be done. But one supervisor, Charlie Wagers, broke the mold. “We’d go to his house, ” says Irv, “and have fish fries and volleyball tournaments. We went down to his farm to catch crawdads and then have a boil for the whole department. ” As Irv recalls, Charlie “was friends with us as well as being our manager. And that always intrigued me. There was something unique in that combination; he cared about us as people. ” Witnessing Charlie’s “amazing ability to just sit down and talk ” made a big impression on Irv. It taught him that listening is a crucial practice when managing people.

Listen to What They Have to Say

When Irv was sent to Green Bay as a maintenance manager, his first experience managing anyone, he felt a little out of his element. He was put in charge of 15-20 craftspeople—carpenters, masons, machinists, millwrights. Irv was 25 years old at the time and didn’t have a clue how to deal with a group of 50- to 60-year-old workers. For help, he turned to his father, a Western Electric Telephone Cable inspector, who had spent a lifetime dealing with many of the same issues that mattered to his new crew. His father’s advice was simple: listen.  “He said ‚ÄòListen to what they have to say. Ask them what they need, and how you can help, as opposed to telling them what to do.’ This really resonated with me, because, thanks to Charlie, I already understood the importance of listening. ” The combination of his father’s advice and Charlie’s role modeling helped Irv get off to a great start with his new crew.

Learning and Digging In

Twenty-some years later, Irv was called upon to lead the installation of a new IT system, which would eventually be rolled out for all US Procter & Gamble manufacturing sites. Named project leader, he put some decisions on hold until the arrival of the project’s IT leader, who was completing a major software install in the finance sector.

Irv spent the time before his IT counterpart arrived talking to people. “I brought all the different leaders together, interviewed each one individually, and asked them, ‚ÄòWhat are you trying to make happen? What are the issues with the project? What’s going well? What do you think we need to do?’ ” He spent about two months “learning and digging in and talking to folks and coaching a little bit. ”

And then the IT leader showed up. “He looked around for about three days, ” said Irv, “and then declared, ‚ÄòWhat you are doing is all wrong in IT.  I just did a similar project and I know what needs to be done. From now on you need follow my direction and change the approach.’ ” According to Irv, that didn’t go well:

I had product supply people, planning, purchasing, manufacturing, training, working in my group. In his group he had his IT leadership. One day the three IT leaders came into my office, closed the door. “We want to work for you, ” one of them announced.

“What are you talking about? ” Irv asked.

She said, “Since the day this gentleman arrived, he has refused to listen to us. This is a totally different system than what he knows and implemented. ”

The other IT managers agreed: “Yes, and as a result we are going down the wrong path. By contrast, you came in and asked us questions. You gathered information. You asked us individually and collectively, ‚ÄòWhat are the problems? What can we do differently? Where are we going to go? What are we trying to do?’ Later, you came back with information and said, ‚ÄòHere’s what I learned. Here are the things I think we need to make happen. Here’s what we need to delay and here’s why.’ That’s what we want. We want somebody to listen to us, help us deliver, and go. ”

Irv’s approach on this project was the same one he had tested out on his maintenance crew back when he was a 25-year-old rookie in Green Bay, the approach advised by his father and modeled by Charlie: leading by listening. Not only did Irv deliver on the project, but he helped implement the IT system in Procter & Gamble’s Mehoopany plant, their largest in North America at the time, and which “was known as a plant that didn’t want management from the company headquarters in Cincinnati messing in their world. ” With his listening approach, Irv broke through that resistance.

Irv’s approach was not flashy. It did not demand attention. It was not authoritative or punitive. It was just effective. Listen in order to lead.

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Jeffrey S. Russell

Jeffrey S. Russell is Vice Provost for Lifelong Learning, Dean of Continuing Studies, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and Executive Director of the Consortium for Project Management at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He collaborated with the late Alexander Laufer on Becoming a Project Leader (Palgrave 2018), co-written with Terry Little and Bruce Maas.