Keep Listening but Start Talking

Whitney Johnson | October 21, 2011 | Comments (2)

Whitney Johnson is a founding partner of Rose Park Advisors, Clayton M. Christensen’s investment firm. Previously, she was a double-ranked Institutional Investor analyst at Merrill Lynch covering telecom and media in emerging markets. Follow Whitney on Twitter . This column first appeared on


When we meet with prospective investors, I don’t speak much, and for good reason. There are three founding partners: Clayton Christensen, Matt Christensen, and me. When Clay is in the room, people want to hear from him. He’s not only the controlling shareholder of Rose Park Advisors; our investment approach is based on his theory of disruptive innovation. Next on deck is his son, Matt, the CEO and portfolio manager; then me.

In this particular context it makes sense that my partners do the lion’s share of the talking, but I’ve noticed that even when circumstances don’t require it, I’m sometimes reluctant to talk shop. One particular instance of this hesitation stands out in my mind: it occurred during a trip to Brazil back when I was a sell-side analyst. After a day of meetings, several buy-side investors (all men) and I were debriefing over dinner. When the conversation turned to America Movil (NYSE: AMX) a stock that I covered (in sell-side parlance I was widely considered the ‘axe on the stock’), I began to demur, reluctant to share my opinion, despite my expertise in the subject. It felt like high school all over again, slipping into the adult equivalent of playing dumb.

Over a decade ago, management thinker Tom Peters wrote “there is little disagreement about what businesses must become: less hierarchical, more flexible and team-oriented, faster and more fluid…. One group of people has an enormous advantage in realizing this necessary new vision: women.” Empirical data also suggests this is true, that having women on a team raises the team’s collective intelligence, improving their ability to solve complex problems.

But here’s the rub. Unless women speak up — and I don’t mean just talk, but get fluent in and remain fluent in a domain of expertise, whether finance, technology, science, fashion, construction, law — the whole idea that women can bring something extra to the table and be game changers won’t happen. To get women talking, here are three suggestions:

1) Invert the listen/talk ratio.

Most women are pretty adept at listening, but when it comes time to speak, we tend to falter — and more importantly, over time, we get left behind: specifically, when we listen passively, we retain 5% of what we’ve learned, when we participate actively, 90%.


A great example of how being engaged and talking makes us smarter is this observation from Kelly Nelsen in a comment left on a previous post, “Can Nice Girls Negotiate?” She wrote, “My husband and I have our own business. If I answer the phone when someone calls, people who don’t know me and my credentials and experience assume I’m an assistant and treat me as such — often dismissively and rudely. Of course, that doesn’t happen when my husband answers. Although I have advanced degrees and 20 years’ worth of experience, they try to give me administrative tasks to do. When a client has a high-level question to ask, the question is rarely directed to me. Instead, my husband gets the question. These things result in his brain being worked more than mine, and over time, innovative ideas being formed in his brain, not mine. Frankly, it culminates in him being more valuable to the business than me.”

If we are in situations over and over again where we are only listening, we erode our competitive edge. Especially when there is already a perceived competency gap of 70 percent in fields like science, technology, engineering and mathematics, it is vital that we close that gap, by opening our mouths. A low-end, low cost way of beginning to make this change is to invert our individual listening/talking ratio.

2) Talk shop with other women.

I sometimes get “talker’s block” around men; around women I don’t. And yet, when I’m around women I rarely talk about our portfolio, what stocks I like and why. For example, I recently had dinner with a West Coast VC after we had both attended the Forum for Growth and Innovation on cleantech at HBS. One would have expected that all we would do was talk shop, but instead of discussing deals we were working on, we found ourselves gabbing about our personal lives, including marriage and children. Perhaps because there are very few women in our chosen professions (), we felt some relief in the opportunity for “girl talk.” But don’t men talk sports during business dinners, you ask? They do, but sports are just an appetizer, the meal is about the deal.

So, women, let’s use our time wisely. Sure, we can talk about shopping, but if we don’t also talk shop, let’s call each other out. What better, safer place to practice sharing our expertise than with other women? Seth Godin writes: “We talk poorly and then, eventually (or sometimes), we talk smart. We get better at talking precisely because we talk. We see what works and what doesn’t, and if we’re insightful, [we] do more of what works.” When we flex our deep domain-expertise muscles, they get stronger. As we practice talking shop, we become more confident in sharing our knowledge and opinions, in any situation.

3) Require women to talk the walk.

I was surprised when a senior Wall Street banker and friend of mine confided that women rarely speak up in his departmental meetings. Yet as he described to me how the meetings unfold, I think I know why. The meetings actually start before they start. The men walk in the room already engaging, bantering, smack-talking, the women in the room listening, quietly. Just imagine a swim meet where the men dive in — and have swum 50 meters before the race even starts. Once the gun goes off, the women can dive into the pool. It becomes a no-contest race.

Perhaps the solution here is the “activation phenomenon.” According to Dr. Atul Gawande, when introductions are made before surgery (each person in the room says his or her name), the average number of complications and deaths fell by 35 percent. Why not then apply this to the departmental meeting? At the official start, require every participant to speak for just a minute or two. As each person is activated, they will perceive themselves as a contributor, and more readily add to the conversation.

Here’s a different example: After years of studying classical piano, in college I fell in love with jazz. In contrast to classical, jazz involves improvisation and is structured around a call-and-response pattern, with two distinct phrases played by different musicians, the second phrase in response to the first. The improvisational interplay makes music and conversation come alive — and I would argue that it’s the conversational badinage that connects and animates people as well.

When we listen, we acknowledge others’ experience and expertise. When we talk, we acknowledge our own. Maybe your current forte is listening, perhaps it’s speaking. But success depends on learning to do both.

Recommended further reading:

Thanks to Ellen F. Weber at Brain Leaders and Learners for pointing me to The Learning Pyramid.

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Category: Career Girl

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Comments (2)

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  1. says:

    I really enjoyed reading your post. It’s true, women do hesitate before speaking in meetings and business conversations. This is perhaps why not enough women are pushing their way into the C-suite.

    Listening allows you to collect your thoughts and ideas, however, if you never speak up you’ll never be heard.

  2. says:

    Very true, Rashel.