Leaders Listen for the Train


My first day on the job was fairly typical.  I got my badge, computer and was getting things setup in my new work area when a loud noise took me by surprise.  Now, if I had been working on the first floor then a loud honk or noise wouldn’t be unusual.  However, I was on the 46th floor and certainly wasn’t expecting to hear anything that sounded like it was right outside my window!  When I looked out to see where the noise came from, I noticed the railroad tracks a block away and the train that had just passed through.  After asking my new co-workers, I learned that the trains sound off every time they go through that section of railroad.  They each told me, “Don’t worry, you won’t even hear it after a few weeks.”

Isn’t that what happens to us in our work?  We do the same routines the same way for months or even years and don’t realize when the process is broken.  Then someone new joins the team and asks, “Hey, why are we doing it this way?” and we look at them funny not really understanding what they’re talking about.  Why wouldn’t we do it that way?  It’s easy to get caught in this trap of sameness and normalcy.  But if we’re truly going to lead our teams (or even ourselves), we need to look at our work a bit differently.

We need to constantly ask:

  • Why do we run this event each year?
  • Why does this program exist? Does it still align with our vision?
  • Why do we handle this type of situation that way?
  • Why are those processes or policies in-place?


Our goal has to be constant improvement, not stagnation.  I’m not advocating change just for the sake of change – that’s a recipe for disaster and burnout.  What I am recommending is that we take a step back out of the woods for a few minutes to view the whole forest and make sure we’re headed in the right direction.

A great example of this is what Andy Stanley does with his new employees.  Check out his Leadership Podcast here or subscribe via iTunes.  After they’ve been on-board for a few months, they receive a survey.  The survey includes questions like “Do you have all the tools you need to do your job?”  One new team member replied back that she could really use a larger paper cutter at her location.  One of the other offices had that equipment and she ended up driving to their location each week.  Well, that was a fairly easy fix.  They bought her the paper cutter, wrapped it and presented it to her at a staff meeting.  She was thrilled and it spread the news that those surveys are actually read and action is taken on the requests.  How great is that for team morale?!

Now, they probably can’t fulfill every request or implement every change that’s recommended but that’s not even the point.  The point is that they ask the newest employees, the ones with the freshest perspective and most attuned ears, to offer their insights into the organization based on what they see and hear their first few months on the job.  They’re cultivating internal intelligence that those who’ve been around for several years, the people you’d expect to be the most insightful (and in other ways certainly are), simply don’t have anymore.

The idea is two-fold: 

  1. Make sure that our schedules and to-do lists aren’t so jam-packed that we don’t take the time to step back and question our current methods.  In other words, we need to listen for the train.
  2. Leverage the advantage our newest team members have and proactively ask for their input.  When you’re new, it’s a bit scary to offer your opinion because you don’t want to look dumb or make too many waves.  Open the conversation and let people voice their opinion and ideas without fear of reprisal.  You’ll gain valuable knowledge and will improve the culture and atmosphere of your team.


By the way, my coworkers were right – I stopped hearing the train after a few weeks.  I had to start intentionally listen for the train – you’ll need to do likewise.

How do you look for improvement opportunities in your organization?  What “trains” have become difficult to hear?