Listening With An Open Mind Drives Success

Roberta Sydney joined her Forum in 1999. Nearly 14 years later, the longtime business owner continues to grow and learn from the monthly meetings.

“My Forum has helped me sort through thorny issues, like partnership breakdowns, and led me to do reality checks when they’re most needed,” says Sydney, president of Sydney Associates Inc., a real estate development and management firm in Brookline. “As an entrepreneur, one of the things you miss sorely is someone who’s outside of the business to bounce off a decision.”

Sydney has enlisted her employees and paid consultants to help her weigh big decisions. But her Forum peers “have no skin in the game,” she says, so their insights are especially welcome. As neutral outsiders, they offer unvarnished advice and feedback that Sydney might not otherwise hear.

Presenting her business challenges to the Forum has benefited Sydney in two ways. For starters, she receives specific, tactical ideas that she can apply right away to resolve a personnel problem or other vexing issue. Her peers also encourage her to stay the course and hold her accountable for making difficult but necessary moves.

“In one case, I brought a personnel challenge to the group,” she recalls. “I gave the background, listed what I’ve tried and said, ‘I’m open to new ideas.’ They gave me lots of new ideas, but also reaffirmed for me the need to see this challenge through and not give up or hope it goes away on its own.”

Thanks to her Forum involvement, Sydney has sharpened her listening skills. Vocal by nature, she has learned to withhold her comments and learn what others think.

“I’ve made an effort not to be first to speak, both in my Forum and with my senior staff,” she says. “If I want to learn, I have to read something or hear something, not speak.”

She has also gained a heightened appreciation for different communication styles. In her Forum, some members exude a quiet confidence. They don’t rush to speak, so Sydney listens attentively.

“A Forum is an incubator where you can try things,” she says. “You can practice listening. Or you can roleplay an employee conversation you’re about to have and get feedback from other members.”

Sydney advises Forum newcomers to arrive with an open mind. Over the years, she notes that those members “who come and go” tend to reject their peers’ input by saying, “My industry is different” or “That’ll never work in my situation.”

“You have to be ready to hear things that you may not initially think will apply to you,” she says. “Be open to new ideas. And once you hear them, commit to action even if they’re scary. Don’t find excuses to avoid following through.”