When I was 20, I earned my first leadership role. I was nervous. I was excited. And above all, I was ready to share everything I’d learned with my new team.

At the end of my first day as city editor at the college newspaper, I had dispelled so much wisdom to student journalists one or two years my junior that I lost my voice.

Fast-forward nearly 20 years and I’m sitting in the Stanford Graduate School of Business. I heard words that proved what I’d long suspected: that my approach to leadership initiated within the hallowed halls of the University of Iowa was completely wrong.

I think often about the lessons from Irv Grousbeck, Boston Celtics principal owner and Stanford Graduate School of Business adjunct professor.

He told us to follow these rules when persuading:
Talk one-third of the time.
Modulate your voice into a slower pace.
Insert questions like: “Does anything I say resonate with you?”

“Listening,” he said, “is a sign of respect.”

Also: “Nobody buys when you are talking.”

His words changed me. I now lead by listening. It sounds simple, but it’s an intentional practice informed by this last year in Palo Alto, Calif., and one I want to continue in Des Moines, where I now reside with my husband and two boys.

Some background: I just completed a John S. Knight Journalism Fellowship at Stanford, after spending the first half of my career editing and reporting, but also in teaching and training, leading audience growth initiatives and new product launches. I grew up in Iowa, and though I’ve lived on both coasts, I’ve also spent a portion of my professional life here, most recently editing and developing growth strategies at the Des Moines Register.

I went to Stanford in search of answers to make local news more relevant. And I made listening the theme of my fellowship.

Here are some takeaways:

1. Listen to your customers.

I was attracted to Stanford because it’s home to the academic engine that fuels Silicon Valley, the region of our country that has created much of the digital fabric that shapes our daily lives. While there, I interacted with designers and thinkers from Google and Facebook, and learned from investors, publishers, founders and, interestingly, actors and improvisation specialists about how to take ideas, products and processes, and design them to hold a visceral connection with the customer and viewer.

Part of the reason the products that flow from Silicon Valley are so widely used is that they are rooted in empathetic listening, part of a process called design thinking that is taught at Stanford and infiltrates its academic community. 

One of my favorite anecdotes about design thinking comes from “Creative Confidence,” by Tom and David Kelley. They write about how surprised one of the lead designers of the MRI machine was to learn that children were terrified by his device. He set to right his wrong by carefully observing and studying his target customer. He went on to redesign the medical scanner for children into fantastical experiences, like spaceships and pirate adventures. Among the results: Fewer children needed to be sedated and patients were much more satisfied.

“New opportunities for innovation open up when you start the creative problem-solving process with empathy toward your target audience,” according to the book.

The design thinking training I received at Stanford has transformed my philosophy of work. I now seek projects rooted in this kind of empathy.

2. Listen to context and history.

The beautiful thing about a fellowship is space to think.

I used this time to explore my relationship with race through a book club for “Witnessing Whiteness,” by Kelly Tochluk. The book challenged me to interrogate my own lack of historical knowledge. I realized for me to understand how to treat people of different backgrounds than my own, I need to understand our shared history. I now make reading history, particularly about race and particularly by writers of color, an ongoing commitment as a way to expand my understanding of how to be a better ally and collaborator.
3. Listen to yourself.

Stanford cracked open a world of possibilities. Now, it’s up to me — not anyone else — to choose what’s next. My favorite tools to listen to myself are long bike rides with no phone. When I’m done, I write.

I also rate my energy after each exploratory conversation I have, a process I learned in “Designing your Life,” by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans. When my energy is high, I push for more interactions with that person or about the topic we discussed. It was my goal this summer to complete 50 of these conversations as a way to help me find collaborators who are interested in working with me on using what I learned from Stanford to make Des Moines a better place.

If you’ve read to the end, we should have coffee. I’m at lrossi18@stanford.edu.