Listening is very important. But people won't talk unless they feel comfortable. Really comfortable. And the best way to make a quick impression is to show people you love what you're doing—that you realize that mistakes had been made in the past—and that on some level, the whole thing is kind of funny. There's a huge sigh of relief when the staff realize you're serious about changing the situation, AND easy to work with.
Once you've gained this trust, you can have the company help you make the tough decisions (firing, for example). Plus you can set the agenda with a smile on your face. I can't stress enough how important it is to let people know the first rule of working is to have fun.
The first trick to learn in any new job, but particularly a first step into general management, is to learn that it is okay to listen. Of course, people are looking for your opinions and ideas, and they will be anxious to hear from you what the direction will be. But, if at all possible, it is definitely worth asking a lot of questions and listening—really, truly listening—to the answers. What are you listening for? First of all, information. Where is it, who's got it, and how do you get your hands on it. Also, I think you want your direct reports—those who probably are the functional experts running the departments/divisions which report in to you—to know that you respect their ideas and experience. You show that by listening.
Listening in the first six weeks
Listening and questioning skills are perhaps more important during the first six weeks than at any other time of your career. You need to listen to understand what makes people tick, listen for issues, listen for opportunities, listen with candor as to whether you really understand what is being said or not (i.e. admitting confusion or lack of understanding early is critical).
Remember, during the first month you can admit to being clueless more easily than any other time during your assignment, so make good use of this opportunity to ask potentially dumb questions.
The great opportunity you have is to use any situation and ask lots of questions about it. Call up the guy who quit and ask questions. Ask others about the morale situation. Ask folks routinely what you could do to help them be more productive, successful, and fasting moving in their jobs. Always look for the opportunity to determine how you can most favorably impact the organization. Spelling out a clear vision based on having talked a lot and analyzed a lot will go a long way.
Listening as a GM
What you are listening for is quite different for a new general manager than for a functional manager. As a general manager, your two biggest areas of responsibility run to strategic direction and resource allocation (two sides of the same coin).
The types of things to listen for include those areas of strategic opportunity which may not be evident at the functional level but appear more clearly when looked at throughout the organization. When I was going through my transition I thought of these as the "threads" which bound together the different functions, or which were causing disconnects across the organization. It struck me that those "threads" were much more evident at the general management level than they had ever been for me as a functional manager.
I also can't emphasize enough my belief that the general manager plays a team leader role, and that those initial discussions and assignments are also designed to help assess the functional members of the team: who will help you achieve your goals, and who will not. So, in addition to listening for all the facts, you're also listening to the way in which your direct reports manage their areas and whether they are people who will contribute to the overall team.
Employing critical skills
My advice to new general managers: Listening and observation skills are critical. Humility and humanity are important. I still believe a direction is important, kind of like a compass reading. But to think one knows exactly how a plan will exactly be implemented, I think, is arrogant. You should trust and ask your customers/employees that...but they'll only tell you if you're empathetic, caring, and trustworthy.
Creating an open environment
Active listening has a number of elements. One is the "art" of listening. This includes opening yourself to actually hearing what is "said", and filtering out your own biases and agendas. Another element that becomes extremely important, especially in a GM position, is creating an environment that encourages your people to be open in their communication, thus giving you something to listen to. This includes making it very safe for people to voice opinions that are non-conformist and possibly unpopular. How you get there is a non-trivial challenge. For me, it includes trying to put my ego aside, and not trying to prove I am the smartest person in the room. It also includes trying not to broadcast what it is "I want to hear."
Frankly, when you are caught up in being efficient and productive, listening can feel like a waste of time. You start to get impatient as the to-do list grows, the phone rings and the email box fills up. There also a sense that you aren't in control; the speaker controls your time, your attention, and your productivity.
There are some simple ways to increase your chances of listening and focusing. First, don't sit behind your desk. There are too many distractions and too many tasks beckoning. By moving to a seat next to a visitor, you are truly able to focus on that person. Take notes, not continuously but when something hits home. That way, you won't interrupt the speaker or lose your train of thought if there is a point you want to return to. Any mistake I have ever made can be traced directly back to the question I didn't ask ... So ask a lot of questions and challenge assumptions. In the end, summarize.