I grew up with the saying "it takes a village" echoing in my ears, largely in family situations that demanded the collaboration of four brothers, two parents, and a dog. It was so ingrained, in fact, that I began using it later in life in work situations. When I did, my folksy aphorism was often met with raised eyebrows. One co-worker even called me out: "What does that even mean?"
It means that the path forward is dependent on everyone, not just a handful of people at the top.
This came very clearly to light as I talked to friends and industry colleagues about their experiences at startups over the years. More often than not, they said, the CEO would pass down decrees that launched a new project or established new systems of operation.
Meanwhile, the "trenchers," as we sometimes called ourselves -- those working daily on execution -- would grumble about the decrees being, well, massive missteps.
Why? Two main reasons. First, they didn't account for the nuances of the tasks involved, because the CEO was too far removed from the process to know what the process actually was; and second, they omitted or countered best practices that the skilled professionals implementing the change knew all about.
In short, the CEO was not leveraging employee experience and knowledge in the decision-making process. The trenchers were left out. Consequently (and not surprisingly), many of these CEO-decreed initiatives failed -- or wasted a boatload of money.
So how do you avoid this pitfall? If you have teams of professionals who were hired because of their experience or knowledge in a particular area, then leverage it. Encourage brainstorming sessions that will give them ownership in company progress while giving you the tools you need to make positive, lasting change.
That said, here are a few more tips on how to make the most of employee contributions:
Do not assume that because you are the CEO, you have to make all decisions alone.
Just as your company functions because of the collaborative daily work of multiple people, so, too, will it move ahead because of shared experience and knowledge. It takes a village.
If you are considering making changes that intimately affect one working group within your company, propose your solution to them and ask for feedback and insight.
When asking for feedback or ideas for solving a problem, structure a brainstorming session that does not include you. While you may want to hear directly from your employees, your seniority will likely make them unwilling to share ideas they have. Instead, appoint a moderator and ask him or her to lead the conversation and collect ideas anonymously.
Also, when asking for insight, offer specific prompts and questions. Vague directions like "Come up with growth strategies for next quarter" are unhelpful and likely to get you no valuable feedback.
Show your employees you know them.
Leverage their skill and experience by asking them about functions, systems, or concepts that align with their background. Not only will they appreciate your deferring to them for professional insight, but also you will gather critically important information to use when making key decisions.
You, as the CEO, don't know everything about everything. Acknowledge that, and then consult internal professionals with more experience in a subject you're wrestling with. This is especially true with processes -- ask the people who will be living with a new process if they think it's tenable. If not, what changes would they make and why?
If communication is getting muddy, leading to task errors or confusion, ask your team how they get the information they need to complete these tasks. Where does it come from? What communication tools do they use? What would make communication clearer and simpler?
Finally, remember that leaders are not obligated to have all the answers. They're required to lead -- and often, that means reaching out to employees for their expert advice. The decision will still be yours, but it will be informed.