As the CEO of the company you are responsible for everything. The buck stops with you. When times are good, you get the credit, but when times are tough, your neck is on the chopping block. One of the toughest challenges CEOs must consciously address―although it exists in other leadership positions--is the leadership bubble.
By virtue of your power and position in the company, if you're not careful, people will be inclined to tell you everything is great or what they think you want to hear. This is problematic because it isolates you from really knowing what's happening in your company and more importantly, getting in front of issues before they become real problems.
We work closely with our executive clients on this because it's that important, but it can be uncomfortable. No one likes to hear bad news or worse where they are failing, but it's critical to effective leadership.
At a recent dinner party, I had a fascinating conversation with someone who admittedly, received the biggest sucker punch of his life because he was in a leadership bubble. For anonymity reasons, let's call this person Jack.
Jack led a global organization as its CEO for a decade and was the architect of a period of unprecedented growth. He recently stepped down after a leadership shakeup where he was criticized for not adequately addressing reported incidences within his leadership team of sexual harassment and cultural issues not favoring the advancement of women.
During an authentic conversation, we discussed the real downside to the leadership bubble. The recent events served as one of Jack's greatest lessons, and we talked about what he should have done differently.
To breakdown the isolating and blinding grip of the leadership bubble, consider addressing these key points:
Find and monitor cultural problems inside and outside your organization.
One of the points Jack emphasized is that people's expectations in the workplace are rising and leadership needs to respond.
To stay ahead of what may become a crisis, the best leaders create processes for listening to what's happening within and around their organizations. CEOs can't exclusively rely on the perspectives of their inner leadership team. Making time to listen to employees from all levels, vendors, customers, shareholders and local community leaders is a good first step toward identifying issues that should be addressed early.
Be upfront: Ask for help.
Jack also noted that it's not always easy to ask for help when you're the CEO. It's easy to feel like everyone expects you to have all the answers, even though it's impossible.
While Jack thought of himself as a down-to-earth, approachable guy, he now realizes the degree to which his position shielded him from getting to the real story. Actively working to break down the power barrier around the CEO position would have created a safe environment for people to talk openly to him.
He also believes issues could have been resolved faster if he told employees regularly that his biggest challenge is isolation, and requested their partnership. Learning what they were seeing within the organization earlier would have bought Jack time to institute a framework for improving the culture.
Regularly ask people to report on what's not working, then reward them for it.
"I thought we were making good progress," Jack said. "But we learned that for some colleagues there was deep dissatisfaction. I should have spent more time with critics."
Taiichi Ohno is known worldwide for his innovation of giving any production worker the ability to stop the assembly line in Toyota factories. It was a radical idea because most believed that would only lead to missed deadlines, profit declines and general confusion. But it had the opposite effect--including a sharp increase in quality.
Not every business is based on an assembly line, but information (good and bad) keeps modern businesses ahead of important shifts. That's why everyone needs to feel safe talking to organizational leaders, which means it's never a good policy to kill the messenger when they report problems.
Learn to read people.
Walt Bettinger, the CEO of Charles Schwab, told HBR this dilemma is his job's "number one challenge." He explains it takes two forms, "people telling you what they think you want to hear, and people being fearful to tell you things they believe you don't want to hear."
Jack believed the reports he was receiving from the people closest to him. Organizational metrics for women related to compensation, hiring rates and advancement were better than they had ever been for the company. And all of this information was accurate. But there was still a cultural problem that persisted for women.
"Both things can be true," Jack said. "You just have to work harder to really understand what's going on. Being more attentive to these issues is the appropriate leadership response."