I find that, in running my business, I am making many decisions alone. I know that can't be good. How can a leader keep from becoming isolated?
—Arthur Lakiisa, Uganda
It’s something of a coincidence that your question arrived at the time two CEOs, Charles “Chuck” Prince of Citigroup Inc. and Stan O’Neal of Merrill Lynch & Co., were cast out of their jobs and publicly crucified for the “sin” of surprising the market with bad results.
Now, we don’t know if either CEO had become isolated from the people in his organization who knew trouble was looming.
But, the magnitude of the “expectation gap” suggests both CEOs were blind sided—at least to some degree—by their company’s poor performance. Like you, perhaps, they were lonely at the top.
And perhaps, like you, they knew it wasn’t good. They just didn’t catch the problem soon enough.
That can be a fatal mistake.
In fact, when you’re a leader, the last thing you should let happen is to get pushed into an ivory corner, where you end up plucking decisions out of the air or pecking at a keyboard.
And yet, obvious as that may be, there’s something about becoming a boss that incontrovertibly lends itself to isolation. It’s as if every natural force is working to “protect” you from reality.
Good news travels up fast, but bad news festers, down in the trenches, with people hoping they can make it go away before anyone notices.
At the same time, there is the propensity for leaders—for anyone—to surround themselves with “yes types” who make themselves all the more welcome with the assurance: “Don’t worry, everything is under control.”
In most companies, of course, that’s rarely the case. This is why you have to get aggressive about fighting creeping insularity.
Well, large company leaders, like Prince and O’Neal, actually have a special lever to start with. They can cut layers, since layers do nothing but filter information. But other, more universal techniques work very well, too.
For instance, any leader can leave the office—and should. Every day “embedded” is a day you’re not out learning about your own people and processes, not to mention market realities.
Since you can’t put an electric shock in your chair, how about a sign on your desk with the words: “Why are you here?”
Visit stores, trading floors, regional offices or factories.And visit customers, not just when they call to complain, but several times a year.
Just as important as getting yourself outside is whom you surround yourself with inside. Sure, most leaders have a standing group of advisers comprising direct reports. But, such committees can easily fall into a grind, where dialogue devolves into them telling you what they assume you want to hear.
You can beat that dynamic by reaching into the organization to create a revolving “kitchen cabinet”, filled with the smart, edgy, self-confident individuals who have at-the-fingertips expertise.
Try to avoid the usual suspects; seek out people tucked in areas or functions out of your direct line of sight, and make especially sure you’re gathering people who are sworn change agents and inveterate cranks.
Change agents are usually the first to sense a shift in the market. And cranks, well, yes, they can be annoying, always nattering about how the ship has cracks. But the best of the lot are usually onto something. Ignore them at your peril.
Finally, leaders can prevent insularity by doing something that will surely feel, at first, terribly counter-intuitive. They must act like the dumbest person in the room.
Sure, as a boss, people will turn to you for all the answers, and you’ll want to respond in kind. But instead, show people that your job is to have all the questions. Greet every decision, proposal or piece of data with “What if?” and “Why not?” and “How come?” Then wallow in the answers, dropping every artifice of formality during the ensuing conversation and debate.
It won’t happen overnight, but in time, this approach will breed a culture of vigorous engagement, drawing the best ideas out of the group, and yes, even surfacing the buried crisis that is just about to blow.
Which brings us back to Chuck Prince and Stan O’Neal. Again, we’re not saying either CEO suffered from isolation.
We just don’t know. But the market’s surprise at their poor results begs a question that every leader must ask: Am I alone up here?
The answer can never be yes.
Write to Jack & Suzy
Jack and Suzy are eager to hear about your career dilemmas and challenges at work, and look forward to answering some of your questions in future columns. Jack and Suzy Welch are the authors of the international best-seller, Winning Campaign readers can email them questions at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include your name, occupation and city.
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