One of my good friends was promoted to CEO a few years ago. I called him to offer my congratulations.
“Thanks,” he said, “but I have to admit it’s a mixed feeling.”
“Well, unless I really work to overcome it, as of today I will probably know less about what is really going on in this company than I ever did before.”
His wry and rueful observation reveals a keen insight into the peril of being at the top in leadership – people will curry favor, use good news as currency to advance their reputation, or abhor “bringing problems to the boss.“ People couch. Soften the blow. Blow smoke. In turn, many leaders—well-intended or not—doggedly keep up a determined public front as a program struggles, further damping anyone’s impulse to speak up. Sometimes, people at the top are secretly relieved they are isolated from those voices and having to confront what it means for them. Something about plausible deniability.
But I speak here to better people than that.
So, harkening to the debates in Washington and across the country this week about the healthcare.gov website and who should have known and who should have taken the hit for the team and spoken up, who’s fault is it when the truth is not told, when the person at the top claims they were the last to know?
Ultimately, and in most cases, the person at the top.
Sorry, it goes with the job.
No, you can’t know everything. No, you don’t want to foster a situation where all problems are laid at your door. No, you don’t want to be a doormat for whiners or the receptacle for everyone’s lack of ownership.
The art of leadership listening
It is the job of leadership to set a tone, a climate, where people feel they can speak up. To forge a culture where the guts to raise a problem is just as welcome as the courage to step up and solve it. A climate where a failure prevented has as much stature as a success predicted. Leadership listening is a crucial skill that is too easily overlooked when you believe your people will always come to you with the truth.
I have shared this construct before, but when a leader is out of the loop on a failure of the magnitude of a signature capital project or strategic initiative (ah, let’s get away from the ACA issue, okay?), or the boorish behavior of a another senior executive, it leaves the organization only three choices: The CEO is either out of touch, incapable of dealing with it or—-worse—-uncaring of the concerns. The tougher words for those are ignorance, incompetence, indifference. Lousy choices. Those labels don’t sit well with a good leader, but you risk having them attached to you if people see a pattern.
Or you can – as my friend’s observation suggested – take an active role in hearing what you need to hear.
There is a whole tick list of suggestions, but here’s one that really changes the conversation, goes right to the heart of most people’s fears and says a lot about your self-awareness.
Go up to anyone – one of your executive team members, a program lead, your receptionist or someone at a call center or factory floor. Ask them this question:
“Is there something you wish you could tell me about how we are running this company but you are afraid to say it because you are worried about how I might respond?”
Then listen. Don’t debate or counter. Just listen.
You might get a startled look, or a shrug of shoulders, but you also might hear something that will make all the difference.