What Leaders Don’t Know — But Should

Executives, and most of all, Chief Executives, need to be concerned about the information they are NOT hearing.  There are many reasons why the information they get is filtered, even by their own direct reports.  I met with a CEO of a large organization last year who had no idea that one of his top executives was abusive to employees — yet the entire organization knew it.  No one wanted to be the one to tell him and he didn’t have in place communication mechanisms to get information deep in his organization.

For example, when I was on the operating committee of Adelphia Communications during their bankruptcy, the acting CEO and I traveled across the country talking with employees at all levels.  They wanted to hear straight talk from the leadership, and we wanted to hear the same from them.

Sometimes, the information is both important and strategic.  Andy Grove, the former CEO of Intel who died last week, wrote about the agonizing difficulty in changing Intel’s business from making memory products to processors.  He said that people deep within the organization knew the need for change months before the executives did.

The point is this:  Leaders need ways to understand what is happening, what people are thinking, and how things are going when direct reports aren’t providing that information.  Want ideas?  Danny Wegman regularly walks his grocery stores talking with employees.  You can do the same in your business.  Employee surveys are good for eliciting widespread feedback — we’ve effectively provided good information from employee populations well over 10,000 with survey participation of better than 95%.  Focus groups offer the ability to probe deeper into key issues.  Other ideas such as listening tours, meeting with small groups over lunch can also be effective.

I regularly provide client CEOs and executives with insights by meeting with direct reports and other employees, giving them the opportunity to express themselves candidly.  It’s amazing how much new and surprising information comes out.

So, what approach should you use?  My advice is to get clear on your specific objectives and then determine which alternatives best achieves those objectives.  If you want help thinking it through, let me know.

How leaders speed-up their organizations

Bob LeggeGolf carts are equipped with governors to keep the cart from going too fast.  I think many organizations have governors too, designed to keep employees from going too fast.  Micromanaging, keeping people guessing about what is coming next, consuming time with meetings, reports, and approvals, etc.  They all serve as governors and are remnants of a time when bureaucracy was needed to control processes and systems.  But the information age has changed all that.

Today, speed is a competitive advantage.  Faster new products, faster services, faster results.  The task of the leader is to get the most from their people, to enable things to move faster and to simultaneously build both capabilities and self-confidence.  Those leaders push on the accelerator, not the brake, and they dismantle organizational mechanisms that act as governors.

“So much of what we call management consists in making it difficult for people to work.”  — Peter Drucker.


For a Better Organization, Replace Your “Check Engine” Light

In healthy organizations, there is openness, trust, and a focus on achieving shared outcomes. There is no need for anonymity in 360-degree feedback or employee surveys because everyone is concerned more about making improvements and progress than on who said what. It is the complete opposite in unhealthy organizations where people are afraid to give feedback. I saw this first-hand in one organization where an autocratic CEO decided to do an open feedback session for the first time with his senior team. Despite assurances about it being purely constructive and positive, those few executives who provided real feedback to the CEO, found themselves on the outs. All were gone within three years.
All organizations have a need to identify ways to improve. Unhealthy companies have the equivalent of a “Check Engine” light – management knows something is wrong, they just don’t know what (although it’s often perfectly obvious to everyone below the management level.) In contrast healthy companies get early warnings of specific concerns and are able to immediately address them.

Why Leaders Can’t Be Honest and Candid

Candid, honest feedback about performance is all too rare in most organizations.  The reluctance to talk to a subordinate about poor performance, the ‘grade inflation’ inherent in performance reviews, and the withholding of honest praise for excellent performance are examples.  These can happen because of fear to be candid with people.  It’s why you can have nearly everyone’s performance rated “above average” in a year when organization performance is weak.

The flip side is the leader on a power trip who loves having control over people, so he keeps secrets, won’t discuss issues, shares little, and often lashes out with a heavy hand to punish people he doesn’t trust.  That’s not a leader, that’s a boss.

Both cases have a negative effect on people and performance.  They drive out trust and cause people to ‘check out’ while on the job.  I once had a person complain to me about receiving an excellent performance review.  There was little doubt that her performance was excellent, but she was demoralized because her manager gave the same rating to every one of his direct reports.

Leaders lead; they know that providing candid and honest feedback with their people is important to improving performance.  While some managers and supervisors are clearly on a power trip, others avoid candid discussions because they do not know how to effectively discuss performance and coach performance improvements.  If you have this going on in your organization, you need to address it.

Vision and Accountability

Vision and Accountability

The qualities of outstanding leaders, those respected by the people they lead, have been detailed by thought-leaders over and over through the years.  What Drucker, Collins, Wheatley, Pink, and I all agree on is that effective leaders demonstrate integrity, the talent to simultaneously encourage and challenge people, and the ability to provide clear direction and vision.  Today, the pressure to deliver results is causing managers at all levels to resort to using fear and control.  While these may drive short-term results, they destroy motivation and the capacity of organizations.  At times like these, it is even more important to reestablish effective leadership and to replace fear and control with vision and accountability.



Watch my brief video, How to Create a Compelling Visionhttp://youtu.be/nWWQHJ8L-AA


© Bob Legge 2013  All rights reserved

Bob Legge is the Strategic Edge providing organizations with the ability to achieve their most audacious goals.  His clients have included Fortune 500 companies, mid-size companies, non-profits, education and government. To find out more, contact Bob at boblegge@boblegge.com or call him at (585) 305-7853.

Poison in the Well

During a college summer I worked for a manufacturing company as a machine operator.  It was boring work.  During the first night, I figured out a more efficient way to configure the work space.  The second night, after some rearranging, I more than doubled the output.  When entering the plant on the third night, the supervisor clapped me on the back and congratulated me.  Barely two minutes later, the union steward told me that if I did it again, I risked bodily harm in the parking lot.

I was designing a sales incentive plan working closely with the vice president of sales for a well-known consumer manufacturer.  During a plan review meeting, a financial person persisted in questioning a provision in the plan.  After a short while the sales VP suggested that maybe the finance person didn’t want his job.

As a senior vice president of a national broadband company, I heard of a small group of cable installers in rural Massachusetts who wanted a union.  I traveled most of a day to get there and sat with the group.  It took a while for them to open up, but when they did, I heard their ideas to better schedule time off.  Unfortunately, their manager didn’t want to listen to them.  It wasn’t about pay, or benefits, or safety – it was about flexibility.

There are many reasons why organizations don’t get the best thinking from their people – it almost never has to do with the ability or motivation of the front line crew.

Fear of Communication

There is fear deep in the heart of many organizations.  It has become worse over recent years due to the economy, but it’s not new.  I’m not referring to the fear of layoff, but rather the fear in middle management that speaking up or bringing bad news will lead to punishment in one form or another. 

It’s difficult for those at the top to see this, but it exists, and it damages the organization’s ability to innovate, improve, perform, and have strategic discussions. 

Effective strategy implementation and execution requires an organization culture where discussions can be honest and candid – sometimes even brutally candid.  I once worked for a Frenchman whose passion for excellent work could offend consultants and cause staff to cry, whereupon he would suddenly become consoling and say, “It’s only business, don’t take it personally.”  On the flipside, one could tell him anything and he’d actually listen and give you credit. 

But blunt honesty is much different than punishing someone for expressing an idea or providing feedback.  Just one incident of such punishment will damage important communication for years.  And there are still managers, and even presidents, motivated by their own insecurity and need for control who will punish people who have thoughts, opinions and ideas that differ from their own.  In doing so, they prevent entire organizations from being their best.

Senior leaders need to work hard to establish a productive culture, one where the walls are taken down between those with power and those with knowledge.