Lessons from Great CEOs: How to (Every So Often) Escape the Bubble at the Top

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As sure as night follows day, a “bubble” envelops CEOs and other senior leaders once an organization starts to grow beyond 10 or 15 people. It’s the nature of having a leadership position, the number of people in an organization, and the fact that humans operate in certain predictable ways.

While it’s a bubble that can provide some needed buffer, it’s also a bubble that disables. The best CEOs know ways to make sure it does the former, and not the latter; lesser senior leaders never routinely get out of the bubble at the top and suffer the predictable consequences.

Leadership wonk John Kotter notes that “A leader needs enough understanding to fashion and intelligent strategy.”

Part of that understanding is the stuff of briefing papers, staff updates and if you’re unlucky enough (shudder) endless PowerPoint decks. Great leaders, however, know that part of that understanding lies in the pulse and flow of an organization and its stakeholders; people like employees, investors, vendors, and customers.  Information that is gathered by listening to the heart, not just the heartbeat.

In my work as an executive coach I can tell almost immediately which CEO is getting richer information and the ones that (mostly unknowingly) are getting just filtered bits and pieces; it’s the leaders that know the people who work around them (including front door security guards/receptionists and mailroom staff) as well as the pulse of the operation.

These are the guys (and gals) who as execs routinely take a sample of calls and periodically meet with vendors, clients and employees of all levels to hear the praise and the complaints, and to gain a much broader data set in which to make better informed decisions. It’s one thing to hear second  hand that someone is unhappy; it’s quite another thing to have your ears blistered by the curses and yells of that person.

Investors – if any – usually get heard. It’s the rest of a CEO’s constellation of shareholders that can get filtered.

A CEO of an early stage start-up (channel Max Levchin from the early days founding PayPal or Slide) finds it easy to know the pulse of the organization because either everyone reports to you, or you literally bump into everyone on a daily basis. Levchin’s day in those smaller organizations is the epitome of Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard’s “management by walking around.”

Fast forward though to a firm like Facebook – now at 2,000+ people – and odds are that Mark Zuckerberg and the senior leadership spends much of their time running the enterprise by meetings amongst themselves, their direct reports, and key outsiders. Their calendars are booked with people who want to meet with them; the day-to-day raw data that floods a CEO of a 25 person person probably seldom hits them; what they receive is reporting, not first hand experience. No angry calls from customers who have been locked out from their account, no bizarre but potentially interesting offers from the company next door, etc. [Unless it’s Apple’s Steve Jobs, who apparently makes it a habit to answer occasional customer e-mails.]

Information to the senior leaders becomes more civilized, more sanitized. When I was an SVP of Fortune 15 company McKesson you could hear a pin drop things were so polite and restrained on the exec floors; the daily clamor and clutter of what it takes to actually operate a $13B business was miles away. Customer feedback and employee concerns came in printed reports, not anxious voices or kind thank you notes.

The solution for the CEO and other senior leaders is to break out from bubble and pound the pavement pressing the flesh so to speak. Meet routinely with customers, vendors and employees. Ask them how your firm is doing; what works well, and what could we do better? Meet with employees in groups – preferably with an outsider (exec coaches like me) or a trusted insider to facilitate the conversation – so you can actually listen, rather than talk.

I have routinely done those types of meeting for senior execs and they have never failed to surface information that was profoundly helpful. The trick is to be able to prompt the bashful employee to share thoughts, data and feedback “to the boss”  rather than clutching and holding back. Partial information helps no one but was as humans we routinely filter to “help” people – to avoid adding baggage to someone’s load, or to avoid embarrassing someone. It’s one of the things that Barack Obama, perhaps in the densest bubble of all called Washington, D.C. talks about need to do more; “get out and here from the American people.”

Last night Lucinda Lee Katz, the head of my son’s grade school – a CEO as it were of that organization – met with 18 parents from my part of town as part of a “Talks with Katz” program. It was one of 15 such meetings she’ll do over a three month period; the meetings are simply to increase the dialogue between a head of 560 student K-8 and the parent community. Lucinda had a colleague to take notes (for follow-up) and it was pure give and take; what’s on your mind, and here’s what’s on mine.

Doing meetings like that helps Lucinda in her CEO role get direct feedback – real time data – from one of her key stakeholder group. And as an educator, she was showing other CEOs a simple mechanism to keep themselves informed, and better educated about  their own business by breaking out of the leadership bubble at the top of most any organization.

Life Back West is an occasional set of writings focused on ways people, teams and organizations can be both more effective (doing the right thing) and more efficient (doing the right thing well). More about executive, career and team / leadership coaching services can be found at the “About J. Mike Smith and Back West, Inc.” sidebar or the “Hire Me” tab above. You can also read an online interview with me at WhoHub, as well as participate in my learning community courtesy of KnowledgeCrush.

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