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Seeing it for yourself: How to address blind spots that matter

Every leader, no matter how successful, has blind spots — about themselves, their teams and organizations and the markets in which they compete. These are unrecognized weaknesses or threats that have the potential to harm a leader and his or her firm.

For example, a leader may not see that his company is failing to do what is required to prepare for the launch of an important new product (appropriate forecasting of customer demand, necessary product supply, effective training of the field force, etc.). His team indicates that everything is under control while, in reality, it is not. The leader takes what he is told at face value and fails to take necessary corrective action to save the launch. When asked afterwards what went wrong, he indicated that he trusted his team and they let him down. His board, however, holds him accountable for the resulting loss in revenue and damage to the firm’s reputation.

Savvy leaders understand that blindspots, while different for each leader, are not the exception — instead, they “come with the territory.” The question then becomes: How do leaders surface and address the blindspots that matter?

One answer to this question is to avoid the trap of isolation. Leaders in large organizations often lose touch with their customers and employees as they move up the corporate ladder, and there are a number of reasons for this. Perhaps the most obvious is a simple lack of time to get out and see what is happening in their organizations and markets. In addition, the scale and complexity of large organizations often make it impossible for them to have direct exposure, or even a detailed understanding, of what is happening in their companies. Contributing to this is that, by the nature of their positions, leaders are largely dependent on information and recommendations coming from others. This kind of isolation can lead them to make poor decisions because of the increasing distance between their day-to-day experiences and what’s really going on in their firms and markets.

Awareness of customers

There are a variety of ways in which you can make sure you are more aware of your customers. For example, Mickey Drexler, CEO of the clothing company J. Crew, frequently answers customer e-mails himself, and is well known for calling customers when they contact the company with concerns. One customer was shocked when she received a call from Drexler just 20 minutes after she sent an email complaining about the firm’s pricing discrepancies (with different prices appearing for the same product in the firm’s catalogue, website, and stores). He is also known for bringing into his staff meetings customers who write to him so they can explain to his team what they want from his company in regard to products and services. Drexler also visits his stores on a regular basis, arriving unannounced and meeting with customers and his colleagues to see for himself what is selling and how customers’ needs are being met.

Awareness of colleagues

Similarly, effective executives made an effort to stay in touch with those on the front-line. A good example of this is Adm. Mike Mullen, former chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff. Mullen, on assuming his role, believed he was vulnerable because people would be intimidated by his authority and not tell him the whole truth of what was going on the front lines. To avoid becoming isolated from those under him, Mullen spent approximately 30% of his time visiting with soldiers in hot spots around the world. His approach was to tell the troops he met, “You see it in a way that I can’t. So I need help from you in seeing what’s really going on.” Knowing that his own staff would likely put a positive slant on the information they provided him, he made a point of asking his troops to give him an honest portrayal of what was happening on the front lines.

Leaders can also benefit from increasing their awareness of high potential individuals at various levels in their organizations. This is at least partly because those individuals are usually younger and working at lower levels, and can recognize issues or inconsistencies that may be blind spots for both the leader and his or her leadership team. A good example of a leader who works to maintain this kind of awareness is Jeff Immelt, CEO of General Electric. He meets about twice a month with one of his firm’s top 25 leaders in a Saturday session where they get to know each other as individuals and talk about the company. Immelt notes, “At that session, we are ‘two friends talking.’ I encourage an open critique of each other. Listening in this way has built trust and commitment. My top leaders want to be in a company where their voice is heard.”

Awareness of outside views

One of the most common awareness traps for a leader is becoming a prisoner of his or her own industry or firm. In these cases, leaders “don’t know what they don’t know” because they see the world only from a narrow point of view and are interacting with people who hold the same views as themselves. These leaders know how to operate effectively within their existing context, but run the risk of becoming out-of-step if the environment changes or the business model they know becomes outdated.

One way out of this trap is to expose yourself to outside views, including those of individuals outside of your own industry who may be addressing similar challenges. This includes meeting with leaders in companies in regions of the world you are not familiar with, academics and members of think tanks who specialize in areas that will become increasingly important, and, consultants who have expertise and experience in areas that are currently or may become more important to you and your firm in the future.

Robert Bruce Shaw, author of “Leadership Blindspots: How Successful Leaders Identify and Overcome the Weaknesses That Matter,” works with senior executives on the management of strategic organizational change and leadership development. He holds a Ph.D. degree in organizational behavior from Yale University. Books that he has authored or coauthored include “Trust in the Balance: Building Successful Organizations on Results, Integrity, and Concern; Discontinuous Change: Leading Organizational Transformation” (with David A. Nadler, A. Elise Walton, and associates); and “Organizational Architecture: Designs for Changing Organizations” (with David A. Nadler, Marc Gerstein, and associates). More about Shaw, his work, and his new book can be found at LeadershipBlindSpotsBook.com.