There once was a company — so the story goes — that grew so distrustful of its internal reporting systems that it hired an outside firm to monitor, report, and evaluate its sales numbers. Senior executives would compare the numbers generated internally with those generated externally. It would often side with the outside firm.
What this anecdote demonstrates is that when you run a large organization, you may not be getting the whole story. After all, the higher you move, the more significant the perks become, but your circle grows smaller. Eventually, all you see around you are people indebted to you — your influence, your authority, your power. They use your name to get things done; in return, they may tell you what you want to hear, not necessarily what you should listen to.
While it’s easy to blame the underlings for shading (or even obscuring the truth), the senior executives, including the CEO, can be to blame for tolerating the situation. In his memoir, My American Journey, the late Colin Powell wrote, “The day the soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help them or concluded that you do not care. Either case is a failure of leadership.” As a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of State, Powell knew the isolation that rank brings.
Keep yourself in the loop
Many senior executives with whom I have worked do a few things to ensure that they are in the loop. Here are some examples:
Visit the work
Or, as the practitioners of kaizen call it, “gemba – the place where value is created.” When the senior executives go to see how the work is being done, they see firsthand how well or how poorly things are going. Talk to people doing the work, those on the line, customer service, sales or wherever the company meets the customer. When speaking to folks on the front line, listen more than you talk. And give them your cell number if they want to follow up with you.
Cultivate a trusted network
One benefit is that senior leaders who have established their careers with one company have an advantage over those who did not. Not only do they know how things get done, they know the people who can get things done. They rely upon them also for straight talk.
“The fact that a great many people believe something,” wrote British novelist Somerset Maugham, “is no guarantee of its truth.” Leaders need to remind themselves that if something is too good to be true, it likely is. Working backward, such skepticism should provoke questions. The point is not to embarrass those doing the work but instead encourage them to do their questioning, even when it means the reworking of plans and their execution.
Establishing trust is key
None of these things will occur without establishing a sense of trust. Trust is earned by the behavior and actions of those in charge. When senior executives put their egos ahead of the work, employees are reluctant to speak out. Therefore, every leader must ensure that employees feel confident and comfortable speaking truth to power. That principle is fundamental to psychological safety.
Of course, doing all these things will not ensure clear and truthful reporting. There will be situations when people at the top are misled. When that happens, it is up to the leader to own the problem. Admit the shortcoming. Seek to make amends. And instill measures that will prevent misreporting from occurring again.
Accountability is essential to the health and welfare of the organization. Senior executives who neglect it do so at their peril. Maybe they will not lose their jobs, but they will lose the respect of their direct reports, and when that occurs, it is only a matter of time before problems worse than misreporting happen again.
John Baldoni, a member of 100 coaches and a leadership keynote presenter, has been recognized as a top 20 leadership expert by Global Gurus and is ranked as a Global 100 Leader and Top 50 Leadership Expert by Inc. The author of 15 books, Baldoni has a leadership resource website.
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