This column is part of Globe Careers' Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab
Recently, I had the pleasure hearing Bill Owens, the former vice-chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, speak. Coming up the ranks from a nuclear submariner, Mr. Owens recalled a conversation he had with one of his most trusted advisers when he made the upper echelons of the military. "You'll never dine better and you'll never be farther than the truth," said his trusted friend.
For many senior executives, the walls of the largest company can become very close. CEOs and business leaders are getting filtered information instead of the raw truth despite a desperate need for real-time information to make decisions and steer the organization in the right direction. We live in a world of violent politeness because few people are willing to deliver honest feedback, opinions, and ideas or create a healthy conflict.
Executives are essentially operating in a "protective bubble" because the people around them feel that it is their job to protect both the executive and themselves. But in essence, that very 'inner-circle' achieves the exact opposite. It puts leaders at greater risk because they don't get the information they need fast enough to make the right decisions and when they do, it's been filtered and sanitized. It puts the entire organization at risk as critical decisions get delayed as information slowly reaches the decision maker.
Researchers at the University of Michigan and Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management in Illinois have a theory that "flattery and opinion conformity" makes leaders overconfident, resulting in "biased strategic decision making" and an overall disconnect from the execution on the ground.
A recent example to hit the news was General Motors' CEO Mary Barra, who upon taking the helm of the automaker earlier this year, had to defend a long-running ignition switch defect, going back to 2002, which is now linked to at least 13 deaths. For years, individuals and leaders failed to disclose critical pieces of information that could have fundamentally changed the lives of those affected by the faulty ignition switch. Ms. Barra was stumped as to why engineers and others largely failed to communicate a problem that would have cost 57 cents per vehicle to repair.
When Alan Mulally took over Ford Motor Co. in September, 2006, in the midst of declining profitability, he asked all managers to evaluate their division's operations. They were asked to colour-code operational reports with either green, indicating favourable results, yellow indicating caution or red indicating trouble.
At the first few meetings, Mr. Mulally noticed that the division managers had coloured everything green, despite successive years of multi-billion dollar losses. Finally, with some encouragement, Mark Fields, then leader of the car maker's Americas business – but now the company's CEO – went first. He admitted that the Ford Edge mid-sized crossover SUV had some technical problems and wasn't ready for the start of production. "The whole place was deathly silent," says Mr. Mulally. "Then I clapped, and I said, 'Mark, I really appreciate that clear visibility.' And the next week the entire set of charts were all rainbows."
Douglas Conant, the former CEO of the Campbell Soup Co. who is credited with the cultural turnaround of the company, took over the top job in 2001 when the company's stock was falling steeply. As a way to help him stay informed with what was happening throughout the company, Mr. Conant wore a pedometer and during each day – whether at headquarters in New Jersey or at a production plant in Asia – he put on a pair of walking shoes. His goal was to log 10,000 steps a day to interact meaningfully with as many employees as possible.
As a leader, your job is to encourage others around you to be open and honest without a negative consequence, rather a reward. Here are a few practical ways to ensure you don't end up in a bubble:
Be mindful of who you surround yourself with
Leaders who surround themselves with yes-women or yes-men or taskmasters who engage in group think are more likely to maintain the status quo or implement ill-conceived strategies. Great leaders know to surround themselves with the best and brightest talent they can find: Folks who will tell it like it is and do what's right for the company, no matter what.
Another thing to keep in mind is complacency. Just because you've had the same inner-circle for a number of years doesn't mean you don't need to change it up. Always seek new talent to surround yourself with that can offer a fresh perspective.
Make asking for feedback a habit
There is a strong correlation between asking for feedback and leadership effectiveness. In a recent study of 51,896 executives by leadership development consultancy Zenger/Folkman, those who ranked at the bottom 10 per cent in asking for feedback (they asked for feedback less often than 90 per cent of their peers) were rated at the 15th percentile in overall leadership effectiveness. On the other hand, leaders who ranked at the top 10 per cent in asking for feedback were rated, on average, at the 86th percentile in overall leadership effectiveness. Feedback needs to be diverse and a dialogue rather than a survey.
Seek external leaders who you can learn from
Within the walls of an organization, there will always be agendas and bureaucracy that limit who you can talk to and how honest you could really be with them (and vice-versa). Alternatively, having a small and trusted network of professionals outside of your organization who you can confide in and get unfiltered feedback is always a great way to ensure you are getting unbiased opinions and advice.
Encourage and reward candid feedback
Most employees will always feel intimidated about taking the gloves off and dishing it out. Following the footsteps of Mr. Mulally and Mr. Conant, encouraging open and honest feedback is not a one-time activity. It takes a tremendous amount of re-enforcement. Communications expert Scott Berkun emphasizes listening and empathy as key ways to encourage candid feedback. "If you really want feedback you have to be prepared to shut up and listen." Qualifying or clarifying questions are okay, but don't act offended. And at the end, be sure to offer sincere thanks.
This is common sense. However, we live in busy times and it's easy to forget that talking directly to people is the best source of insight. As a leader, it's the wisest use of your time to talk to employees, customers and partners to get a real sense of what's going on and build trust and openness at the same time.
In a time where change is a constant, the way leaders turn information into meaning is a crucial step for success. With some simple tactics and self-reflection, leaders can step out of the bubble and avoid the silence that can be a killer.