Have you ever watched the TV show Undercover Boss?
The “plot” is fairly simple. Each week, the CEO or owner of a business goes undercover as an entry-level employee in their own company. They typically work in different jobs and different areas of the company. And at the end of the week they reveal their true identity to the employees, who are (of course) shocked and amazed to learn they’ve been toiling alongside the head honcho without knowing it.
In the episode I watched, much of the drama appeared to be contrived for the sake of creating tension. And I found it hard to believe that none of the employees could figure out that something was up. But one part that struck me as genuine was the owner’s reaction to the challenges his front-line employees faced every day. He seemed honestly surprised to learn what they went through on a daily basis and what it took to get their jobs done.
And that leads me to the point of this week’s blog — that most CEOs, owners, and C-level business leaders tend to view their organizations through rose-colored glasses. Meaning they often have unrealistic ideas of what goes on in their organization and how others view the company.
This unrealistic view occurs for two reasons. One, business leaders tend to be optimistic by nature. They’re problem solvers and go-getters who like to make things happen. So they instinctively pay more attention to what’s going right in the business than what’s going wrong. They tend to focus on what is possible and the future more than the past.
Two, CEOs generally surround themselves with a small group of people (the management team) who depend on the boss for their jobs. These people often tell the CEO what they think she wants to hear rather than what she needs to hear (the unvarnished truth). This often results in a leader with no real understanding of what goes on in the business on a daily basis.
Having an overly optimistic view of the business is a natural and valid bias/thought bubble for C-level executives. However, it doesn’t serve the organization well. The trick is to find ways of behaving that allow you to constantly refresh that bubble and get more in touch with the day-to-day realities of your organization.
Start by getting out of your office and spending more time with customers and employees. They will tell you what is really happening in your company. If you find it easier to connect with customers (as many CEOs do), make a point to get out of your comfort zone and engage with employees as much as possible.
One of my fellow Vistage International speakers, Kraig Kramers, recommends a great technique for finding out what’s really going on in your organization. A former CEO of eight different companies, he calls his technique W4C, or walk the four corners.
Every day, spend 20 minutes walking around your business doing nothing but talking to people and asking three specific questions: How can we improve the company? How do we fix the problems? What opportunities can we take advantage of? The key, says Kramers, is to ask them how rather than telling them how.
Next (and you’ll get plenty of time to practice this skill if you walk the four corners) is to listen actively. Go into each department or team, ask people what’s on their minds, and then listen. Suppress your natural instinct to argue, defend or explain. Just listen, and then thank people for their input.
If you find it absolutely necessary to speak, ask clarifying questions rather making than definitive statements. For example, “That’s interesting, what leads you to that conclusion? What would you recommend as a possible solution? What would you do if you were one of our customers?”
Finally, broaden your inputs and sources of data, both internally and externally. A good internal technique is the “cold-eye review,” whereby non-experts research various aspects of the business and report back to you. For example, have someone from accounting take a look at marketing and give their perspective on that area of the business.
Externally, if you don’t have some sort of system for regularly staying in touch with customers, suppliers and other key stakeholders, get one now! Focus groups, intranets, monthly lunches, etc., etc. The options are limited only by your imagination.
To lead effectively, leaders need to see things as they really are. So take off your rose-colored glasses every now and then and, like the undercover boss, you’ll be amazed at what you see!