If there’s one question that every leader must ask, it’s: Am I alone here?
There’s something about being a boss that incontrovertibly lends itself to isolation; it’s as if every natural force is working to “protect” you from reality. Good news travels up fast, but bad news festers in the trenches where those who possess it hope they can make it go away before anyone notices.
When you’re a leader, you have to get aggressive against that creeping insularity. The last thing you can afford to do is allow yourself to be pushed into a corner where you end up plucking decisions out of the air. Instead, you’ve got to create a culture of candor and an operating system that together bring to light information from every nook and cranny of the organization.
How? Every day spent behind your closed door is a day you’re not out learning about your people, processes, and market realities. Since you can’t rig your chair to give you electric shocks, how about a sign on your desk that reads: “Why are you here?” Visit stores, trading floors, regional offices, factories. And customers, especially the ornery ones.
Just as important as getting yourself outside is whom you surround yourself with when you’re inside. Yes, most leaders have a standing group of advisers comprised of direct reports. But without an operating system and culture that reward candor, such committees can easily fall into a grind, with dialogue devolving into them telling you what they assume you want to hear. You can alter that dynamic by reaching into the organization and creating new sets of advisors depending on the particular situation, independent of their level in the organization but with expertise at their fingertips. Try to avoid the usual suspects, and make sure you draw in people who are sworn change agents and inveterate cranks. The best of them are usually onto something and have candor in their veins. Ignore them at your peril.
Finally, leaders can prevent insularity by doing something that may feel, at first, terribly counterintuitive. They must act like the dumbest person in the room. Sure, as a boss, people will turn to you for all the answers, and you’ll want to supply them. But instead, show people that your job is to have all the questions. Greet every decision and proposal with “What if?” and “Why not?” and “How come?” Then wallow in the answers, dropping every artifice of formality during the ensuing conversation and debate.
In time, this approach will breed an atmosphere of vigorous engagement and straight talk, drawing the best ideas out of the group, and yes, even exposing a buried crisis that may be about to blow.