What Leaders Don't Know — But Should

Executives, and most of all, Chief Executives, need to be concerned about the information they are NOT hearing.  There are many reasons why the information they get is filtered, even by their own direct reports.  I met with a CEO of a large organization last year who had no idea that one of his top executives was abusive to employees — yet the entire organization knew it.  No one wanted to be the one to tell him and he didn’t have in place communication mechanisms to get information deep in his organization.
For example, when I was on the operating committee of Adelphia Communications during their bankruptcy, the acting CEO and I traveled across the country talking with employees at all levels.  They wanted to hear straight talk from the leadership, and we wanted to hear the same from them.
Sometimes, the information is both important and strategic.  Andy Grove, the former CEO of Intel who died last week, wrote about the agonizing difficulty in changing Intel’s business from making memory products to processors.  He said that people deep within the organization knew the need for change months before the executives did.
The point is this:  Leaders need ways to understand what is happening, what people are thinking, and how things are going when direct reports aren’t providing that information.  Want ideas?  Danny Wegman regularly walks his grocery stores talking with employees.  You can do the same in your business.  Employee surveys are good for eliciting widespread feedback — we’ve effectively provided good information from employee populations well over 10,000 with survey participation of better than 95%.  Focus groups offer the ability to probe deeper into key issues.  Other ideas such as listening tours, meeting with small groups over lunch can also be effective.
I regularly provide client CEOs and executives with insights by meeting with direct reports and other employees, giving them the opportunity to express themselves candidly.  It’s amazing how much new and surprising information comes out.
So, what approach should you use?  My advice is to get clear on your specific objectives and then determine which alternatives best achieves those objectives.  If you want help thinking it through, let me know.

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