Dear CEO: Who Tells You When Your Baby Is Ugly?
We leaders have a big, big problem. It’s called information filtering, and every social group does it – family, circle of friends, and certainly staff. The larger a company gets, the more layers of management separate the CEO from the front line staff and customers, the more egregious this can become.
We leaders, with our strong can-do personalities, have a second problem that compounds this first one: our faith in tacit consent. That value holds that if people don’t speak up, they’re with us.
CEOs, this post is for you. Look right now at your organization. Maybe you are physically removed from your front-line workers. Maybe a lot of them are in other states or countries. Within your headquarters, maybe your office is on a different floor. Maybe there are tens of thousands of them, and so sheer numbers keep you apart from them. Maybe your schedule is so full that you rarely have opportunity to mix with “the little people,” and when you do, is it possible they are hand-selected by your direct reports?
We count on our closest advisors to tell us what we need to know. Even in a company of one, there’s just too much information available for us to deal with it all. So we filter, because that’s one thing humans are really good at. It’s a survival technique. There’s nothing wrong with filtering information for what’s most important.
But there’s a lot wrong with cutting yourself off from vital input. And in addition to all those other types of filtering outlined above, here’s another that can impede the flow of essential input to any leader: personality.
Let’s face it, if you’re a leader, chances are quite good that you have a strong will. And that you’re bright. You may be impatient, which is often an asset in business. There’s a better than average chance that you’re a man,* and an excellent chance that you’re in your fifties or sixties – especially if you’re CEO of a medium-sized business or of an enterprise, the biggest class of business.
If you fit this age and gender description, then there’s a strong chance that you grew up with the hierarchical, military-esque mindset that criticism is a personal attack, and that subordinates should show a high level of deference to their superiors. Whether you like to admit it or not, this is always floating around in the back of your head. I tell you this because that is exactly how I was raised. My Dad was a drill sergeant in World War II. Nicest man you’d ever meet, but he never shed a certain level of formality in business settings. His career was built in the Forties, Fifties, and early Sixties, before all this egalitarian mumbo-jumbo hit the scene.
So I ask you again, CEO: who tells you when you’re baby’s ugly? Do they just let you have it? …Or do they couch the news in politically-correct, I’m-Ok-You’re-Ok, How-To-Win-Friends-And-Influence-People terms that waters down the meaning behind the message? …Do they not tell you at all, because you’ve demonstrated by your reaction in the past that bad news is not welcome news?
There’s a huge danger with sitting atop a corporate pyramid. The danger is that no one is going to tell you the truth in an open, honest, unfiltered way. A few leaders are lucky or wise enough to bring in outside consultants to perform this task. Most hire consultants who tell them their baby is beautiful, because that’s the type of info that gets you invited back.
Sit on this for a while, sir (or m’am). We’ll review this topic in the future, and of course I have some advice for how to remedy the filtering. But not today. Putting the question out there will suffice for the moment.
* This aspect of business – men disproportionately represented in the C-suite and on the board – is changing, but much too gradually for my liking.
This post originally appeared on Ted’s previous blog.