I enjoy pictures of the earth from the International Space Station (ISS). The earth and atmosphere are gorgeous, and the videos of the Aurora Borealis are spectacular.
From enough distance, everything looks impressive. Blue oceans. Desert expanses. Cities lit up at night. Snowy mountain ranges. You can’t see garbage, slums, pollution, crime, starvation or injustice. No unpleasant smells, flooding, lightning, tornadoes, or earthquakes will affect you. The air supply and quality is carefully calibrated and filtered.
This can be true of senior leaders in large companies, too. We insulate them from certain unpleasantries and truths. They’re far enough from most of the action that they don’t see the yucky stuff. There is a reason that those CEOs on that “Undercover Boss” reality show are surprised how their company operations “really work.” Glossy PowerPoint presentations and selective information are the C-suite equivalent of pretty pictures from space; you can’t see the garbage from there.
One of my colleagues referred to company execs as “thin air people.” He said, “They’re living at high elevations and the hypoxia [lack of oxygen] affects their judgment.”
You don’t have to be a top company exec to be fooled by leadership hypoxia. It can affect anyone in a leadership role. You and I are the easiest persons to fool, especially by giving into our preferences to hearing good news and unconsciously creating a culture where it’s not “safe” to share the gritty reality.
Now that you’ve recognized you’re vulnerable, here are three ways you can avoid leadership hypoxia:
1. Insist on being told the full story with raw data.
Bill Gates recognized at one point while CEO of Microsoft that he was hearing about problems and bad news too late. People were understandably giving him more positive news and shielding him from some of the trouble issues. So he began insisting that every update opened with the problems and the bad news. He made it safe to relay this kind of information rather than hiding it.
Talk with the people who regularly give you updates. Specifically ask about what’s not going well or needs significant improvement. If the data seems overly-rosy, ask if there is more or another perspective. Reward and praise the people who give you the full story.
2. Get out to the front lines and see for yourself.
Get physically away from the comfortable role of sitting in familiar, comfortable headquarter offices. There’s no good substitute for on-site visits and re-visits over time. Watch for the tendency to say, “Well, I went there 5 years ago, so I don’t need to go again.” Things change, people change, customers and products change. Plus — your experiences have influenced your ability to understand the on-the-ground situation.
3. Develop ways of listening to people who are close to the business execution.
Senior leaders have a difficult set of roles and simply can’t be on the front lines often enough. But they can create communication channels for unfiltered news. Find creative ways to set up “suggestion boxes,” analog or digital. Engineer sharing events where you can visit with cross-functional groups of people –emphasizing your role as listener, not talker or explainer. The format is less important than the spirit of the conversation and the openness of the dialog.