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How To Break Through Executive Isolation

May 6 2014, 2:08pm CDT | by

A client of mine recently experienced a jarring moment akin to a scene straight out of the old Broadway musical “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.” She was getting ready for a meeting...

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12 weeks ago

How To Break Through Executive Isolation

May 6 2014, 2:08pm CDT | by

A client of mine recently experienced a jarring moment akin to a scene straight out of the old Broadway musical “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.” She was getting ready for a meeting with her CEO. After pulling together her materials, she was asked to review the agenda and presentation with her boss and one of the CEO’s staff advisors. During that prep meeting, the staff person strongly encouraged her to downplay or even eliminate any discussion of the newer, more innovative things she was working on — and not to ask the CEO for anything specific, like a policy decision, funding, or public support. “A senior-level committee handles these kinds of issues,” he assured her, “And the CEO prefers to focus on areas that he can influence immediately.” Finally, he told her to forward the final materials to several other people from the CEO’s office who would be in the meeting.

My client was puzzled by this advice; the CEO had personally requested the meeting a month earlier and seemed very interested in the longer-term initiatives spearheaded by her department — some of which could fundamentally change the company’s trajectory. As a result, her team had spent a great deal of time sharpening their plans and identifying specific ways that the CEO could help to advance them. Now at the last minute — on the way to the forum — this advisor was telling her to back off. What was going on?

The answer lies in a common phenomenon that I call the “gatekeeping of senior executives.” In many large organizations, executive assistants, chiefs of staff, schedulers, and advisors surround senior people; and that’s in addition to direct reports who handle particular subject or functional areas. The purpose of this entourage is to leverage the senior executive’s limited time — to sort through the myriad of issues and requests, establish priorities, filter out low-value activities, and keep the executive focused on where she or he can make the most difference.

While this process does help to leverage a leader’s time, it also has its dark side — it shields the senior executive from direct contact with many of the issues, dynamics, and ideas that are percolating throughout the organization. As a result, all too many senior executives only receive views that have been filtered, orchestrated, and often censored to include only what the “senior circle” thinks he or she should hear. While this sounds extreme, it’s really a pervasive dynamic. I worked with another organization, for example, where project teams regularly held a series of “pre-meetings” with staff people before reviewing progress with a senior sponsor — with the goal of producing a slide deck that wouldn’t raise any questions.

As a senior leader, breaking through this pattern is not easy. When Jack Welch was CEO of GE, he intentionally created “listening posts,” or meetings with managers from other parts of the company where he could get unvarnished views and engage in more spontaneous dialogue. He then urged his senior executives to do the same by insisting that they lead “town meetings” as part of the Work-Out process. Other managers overcome their isolation by setting up skip-level meetings or birthday lunches; or by dropping in on leadership development classes.

Now, if you are a middle manager and want to have direct dialogue with a senior executive, start by not taking everything that his staff people say at face value. They have the difficult job sorting through all of the issues that come the executive’s way, and sometimes their opinions about what to do are just that: opinions. So while you don’t want to argue or offend them, don’t take their advice as if it’s written in stone. Use your own judgment about what you want to say, and how you want to say it. Another approach would be to work up the courage to engage the senior leader in a dialogue, instead of just presenting and asking for approval. Most senior people actually appreciate a good discussion about alternatives and candid views about what might or might not work. And if you can get them to help develop an idea or solution, they will be more committed to helping you take it forward. In fact, in the case of my client she politely ignored the advice of the CEO’s staff people and presented an unadulterated version of the big idea. The CEO was so interested that he asked for a follow up paper and a series of meetings to explore it further.

Overcoming senior executive isolation is a tough challenge — whether you are the executive or a middle manager. But if you don’t break through it, you run the risk of having leaders who may be out of touch.

Editor’s Note:  version of this blog was cross-posted on HBR.org.

 
Update
10

7 weeks ago

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Jun 9 2014 7:54am CDT | Source: Business Times Malaysia

KUALA LUMPUR: About RM47 million of contributions in the Teachers Provident Fund (KWSG) still remain unclaimed, the Dewan Rakyat was to ...
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Update
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Update
8

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Update
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KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysia spent some RM27.6 million in its first phase of the search operations for missing Malaysia Airline flight MH370, said Acting Transport Minister, Datuk Seri Hi ...
Source: Business Times Malaysia   Full article at: Business Times Malaysia
 

 
Update
6

7 weeks ago

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Jun 8 2014 1:11am CDT | Source: Business Times Malaysia

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Source: Business Times Malaysia   Full article at: Business Times Malaysia
 

 
Update
5

7 weeks ago

Girl, 9, awarded RM2.78m compensation for medical negligence

Jun 6 2014 4:56am CDT | Source: Business Times Malaysia

KUALA LUMPUR: A nine-year-old girl who suffered brain damage during her birth at a government hospital was awarded over RM2.78 m ...
Source: Business Times Malaysia   Full article at: Business Times Malaysia
 

 
Update
4

7 weeks ago

Malaysia's total trade in April up 12pc

Jun 5 2014 11:52pm CDT | Source: Business Times Malaysia

KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysia's total trade in April 2014 rose by 12 per cent from a year ago to RM123.86 billion due to growing trading activities, International Trade and Industry Minister Datuk Seri Mustapa Mohamed said ...
Source: Business Times Malaysia   Full article at: Business Times Malaysia
 

 
Update
3

8 weeks ago

Works Ministry to spend RM20m for upgrading works at 50 accident black spots

Jun 4 2014 11:35pm CDT | Source: Business Times Malaysia

JOHOR BARU: The Works Ministry will implement upgrading works at 50 accident prone locations in the country that have been identified this year involving an a ...
Source: Business Times Malaysia   Full article at: Business Times Malaysia
 

 
Update
2

8 weeks ago

Najib launches loan scheme for Ramadan traders

Jun 4 2014 10:24pm CDT | Source: Business Times Malaysia

PUTRAJAYA: Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak today launches RM45 million Ramadan Baza ...
Source: Business Times Malaysia   Full article at: Business Times Malaysia
 

 
Update
1

8 weeks ago

Residents bring up objection against Kidex to Suhakam

Jun 4 2014 4:49am CDT | Source: Business Times Malaysia

PETALING JAYA: A group of 20 Petaling Jaya residents held a meeting with the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam) over their objection against the proposed RM2.2 billion Kinrara Damansara Skyway (Kidex) ...
Source: Business Times Malaysia   Full article at: Business Times Malaysia
 

 

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