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.

 
 
 

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