Being a CEO or any senior executive can be a very lonely job. You often have the weight of the world on your shoulders and you are constantly navigating the unknown. People treat you differently and sometimes this is nice and sometimes you just wonder if they are hiding the truth. You and a select few hold secrets that you really shouldn’t even tell your spouse. This can weigh heavily on executives.
And then you have to realize that this is part of the territory. This is why you’re in charge and get paid the big bucks. Yet too many CEOs these days want to enjoy the benefits of the position while offloading the not-so-pleasant stuff. Sometimes CEOs may do this unintentionally.
In this article I share some realities that every CEO should face and embrace in order to radically improve their leadership. Easy? No. Important? Very.
- Get Out of Your Routine and Get Back into the Business–Stop Pretending!
A CEO called me in to perform a diagnostic of the sales process in his organization.
I asked if he could describe to me what the sales process and conversations looked like. What he described was an educated guess and fairly convincing if you were not paying close attention. He drew conclusions from experience leading sales many years ago and from what he learned of sales at MBA school. He prescribed solutions that made it clear that he had not been on a sales call in a long time and was disconnected from what was happening out there.
The truth was that the sales landscape has evolved for a variety of reasons including changes in the market, technology and best practices. And as you know, business is changing faster than ever before.
Yes, it’s imperative that CEOs trust aspects of the business to the people that were hired to do the job. In fact I spend a lot of time working with CEOs on letting go of micromanagement so they can focus on strategy. But this is not about living in the details. It is about ensuring you have a sense of what you know and do not know and being honest about that.
To avoid becoming disconnected like the CEO in the story, remember to walk around the warehouse, spend quality time with those helping to run the business on the daily, or consider observing a sales call to stay sharp and grounded in reality. Keep yourself honest.
- Actively Demand Feedback and Leverage It
Reality Check Time: if you are an executive you are likely not getting enough or accurate feedback. Are you actively requesting unfiltered feedback? Moreover, do you act on the feedback in order to combat the sense of futility that may prevent employees from providing feedback in the first place?
I often tell executives that you know you have made it when employees laugh at your jokes when they are not remotely funny. Most of the people you oversee are probably way too intimidated to share their take on things. This may not necessarily be your fault but it is your responsibility to meet them more than halfway.
I have seen this throughout my career as a consultant, executive coach, and an employee myself. I will interview people about how the CEO could be more effective and they have legitimate and constructive commentary. But when I ask if they have ever shared this with the CEO they sheepishly say no. They are either scared of some form of retribution or they are apathetic because they don’t believe it will make a difference.
Great leaders actively request feedback from their direct reports, coaches, other CEOs or really anywhere they can get it. One fantastic CEO I used to coach made it a condition of employment to give her honest feedback. Do not forget that most people who give feedback give it with good intentions. It is a gift—even for an executive. The feedback might be right on the mark or simply another unique perspective that paints a more complete picture of reality. Either way it is valuable to you. As a leader you need to reach out and get this feedback. In so doing, you will get information that will improve your performance and you will also gain more trust and loyalty from your people because they will admire you for taking on this exercise. You will also model a great feedback culture, which is extremely valuable.
How you receive the feedback is of critical importance. When someone takes you up on your request and is brave enough to speak up to the big boss, they have really put themselves out there. This is the crux. If you are open to the feedback you will create a long-term feedback loop that will serve you well. If, however, you are defensive, rationalize your behavior or get angry, you will have just cut off feedback from this person permanently. And probably from a number of others as they inevitably hear about the episode.
By hearing feedback you are not necessarily agreeing or disagreeing with it, you are simply taking it in as a data point. Be sure that you really understand the feedback and what might be behind it by asking additional questions for clarity and nuance. This will not only ensure you get the most out of the information, it also communicates that you are genuinely interested in the feedback and open to more.
The other key to this is that you sit and reflect on the feedback. Take it for what it is–no more, no less–and make the appropriate adjustments. Remember that people’s perception is their reality so the changes you may need to make might be managing expectations or perceptions. Or there may be something you are doing that is limiting your effectiveness as a leader. If this is the case, make the change. Often these changes are simple and can be fixed relatively quickly. Very rarely do these changes require deep psychological reframing and behavior modification. So please try to enjoy the feedback as it only makes your learning curve steep and your leadership more effective.
As a CEO, be aware of these pitfalls:
- By default, people will be afraid to give you feedback
- Root out the brown nosers. When someone kisses up to you, they are almost certainly withholding important information about what’s going on in the business, as well as information about your effectiveness
- Do not “hold court” in a meeting! Holding court means you show up to enjoy the sense of being in charge and doling out direction, telling stories and superficially getting things on track. Back off and allow room for your team to tell you if the emperor is naked or if the company is on fire.
- You may not be as beloved as you think or hope. Test to see if people are laughing at your bad jokes by telling one and observing the reaction.
- Do not mistake fear for respect. Respect for your role and for you as a person is appropriate. But scaring people to get things done is not sustainable or effective in the long run.
- Overcome the Fear of Being Exposed
Deep down, most CEOs and executives have experienced the feeling that they might be imposters not fully equipped for their role. They worry that sooner or later they will be exposed as frauds.
Of course most people feel a version of this at certain points in their lives. And not only is this normal, in the right dosage it is a good thing. It means that you have respect for your job and serves to keep you on your toes. Insecurity is a part of the human construct and like most things in life it is what you do with it that makes all the difference. However, when this feeling is overpowering it can only lead to bad leadership. There are essentially two ways to take on the challenge of the fear of being exposed.
The first way, and the poor way, it to work very hard to deny, bury or rage against your insecurity. This manifests in a variety of ways. The worst is when leaders go on the offensive, using their power to impugn and intimidate their employees so to keep them at a safe distance. Otherwise it manifests as detachment, playing it close to the chest or deflection—all of which are ineffective approaches. In all cases it kills the learning curve and poor results follow.
The second, more effective way to deal with the fear of being exposed is to:
- Acknowledge that this is a normal part of being a human–everyone at one time or another wonders if they have what it takes
- Keep this fear in its place and use it to your advantage by focusing on the gravity and respect for the role you hold and fueling your learning and development
- Let go of the idea (probably self-imposed) that you have to know everything and be right about everything. You will not lose face by admitting you were wrong or do not have all the solutions. In fact people will respect you more and will be able to contribute more if you do this. (And if you pretend you know everything, your reports will make fun of you behind your back.)
- Laugh at yourself and do not take yourself too seriously—take your job seriously but not yourself
- Take on the challenge of self-awareness and self-mastery
- Always be learning
Practice these three things and your leadership effectiveness will improve dramatically. Even if they seem obvious, reflect on them in the context of your own actions and behaviors. As the saying goes: common sense is not always commonly practiced. You owe it to yourself and those that you lead to be the best leader you can be. Stay tuned for more tips like these in future articles here.
I hope you’ll pass this along to any CEO or leader whom you think could benefit from these three tips. Please provide feedback in the comments about how this may–or may not–have worked for you.