Recently one my former Human Resources directors sent me an excellent article by Jack and Suzy Welch, entitled The One Question Every Boss Should Ask. Strayer University’s Jack Welch Management Institute published it. The boss’ key question of the article’s provocative title is: “Am I alone?”

When providing the article, my friend went on to compliment me as being one of the best leaders he had ever worked for to avoiding the Welch’s feared syndrome. That comment inspired me to write this article.

In the article, Jack and Suzy were referring to the isolation, and thus, a lack of a true world framework leaders often find themselves in when they are victims of not getting enough unbiased, unfiltered information. The insularity is caused by continually hearing the news from the same people, all of who have personal agendas. All reports want to stay relevant and positively regarded in their boss’ minds. Good news and compliments often grant them that, along with more and even easier future access.

The authors talk about the boss being trapped behind a corner office door receiving a stream of appointments consisting of only senior people who receive access and your time due to their positions. For the leader, these direct reports can steal most of your time. Of course, you need to allow time to listen to these subordinates you count on to help run your business, but devoting 100% of your time to them creates a false perception. Time is wasted when the same people consistently give the leader an overly reassuring, positive impression of the business. The result is the leader being comforted about their personal performance, which leads to decisions based on devoting the vast majority of your time to those individuals. It feels good, but quality and timely decisions are obstructed.

I thought the article perfectly captured what can happen to most busy leaders. At the same time, it failed to provide much of a strategy to prevent it. When I reflected why my friend complimented me, I thought about what I did to mitigate the “false assurance syndrome.” Here I share some techniques I tried, to discipline myself relative to this issue.

  • Decide how much travel is required to be most effective in your position. If travel time is significant (>60% travel) reduce the number of your direct reports to six or less. If you plan to be in the office the majority of time, then up to 10 direct reports is possible. If you have too many direct reports and you travel extensively, every time you return from a trip you will be barraged by meetings of direct reports. Typically these meetings open by conveying how much you are missed and informing you of good news, which often casts a misleading positive overview. Too many direct reports eat your time and fail to provide you access to other unbiased information outlets.
  • Discipline yourself to meet with pre-arranged appointments no more than four hours per day and set the appointment zone with your administrative assistant. The free time should be spent gathering information outside your direct reports. Reach out to people who aren’t necessarily seeking your time and ask them if there is anything happening that you should be concerned about. Walk unexpectedly into offices of your non-direct reports, sit down and strike up a 15-minute conversation. Stay long enough to ask a handful of probing questions relative to what they know about the goings-on of the business. Make every effort to listen rather than direct the conversation, and inquire to deeper levels.
  • Instead of designating lunch for pre-arranged meetings with groups of direct reports, eat lunch regularly with a set of relationships one layer below your direct reports. Ask about their concerns, rumors, morale or their opinion of their boss’ management style. Stretch your information sources to line and staff managers who don’t normally interact with you.
  • When traveling, don’t trust all information you hear from the normal chain of command. If you visit an operation once a year, do you think they are going to tell you negative news? Shed your escorts for a couple hours and try to visit with a couple of mid-level people with no prior warning. When visiting clients in the field, don’t bring the project leadership. Clients often feel the pressure of supporting the client team and can give you false assurances.
  • Attend marketing team campaign presentation rehearsals several times a year as an unannounced silent observer. Refrain from interjecting commentary and watch how the company presents itself. See what the differentiating sales points are and place yourself objectively in the client’s shoes.
  • Ask about large job proposal losses and wins and ask who the chief strategists were who were responsible for the wins. Add these individuals to your list to visit or call, and ask them how and what the competition is doing.
  • Decide what percentage of your in-office time the company demands own versus time spent doing activities at your own discretion. In this context, the term “company owns” means demands on your time you did not initiate. Don’t allow the company to own more than 70% of your time, and use the other 30% on planning and accomplishing some of the items listed above. Review the concept at least once a month and re-dedicate yourself to gaining more control of your time.

All of the above suggestions require four things of the boss: self-discipline, self-evaluation, self-initiative and curiosity. If these attributes are not there, you run the risk of becoming a victim of the Welch’s “victim syndrome” and too much of your time will be owned by demands from the chain of command and completing mandatory duties. Your subordinates, in an effort to have you appreciate them, will often deliver you skewed information more positive than reality. Bad news will be revealed eventually, but often far too late to do anything about.

For feeling good about the world, you might feel better talking only to a few select lobbyist subordinates, but, in actuality, a leader can’t make good decisions without living in the real world. The better grasp of reality you have of the goings-on in your company, the better the chance you have of making wise, timely decisions.

As a leader, my mantra was: “you can never drill enough holes in the floor to see what is going on beneath your level.” You need to be obsessive about gathering information in order to gather unbiased knowledge.

© 2015 Robert Uhler and THE UHLER GROUP. All rights reserved.