Most senior leaders I know consider themselves to be far more accessible than they really are. They believe attending events such as weekly office meetings, the annual Christmas party, offsite planning meetings, and various office mixers makes them accessible. However, the truth is, they continue to be surrounded by the same group of 15 to 25 people who dominate their attention and skew their information base, providing them with a false sense of “unbiased” knowledge.
A leader’s ability to know what is really going on in a company has much to do with the breadth of their information sources. If the sources are constantly the same, a leader could miss what is really happening at the different levels within the company. This often results in an issue escalating into a crisis before an executive can even realize there is a problem.
Leaders fool themselves by having “open door” policies. They assume their employees will feel comfortable enough to walk into their office with pertinent information. An “open door” policy is fine, but in a decentralized office environment, only the people at that location have access, and those employees most likely would not feel comfortable talking outside the normal chain of command.
Generally, because of rank and title, leaders are perceived to be intimidating, and oftentimes even aloof. In addition, subordinate leaders often give directives such as “don’t tell the boss,” and punish those who express their ideas to a “higher chain of command” without permission. These types of unspoken or unwritten rules exist often without a leader’s knowledge.
I found that in order to get more clear and unbiased information, I had to adjust my methods to actively seek it out. With that in mind, I used three techniques: walking around without an agenda, “drilling holes in the floor” with a specific topic, and building a rapport with the administrative assistants. Each procedure requires the leader’s initiation, but is worth the effort.
Walking around without an agenda is an important first step in learning more about the daily procedures of your company. In my experience, I found that taking an hour or so away from my office was highly beneficial in my own path towards accessibility. On these walks, I preferred to be alone so that I could fully digest my findings without distraction. I also avoided my direct subordinates so they would not feel pressured to tag along. Being alone allowed me to stop at any workspace and engage in a more relaxed one-on-one conversation with individuals who wouldn’t ordinarily feel compelled to approach me in my office. In this setting, I found it relatively easy to have a relaxed and honest conversation. Commenting on a picture or personal memento was a helpful way to initiate conversation and demonstrate personal interest. Typically, business matters didn’t arise until five or so minutes into the discussion. I often inquired about specific projects so I could ask if there was anything I could do to make the job easier. I also made sure to ask about any concerns they had. Once this became routine, my employees felt increasingly comfortable in engaging with me. They would almost always provide me with something insightful.
“Drill holes in the floor” is a phrase I used for making directed inquiries on specific issues to people across the company by asking, “What’s your opinion of the XYZ situation?” For more detail on this technique, make sure to check out the article, “Drilling Holes For Reality.” I used the term “drill holes” because this technique gave me multiple glances at organizational layers below me. I maintained this casual inquiry relationship with between 100 to 150 people across the company’s geography at as many as three layers down the organization. After these individuals had been called on by me two or three times over the years, they were comfortable sharing the “view from the bottom up” without being disloyal to their bosses. The quality and quantity of information I obtained this way greatly exceeded my expectations. I was careful to “protect the messenger” by verifying information before jumping to conclusions. This method provided me with important insights into the company that I would never have received otherwise.
In my experience, the administrative assistants (AAs) are, in many ways, the mothers and fathers of organizational communities. They are also almost always privy to far more information than anyone else. AAs are also some of the most caring and dedicated employees of the company—worrying about the general health of the company, comforting employees in times of need, and anticipating clients’ needs. I found that I often knew a considerable amount about the AAs families and career histories. As a result of my interest in them, and our mutual interest in the company, they became invaluable information sources with a unique sense of accuracy. I would always recognize them on my office tours and made sure to speak privately with them. Occasionally, one would reach out to warn me of something long before I would have otherwise been informed.
In conclusion, if a leader is not taking the initiative to create information sources and personal relationships with people outside the chain of command, they are severely limiting their knowledge. Decisions are only as good as the completeness of the awareness of facts.
© 2015 Robert Uhler and THE UHLER GROUP. All rights reserved.