Filters are bad. Connections are good. If you remember nothing else from this, remember that. Anytime anyone is relaying someone else’s story to you, it’s getting filtered, diluted and polluted with their biases. Don’t let that happen. Get to the source. Enable others to tell their stories directly to you so you have the best information, insights and feel for what’s really making things work.
Intuitively, you already know that the real work is done outside the ivory tower of your executive suite. McKinsey has quantified that. In “The Mindset and Practices of Excellent CEOs,” they note that “Of the 50 most value-creating roles in any given organization, only 10 percent normally report to the CEO directly. Sixty percent are two levels below, and 20 percent sit farther down.”
Of course, the board and senior leadership should have approval rights for the major strategic decisions. That same McKinsey article starts by noting that “What the CEO controls—the company’s biggest moves—accounts for 45 percent of a company’s performance.”
But those decisions are theoretically excellent and practically useless until they get implemented well. Enter middle managers two or more levels below the CEO. Any decision has influencers, deciders and implementers. The deciders make their decisions with the help of the influencers. But the implementers have veto rights and dilution rights. Every organization has its own passive aggressors. Indeed, you want thinking agents who question decisions they think make no sense and then implement the right things with their full commitment.
Get to those middle managers, directing the actual implementation of your ideas. They can make all the difference. If you’re a board member, insist on getting to know the CEO’s direct reports and their direct reports. If you’re a senior leader, drill all the way down from time to time.
Get to the source
When I was a member of Coca-Cola’s leadership team in Japan, I spent at least one day per month on a truck with a route driver calling on local stores. This kept me in touch with what was really happening. On one occasion, we’d made a couple of strategic pivots. We were proud of our ability to adjust rapidly to changing circumstances. Unfortunately, all that was changing were our PowerPoint slides. The route drivers couldn’t keep up with the changes and were still implementing programs in line with three strategies back.
Build an internal network
One of my favorite leadership exercises involves top performers three levels down. Your direct reports have a bias to tell you what they think you want to hear. Their direct reports don’t want to say anything that will get their bosses in trouble with you. But the direct reports of those people, three levels down, are too far away from you to worry about you.
The exercise goes like this.
- Get a list of the most highly rated performers three levels down.
- Arrange a one-on-one lunch with one of them each week for as long as it takes.
- Read their last performance review.
- At lunch, say “I read your last review. What amazing work you’re doing! Tell me more about what you do.”
- Then, shut up and listen.
They will feel appreciated. You’ll learn more about excellent performance in your organization. They will tell you what’s really going on. And you will have connected with them on a whole new level. When they pass you in the hallways, they’ll say hello – and tell you more about what’s working and not working.
Tell your own story
This works both ways. Model the behavior for others. Don’t let others tell others’ stories to you. Insist on hearing them from the horses’ mouths. And don’t let others tell your story.
Square this circle by remembering that leadership is not about you. It’s about inspiring and enabling others to do their absolute best together to realize a meaningful and rewarding shared purpose. Tell your own story about why the purpose matters to you and how you’re going to help others realize it. Let others tell their stories about why the purpose matters to them and how they’re going to help others realize it.
You tell your story. They tell their stories. No filters. Strong connections. If all help realize the same purpose, you’ll get there together.
Click here for a list of my Forbes articles (of which this is #635) and a summary of my book on executive onboarding: The New Leader’s 100-Day Action Plan.