I had been in my CEO role for about 10 months and, after the initial few weeks of terror, I was settling in. I had endured three in-person quarterly budget reports to the CEO and CFO of the parent holding company, tortuous meetings during which you sat outside a conference room at the home office in London and waited to be called. Sometimes you sat for hours. Home office staff walked by sympathetically, offering you tea and cookies, and sometimes even proffering advice as to the mood of the head man as you sat and reviewed your numbers. Finally, when it was your turn, you took your place at the head of the table, began your overview of the business and were immediately interrupted by a posh British accent, asking you to please turn to page 11, line 31 in your budget preparations and explain the variation in that number from the last budget submission!
I learned that once you had convinced this group of executives that 1. You knew your stuff; and 2. You did not rattle easily, the quarterly meeting became somewhat easier. Assuming that the numbers were going in the right direction! After ten months executives at the head office had actually roared out, “Nice job,” on more than one occasion, I had figured out a way to communicate with London regularly and I could finally begin to breathe. That is how we know we are doing a good job, right? Our bosses are happy with us; our revenue and profits are climbing.
It was late afternoon when a key executive and one of my direct reports came into my office and closed the door. He didn’t waste time and he was not known for being exceedingly gentle.
“I don’t think you are doing a very good job. You are spending all of your time and energy focused on London. You don’t know what is going on in the day-to-day here. I can’t turn to you for help in making crucial decisions. You are not staying on top of what’s happening around the edges in the industry that might affect our business in the long run and therefore you can’t set a strategic direction that will guide us in the future. We need more of you. More of your time. More of your day-to-day involvement. You need to get involved with the details of how our business and processes really work. I’ve been trying to tell you this and you don’t listen to me.”
I sat fighting back tears, determined that this rude, insubordinate man was not going to make me cry in the office! How dare he! I struggled to compose myself before I opened my mouth. I remembered that “Stan”, the person who had been running the company and was gone well before I arrived, had a reputation for taking long lunches. It was the only thing I could think of. I tried to make a joke, saying, “ Wow. I guess the only thing you could say good about me is that I don’t take 4 hour lunches.”
His retort was quick and biting, “ One could say that “Stan” earned those 4 hours lunches. You haven’t quite earned a tuna sandwich at your desk yet.”
I said I would think about what he said and we’d talk more the next day. I could barely get out of there fast enough. I cried all the way to the bus home, sniveled during the bus ride, cried when I got home, and, when I was finally cried out, I started to think about his actual words. As hard as it was to admit, he was absolutely correct. Over the prior months, he had come to me so many times and I didn’t hear him because I was worried about managing up. I also knew that he was an extraordinarily competent executive who needed some reassurance and I, foolishly, thought that without my constant presence he would feel empowered. Instead he felt abandoned. I lost the ability to hear what this terrific executive needed.
I was very fortunate that he was so brave. Not many people could confront a CEO and give them negative and critical feedback. The higher we get in an organization we often lose the ability to really hear how we are doing. People under us are afraid to tell us the truth.
That executive became one of my trusted advisors, closest confidents and friends. We worked well together and neither of us let the other get too out of touch with what needed to be heard. We served as hearing aids for each other, but doing that takes a tremendous amount of trust and my ability to put aside my ego and really hear what he was saying in that very first session early on.
In order to grow in any job, do everything you can to get honest, direct feedback about how you’re doing. Remember that the higher you go, the harder and more valuable it is.
“Leaders cannot work in a vacuum. They may take on larger, seemingly more important roles in an organization, but this does not exclude them from asking for and using feedback. In fact, a leader arguably needs feedback more so than anyone else. It’s what helps a leader respond appropriately to events in pursuit of successful outcomes.”