What CEOs say behind closed doors

“They don’t understand us.”
“They don’t get the full picture.”
“They don’t see what we see.”

What is a hot topic when leaders of multinational companies get together? At a recent gathering of 20 CEOs and other senior executives from companies around the world, there were a lot of expressions of worry about how their companies — and they — are perceived.

These executives, from the banking, retail, manufacturing, and oil and gas sectors, were put on the defensive by opinions lobbed by a wide variety of people: the media, investors, unions, politicians. It was clear that many of my colleagues, commiserating openly with one another, felt misunderstood.

But I couldn’t shake the thought that the collective “they” actually understood more than these executives realised. Instead of taking a defensive posture against “they”, maybe it was time to listen a bit more.

After that gathering and many similar ones, I am convinced that it is time for boards, chief executive, and senior executive teams to reset how they think about “us” and “them”. Instead of trying to fit new ideas, new trends, new realities into an old way of thinking, I believe more strongly than ever that we must challenge ourselves to think more broadly, more holistically, and more critically about our roles, not only in the way we run companies, but also where we fit into society and economies. These external perceptions are a tool to do just that.

In recent gatherings, including the World Economic Forum in Davos, I found myself listening to people around me make the appropriate remarks about equality — or more precisely inequality — labour markets, executive pay, health and welfare, fair business practices and more. Yet, it is often top-down thinking about how to change the situation around business rather than change the way business is conducted.

There is little genuine introspection. There is a lot of talk about “they” and precious little talk about what “we” could do differently. How could company executives, and even middle managers, create change? What can board members do to alter how business is done? How can leaders transform themselves, rather than focus on how “they” perceive us?

Mindshift

Forums such as Davos, CEO gatherings, sector meetings and other professional organisation meetings have value in bringing people together. They are places to learn new things, to do business, and to be with like-minded people. But these gatherings can have an inherent problem: it’s too easy for them to be echo chambers, where people hear only about the things they are doing right, or worse yet, what everyone else — the “they” — are doing wrong.

For executive teams (and really, anyone) to do better, to build stronger, longer lasting businesses, to be better leaders and managers, these gatherings — of whatever size — must also be places where frank and open conversations happen. We must challenge ourselves, even if it makes us uncomfortable. Some of the most successful examples I’ve been party to have been in small groups of trusted friends where the purpose is stated up front as pushing the boundaries of how we look at a topic — be it leadership skills or corporate social responsibility. Sometimes it helps to focus on discussing a challenging text that relates to the topic – a good way to bring new ideas without pointing out flaws in the actual people around the table.

Uncomfortable evolution

Being uncomfortable may just be the answer. Economies and businesses will never evolve and the people that lead those businesses will never innovate, if we don’t have places where we can ask ourselves uncomfortable questions.

This is just as important for small- and medium-size organisations, for non-profit enterprises and for educational institutions. It might be even more important for these groups because if they are not flexible, open, and agile, they can be more at risk for failure since they lack the size and market clout of larger firms.

No matter the business, it’s critical to push out of comfort zones to grow as people, to grow business and to expand the way work and life is defined. The minute people hear their own voices reflecting back from the people around them, it is time to expand their circles, be it by changing the people around them or shifting the questions they ask themselves or ask others.

The echo chamber is a real detriment to leaders and to the businesses we are trying to build. The minute the explanations for things going wrong turns to “they”, alarm bells should sound. Maybe “they” aren’t the problem after all.

This column is from Above Board with Lucy Marcus, which illuminates how boards work, the consequences when they don’t work, and how they can succeed. To receive alerts from the BBC about new Above Board with Lucy Marcus columns, please subscribe here

Date

17 February 2015

What CEOs say behind closed doors

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