There is often a sense of mystique about the CEO, resulting from the perception that they are removed from the daily workings of the company, and that they are somehow larger than life. The television network CBS has explored this phenomenon to great success on its show “Undercover Boss,” in which the out-of-touch head of a company dons the outfit of a front-line employee, and gets his or her hands dirty undercover. The show follows a tight narrative in which the “boss” is challenged physically by tasks, confronted with inequalities of policy, and entreated by the character, hardships and life stories of hard-working employees. Admonishing his/her oversight of the “small” people, the boss reveals his/her true identity and implements philanthropic initiatives, promotions and policy changes, appearing before the company to share the journey to the bottom of the organizational chart.
This reverse fairytale appeals to a mass audience because the hard work of “ordinary” employees is affirmed and rewarded. But the show fails to address the crux of the problem: An organizational structure oriented around top-down communication, hierarchical silos and a lack of trust and interface between employee and employer. Going undercover is a deception. Ideally, CEOs should not need to disguise themselves to get a sense of what is going on in their company.
That they can do so undetected is indicative of a deep schism between leadership and staff. Here are some practical recommendations from experienced executive coaches on how to avoid the executive bubble:
- Focus on Personal Growth
Long-prophesized generational clashes in the workplace have become more tangible in recent years. Pervasive uncertainty about the future, a stricken economy and a lack of trust in the leaders “who got us into this mess” have caused seismic changes in the way leaders are viewed and companies are run. According to Mary Shippy, PhD PCC, senior executive coach, “A shift in leadership expectations is coming to the forefront and a new kind of icon has emerged.” Where yesterday’s corporate icon was often brash, unassailable and heroic, tomorrow’s model leader is receptive, attuned to soft and hard business cues, and surrounded by trusted advisors.
The rise of one-on-one executive coaching supports a growing emphasis on leadership as a form of personal growth. In continuing their education, today’s leaders look beyond business school to a convergence of emotional and physical health, philosophy and innovation in other fields.
- Build Your Circle of Trust
For many executives, a gradual detachment from coworkers, family and clients occurs slowly. Subordinates are trained to act with a certain amount of deference and interaction becomes increasingly sterile. The need to network and build strategic relationships becomes a proxy for forming real friendships. When people first move into positions of greater influence, they often confuse personal and positional power. Many executives have stories of being burned by information they casually shared with “friends” in the workplace. Consequently, they are conditioned to act as boss, and distance themselves from those outside their sphere of trusted peers—the symbolic head of a firm becomes a company of one.
For this reason, formal peer groups can provide the isolated executive with a circle of like-minded individuals able to speak confidentially and in a non-competitive manner about the challenges of their roles. Informal groups of casual acquaintances outside the company can also help an isolated executive broaden their focus and help them gain a fresh perspective.
- Adapt and Don’t Lose Sight of the Bigger Picture
Systemic change is underway in leadership within the design and construction industry, driven by collaborative project delivery approaches and enhanced by new technologies such as Building Information Modeling. Old-fashioned business models that relied heavily on competitive relationships are being replaced by a team mentality; firms partnering on a project rather than competing. As a result, leaders must adapt to changing demands in the workplace and overall business environment, and look up at the bigger picture.
Once an executive recognizes their isolation, they can make deliberate changes in the way they work to reconnect and reshape company culture. Armed with a coach they can trust and confide in, it is possible to make lasting changes to their behavior. Lastly, they are answerable to a new generation of workers who bring different values to the table, and who need an evolved leader.
- Master the Art of Communication
Although executive isolation is most rife in the upper tiers of an organization, middle managers can experience similar difficulties connecting with those below and above them. Regardless of your position, isolation can be overcome through genuine efforts at communicating on a regular basis. Consider the following:
- Hold town hall meetings to gather feedback (rotate meetings in different offices).
- Request feedback from your team, and act upon it.
- Conduct regular anonymous employee surveys or 360° reviews and take action on the feedback.
- Join a peer group or generate a circle of trusted advisors.
- Engage in coaching for personal and professional growth. Cultivate emotional and social intelligence.
- Engage in authentic, unscripted conversations with employees.
- Be an active listener. Attempt to empathize with subordinate problems and needs.
- Be approachable. An open-door policy isn’t enough. Communicate to subordinates a willingness to be receptive.
- Get out of the corner office.
The recognition of employees may make for a heart-warming television story. But taking the time to get to know, encourage and engage with your employees is an initiative you can work on each day, one with proven psychological, financial and developmental benefits both for the company and for yourself.