The disconnected executive

Somewhere in my files is a note on a piece of research a few years ago, which explored how people’s response to the world evolved as they became more senior in the corporate world. It suggested that decreasing direct involvement with stakeholders and increasing exposure to numbers reduced people’s humanity. It’s another take on “all power corrupts” but with a specific focus.

Connection or connectedness is one of the four characteristics of great leaders and great coaches, which we identified in a pre-Covid literature scan. Yet tales of executive disconnection are far more common. One CEO of a global company turned up early in the morning having left his identity pass at home. The security officer refused to let him in – “I don’t know who you are”. Several other early bird employees were unable to vouch for him. After a lot of blustering (“Don’t you know who I am?”) it took half an hour to establish the CEO’s identity. His initial reaction on reaching his office was to call the HR director and have the security person fired. Fortunately, he listened to advice, that the story would already be making the rounds and damaging his reputation and punishing the security man would only make things worse. In the event, he and the HR director went down to the foyer together and publicly thanked the guard for doing his job.

I’ve met many connected and disconnected CEOs over the years. Here are some examples of the former:

  • The regional president, who regularly shares his major concerns with all employees on the web and asks for their ideas. He also encourages them to share their concerns, so he gets to learn about undercurrents well before they become a problem. Part of the social contract between the president and the employees is that, while he won’t personally deal with individual people’s issues, he will report back on recurring themes and make sure they are addressed.
  • Having lunch with employees at random – for example, in the staff restaurant – opens up opportunities to learn what is really going on. Although people can be apprehensive at first, when the executive demonstrates genuine curiosity about their experience, people tend to take the opportunity to express feelings and concerns.
  • Engaging with special interest groups broadens the executive’s awareness of issues of concern. It’s important that the executive goes to them, meeting them in their context. It’s also about more than just listening. One senior director explained that he looks for connections and common interests between groups, linking them together to achieve greater impact and voice.

Common to all of these positive examples identify is the need to clarify the executive’s role. Except in cases of serious misconduct, his or her role is not to intervene in specific cases. The executive is responsible for initiating systemic change. Getting involved in individual cases undermines the chain of authority and causes disconnect with other parts of the organisation, particularly middle management. “The leader as hero” is a beguiling trap to fall into! Clarifying this distinction ensures that everyone understands the social contract.

In short, being connected as a leader enables us to see how the corporate system actually works, instead of relying on assumptions about how it should be working. It may seem obvious but the word number contains the word “numb”. When we reduce the extent and variety of our feelings, we diminish ourselves.

©️David Clutterbuck 2024


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