To become a leader, learn to shut up

As executives move up the ranks, more people pat their backs, and less people give them unfiltered real talk.

Employees can become too aware of the boss’ power and privilege, telling CEOs what they want to hear and becoming fearful of telling them about actual failures. CEOs can get cocooned by yes-women and yes-men giving them only good news.

That’s a big problem. Without all the right information, CEOs can’t make the necessary directional changes needed to guide the company.

This cocoon of good feelings is what the latest issue of Harvard Business Review tackles in an illuminating story called “Bursting the CEO Bubble.” HBR interviewed 200 top executives to figure out how they could learn what U.S. defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld famously coined, “unknown unknowns.”

The first and hardest step: become humble.

For top executives to succeed, HBR says they need to leave the spaces of power that they’ve been striving for all their careers: “To do what your exalted position demands, you must in some way escape your exalted position.”

Talk less, ask more

To get one’s employees to give you the right answers, you need to start asking them the right questions. The framing of the questions is key.

The CEO of Charles Schwab, Walt Bettinger, regularly checks in with employees, owners, analysts, and clients, and he’ll make a point to ask them, “if you were in my job, what would you be focusing on?”

It’s designed to make it less about him, and more about them, so they are more likely to volunteer their real opinions. Bettinger will also publicly admit in these meetings that his hardest challenge as CEO is his isolation and he needs help.

And Bettinger makes relevant information, both good and bad, pay off. Certain employees who bring Bettinger useful information get flown out to spend a day at Charles Schwab’s San Francisco headquarters as a public signal to further encourage these good feedback loops.

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Leave the office

The worst way you can find out that your company has been operating on misguided assumptions is…watching your competitors capitalize on them.

If you don’t want that to happen, you need to find the people on the ground, who notice early signs of trouble. That means leaving your cocoon, because those observant employees are rarely sitting in the corner office.

HBR offers an example: Fadi Ghandour, the co-founder of the Dubai-based delivery firm Aramex, took one of the company’s couriers because he wanted to find out how Aramex was directly affecting them.

He asked his courier questions about the job, and outside of the executive comfort zone, the courier was able to get real and tell Ghandour that he was being overloaded with work and that managers were acting out of touch. Ghandour immediately called an all-hands meeting with management and some couriers. He didn’t make the meeting a witch hunt where people were called out, but rather, a meeting of “mutual discovering” of how workflows could improve.

As a result of that encounter, all Aramex executives must do stints as couriers.

Make failure acceptable

One of the core characteristics of good teams: employees feel safe in failing, so that not every mistake becomes an attack on their job security.

Encouraging failure means encouraging creativity and new thinking, so it means letting go of your ego and becoming honest with how little you, as a leader, may know.

As Ed Catmull, the president of Pixar and Disney Animation Studios, puts it, “to be wrong as fast as you can is to sign up for aggressive, rapid learning.”

At orientations for new employees, Catmull tells them right off the bat that neither he nor the company has all the right answers.

The founder and CEO of Spanx, Sara Blakely, makes failure acceptable by talking about her own. In a recent companywide meeting, she held a celebratory moratorium on her “oops” moments that she’d personally made with Spanx.

Be quieter so you can be a better listener

For CEOs who need to shake hands, fundraise, TED Talk and broadcast words of authority in most of their interactions, being quiet is not their default. But making space for those quieter moments is critical for good listening.

Being quiet for a while displays generosity — a key leadership trait — that lets other people express themselves and have a stake in the conversation. Everyone already knows you’re important, because you have the title. Let someone else have the floor and see what you can learn from them.

The president of R&D at Calico, Hal Barron, explains that listening means not just waiting to hear “the story in your head” because you shouldn’t know what the story is yet. If you’re talking, as the saying goes, you’re not learning. 

For Cirque du Soleil’s co-founder Guy Laliberté, this means not stopping brainstorming sessions. When others in a meeting are skeptical of someone’s wild ideas, he’s the one in the meeting who encourages them to keep talking.

That encouragement is the kind of mantra Simon Mulcahy, a Salesforce top executive, repeats to himself in meetings, ‘Don’t tell. Ask questions. Don’t tell. Ask questions.’

Anyone can do this

Bottom line? These actions are all doable. HBR’s advice is not just for CEOs but every kind of leader: “get out of the office today and spend more time being wrong, being uncomfortable, and being quiet.”