Big Picture

To achieve your company’s goals, keep your ear to the ground

Judit Petho

How many times have you seen over the past two decades large incumbents being outpaced by longstanding rivals or plucky upstarts as their great projects land with a thud? How many times have you been part of a management team focusing on a big project only for it to fail because one little gadget isn’t compatible with the rest or a critical gizmo ends up not compatible with your systems? Or perhaps a new platform or website-launch failed on an irritating small incompatibility issue?

We have all been there. Or somewhere thereabouts. Well-thought through plans can fall on small things that someone further down the chain would have known about but was never asked. Critical information not getting through.

If we accept that the traditional business planning horizon of 5-3-1 year is too rigid to be sufficient in an age when things can change overnight, we should also acknowledge the importance for CEOs, directors, and managers to keep their finger on the pulse of the market and the organisation to be able to course correct on the regular.

In practice this means that instead of being a closed-shop activity only top leaders engage in behind closed doors once-a-year, strategy becomes part of everyday management. One-off planning is significantly enhanced by constant strategic thinking and strategic decision making, in which everyone throughout the organisation participates. Anyone who makes any kind of decision needs to think strategically as an integral part of their job.

Naturally to avoid chaos this type of management requires both boundaries and empowerment.

In terms of boundaries, to keep the whole business working towards the same overarching goal, you need to communicate a strong vision and direction, and embed true values that drive a strong culture.

To ensure that people are empowered to make decisions at their level and are not paralysed by blame culture, you need to ensure psychological safety and trust permeate the organisation, which also underpins the flow of relevant information.

A key challenge for managing any organisation in fast changing environments is how information flows up to the top. While we are drowning in data as anything and everything quantifiable can be tracked and recorded, the truth is as CEOs we often do not hear about problems, obstacles or negative feedback until it’s too late. This can cause us to make decisions that ignore existing problems and obstacles since we are not aware of them. It is easy to see how that can lead to serious issues at execution, like disappointed customers or not responding the market needs competitively. If you lose touch with the problems on the ground, projects of great importance backed by ‘solid’ plans can quickly fail.

Who has not experienced at least once top management issuing a directive that was impossible to execute at the coalface? The C-suite decided, based on the information available to them, that a particular reorganisation of the shop, for example, will result in more dollars spent by individual customers. But if they were shielded from the reality from the shop floor that, say, makes the new layout more frustrating for the customers so they leave faster rather than spend more, the strategic decision that looked so good in the boardroom can result in disgruntled customers and loss of revenue. The C-suite needs to know exactly what the reality is on the shop floor.

Ensuring relevant information reaches the top is a job for – the top. When you are in a C-suite of a company low on transparency and high on blame culture you can easily end up with a less then accurate picture of what is going on.

Creating trust and psychological safety is critical and makes it possible to hear what you need to hear. If people are not afraid to share failures and problems, that makes collecting the relevant strategic information all the easier.

It is not enough though. As leaders, we must actively reach out to all levels of the organisation for unfiltered feedback. And it is not easy because everyone wants to look good when they are talking to the top management.

I have found that one of the best ways to gather that feedback is by walking around – visiting stores, offices, warehouses, factory floors. Dropping in and talking informally to employees and managers at all levels of the organisation gives you a better picture of the reality than moderated groups or spreadsheets full of data would. That is what I always do. There really is no substitute for getting that first person, direct feedback. Reading body language and seeing the place with your own eyes are invaluable for picking up subtle cues, building trust and getting the unpolished version.

If you use messaging services within the business, if your teams communicate a lot on platforms like Slack, you can of course set up dedicated channels for feedback and raising issues. You will need to consider how to approach moderation, anonymity, dealing with pointless chats, filtering out noise and getting the real signals.

Whatever suits the style of your organisation, it is important to find a way to get direct, transparent feedback. Head in the sand and pushing forward without true information is never a good strategy.

Dynamic management, empowering managers and employees, and course correcting fast are not as scary as it all sounds, as long as you are intentional and have your finger on the pulse of the organisation. So, make sure to leave the corner office and ivory tower and get out there to see your frontline staff. You will get insights no amount of financial data can give you.

Written by Judit Petho.

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Judit Petho
Judit Petho is experienced CEO, Adviser and Founder of Lessons for Leaders, a business management platform and weekly newsletter; also writes its sister publication, Zeitgeist. Previously she was CEO of a tech startup, a large London law firm, and was the global COO of an audit giant. Judit has a multidisciplinary background (Dr of law, economics, MBA) and is multilingual.

Judit Petho is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. You can follow her on LinkedIn. For more information, visit the author’s website.