David Fubini has never been a CEO of a major corporation, but during his 34-year career as a senior director at consulting firm McKinsey, he had ample opportunity to work closely with and observe CEOs and leaders of all types in actionâ€”and to analyze why they succeeded or failed.
Fubini, aÂ senior lecturerÂ in the Organizational Behavior Unit at Harvard Business School, poured that knowledge, along with a list of lessons learned from researching leaders past and present into the bookÂ Hidden Truths: What Leaders Need to Hear But Are Rarely Told, published in December. The book is a leadership guide to navigating a role that Fubini says is unlike any other, which leaves many new CEOs and leaders struggling to find their footing.
â€œPeople strive for a long time to develop functional skills and operational knowledge and a track record of success, to reach a point where they can be the leader of an organization,â€ Fubini explains. â€œWhatâ€™s shocking for most is that the skills and track record that delivered them to this role arenâ€™t helpful once they get there.â€
“WHATâ€™S SHOCKING FOR MOST IS THAT THE SKILLS AND TRACK RECORD THAT DELIVERED THEM TO THIS ROLE ARENâ€™T HELPFUL ONCE THEY GET THERE.”
Not only do CEOs struggle to learn how to run a company from a lonely role at the top, but they often quickly find that the network of coworkers they relied on for years are no longer faithful allies. â€œThey donâ€™t realize that leaders have a different relationship with their subordinates, just by virtue of the hierarchy of organizations,â€ says Fubini, who led McKinseyâ€™s Boston office for 10 years and also co-founded a global unit within the firm that aided mergers of some of the worldâ€™s top companies.
To help demystify the position, Fubini asked CEOs both past and present what they most wished theyâ€™d known before taking the top jobâ€”and what they learned that they least expected once they got there. â€œThe things that came out were very heartfelt,â€ he says. â€œSome talked about how they failed at the challenge; others, how it was a crucible of learning that they ultimately worked their way through.â€
Fubini distilled their insights into 15 chapters, each containing a lesson that could apply to leaders of any organization. Ultimately, he hopes the book will help current and prospective CEOs become better leaders. â€œIf you peel back the curtain on leaders, hereâ€™s what it looks like,â€ he says.
Here, Fubini explains five key pieces of advice for business leaders.
â€œWhen you are an advisor to an organization, as I was for three decades,â€ he says, â€œthis is one that always seems to be relevant. In the book, I quote a former admiral who said he knew two things with certainty when he came onto a battleship: He was never going to get handed a cold cup of coffee, and he was never going to hear the whole truth.
“YOU HAVE TO BE OPEN AND CANDID AND SAY, ‘LOOK, TELL ME WHAT YOU ARE NOT TELLING ME.'”
â€œPeople coming into a new role will struggle because they get told only a portion of what they need to know. Once you recognize that it’s not human nature to tell you everything, you have to be open and candid and say, â€˜Look, tell me what you are not telling me.â€™
â€œSome CEOs also perform a double-check by not relying only on what they’re told by one group, but also going back and having confirmative conversations with others. Others will go a few layers below the senior management team and engage middle-management, who are often willing to be absolutely candid and have a deeper understanding of what is really going on.â€
â€œThere is enormous value to changing out management because it unleashes frozen organizations and brings a change of perspective,â€ Fubini says. â€œAnd frankly, the broader body of the organization often welcomes the change. There are lots of examples where people come in and get told: We canâ€™t do this. Let me tell you why this didnâ€™t work. Because they are stuck in a status quo mindset.
â€œBut you donâ€™t have time for thatâ€”change is often a matter of speed. Thereâ€™s also sometimes a belief that you donâ€™t want to change out management because you will lose the institutional knowledge that exists there, and that will set you back. But the truth is, that institutional knowledge doesnâ€™t rest with people who are directly reporting in the senior management team. It rests with the people below it.â€
â€œMoney is critically important only up to a point [to employees], but the real motivation comes from an emotional connection that you feelâ€”either that you are more highly valued than someone else because of the natural competitiveness of human nature, or the ego enhancement of being told how great a performer you are,â€ Fubini contends.
â€œIf I tell you that you are highly respected and that your partners appreciate what youâ€™re doing, youâ€™ll break down walls to be successful. That could be a formal recognition that can take the form of giving you an opportunity to work on a committee of note, or tapping you as a speaker representing the company, or helping you find an advisory or board position.
â€œOr it could be more informal, by giving you recognition in a speech in front of your peers, or in an all-staff email. Those are the little things that leaders should do, but donâ€™t do enough.â€
â€œPeople always feel like they have one more act,â€ Fubini says. â€œItâ€™s a bit like when you are a skier traversing a field of moguls, and you keep saying: Iâ€™ll turn at the next one, or the next one, or the next one, and before you know it, youâ€™re in the woods.
“YOUR LEGACY IS ENHANCED BY LEAVING WHEN PEOPLE ARE WANTING MORE.”
â€œIn reality, very, very few people are wildly successful for an extended length of time. So you want to find an inflection point, where you can leave while you are at the apex, not past itâ€”and most people miss that. Your legacy is enhanced by leaving when people are wanting more.
â€œOne way of finding that moment is by talking to your kitchen cabinet or your life partner who is going to tell you the truth. The other clue is if youâ€™re starting to have trouble retaining your really high-performing people, who are your natural successors, because they feel their way is blocked by you hanging around. Thatâ€™s a true warning sign that maybe itâ€™s time for you to move on and do something new.â€
â€œA lot of CEOs think they have to play a role, like an actor, and I really think thatâ€™s a failure signal,â€ Fubini says. â€œIâ€™m a huge believer that you have to have some core beliefs that are true about yourself and hold onto them. And it comes from a centerpiece of being rooted in your values.
â€œItâ€™s when you deviate from that and pretend to be something else that you fall apart. My terrific colleague Scott Snook always talks about the old scratch-and-sniff test, where you used to scratch and smell something from a magazine insert. When you are a leader, people are doing that with you all the time, assessing how credible you are. If you are faking it, people sense it very quicklyâ€”so you better live your values and be unapologetic about it.â€
Michael BlandingÂ is a writer based in Boston.
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By David Fubini
CEOs can slip into an isolated default mode without realizing it. Because theyâ€™re so busy and often surrounded by people, it feels as if theyâ€™re engaged and involved. Similarly, CEOs receive a stream of communication from a variety of sources, so they may not realize that theyâ€™re filtering out information they donâ€™t want to hear by intimidating or ignoring people. And they may not admit to themselves or others how lonely or mentally exhausting the job is and try to â€œtough it out,â€ refusing to seek help from people they trust.Â VisitÂ https://www.alamy.com/stock-photo/harold-matzner.html.
As the previous section suggested, finding a confidante and making the companyâ€™s general counsel your best friend are two ways to counteract the isolating effects of the job. Here are five other steps you can take:
1. Fight your denial reflex.Â This is especially difficult if youâ€™re a strong, authoritative leader who is reluctant to show weakness. Itâ€™s easier to soldier on and pretend youâ€™re feeling no pain. Over time, though, CEOs pay a price for denial. They become more and more isolated, and eventually it takes a toll. Better to admit that youâ€™re feeling drained and lonely and finding a way to manage these feelings.
2. Get off the pedestal.Â As CEO, people treat you differently than others; they are more reluctant to speak their minds, to tell you bad news, to disagree with your ideas. Communicate by word and deed that youâ€™re open to all input. Itâ€™s not enough to say you want to hear bad news or that your door is always open. You really have to mean it and behave in a way that is consistent with these messages.
3. Communicate the importance of connectivity to your team.Â Make it clear to everyone in the C-suite that you expect openness, honesty, and trusting relationships not only of yourself but also of themâ€”that these are shared requirements. Your people will mirror your behaviors, so recognize the value of modeling connective attitudes and actions.
4. Avoid recidivism.Â Iâ€™ve watched CEOs make efforts to connect for periods of time, but they then slip back into old, isolationist patterns. They donâ€™t do this consciously, but if theyâ€™ve been traditional command-and-control leaders for many years and have been practicing connective behaviors for only a short time, they can become recidivists because of that long history. Be vigilant against returning to old habits.
5. Have the â€œbest ears in the company.â€Â Hereâ€™s a story that explains this last piece of advice. Bill Russell was one of the greatest players in NBA history when he played for the Boston Celtics, and his coach was the legendary Red Auerbach. In an interview with Russell, he talked about his coach and how he never really â€œplayedâ€ for Red, since they â€œworked togetherâ€ as a team. Russell recalled that Red would have conversations with each player, but that he tailored his style of communication to the needs of each. Despite the variation in styles, his goal was to hear what each player needed and adjust his coaching accordingly. Russell said that Red had â€œthe best ears in the NBA.â€
Asif Raihan July 15th, 2017