01 March 2019

The Portable Bubble

"If you are not being challenged in your thoughts, then you are not aware of what others who are different than you are thinking."   

--Mary Charleson

Larry Culp, the new CEO of General Electric (GE), had a successful run in the same position at Danaher Corp. The market capitalization of Danaher grew to $50 billion from $9.7 billion during his 14-year term. One of the management practices Mr. Culp employed at the global science and technology company was to spend time in the field. Making himself available to workers as he toured various operations was his way of learning about matters firsthand. 

GE laid off 30,000 employees in 2018, so there will be fewer associates for Mr. Culp to talk with as he makes his rounds.

At The Home Depot, members of the Board of Directors "regularly visit stores and engage in the operational review of stores throughout the year," according to the company's website.

Peter Magowan, who headed up Safeway and later purchased the San Francisco Giants along with other investors in 1992, avoided the owners' suite, choosing to sit in the stands to experience the game with fans. He did that while wearing a suit.    

Keep moving

In the 1980s, "Management by Walking (or Wondering) Around," a term coined by Tom Peters, described how Bill Hewlett and David Packard ran their computer company. So the idea of stopping by to talk face-to-face with employees to get a sense of how things are going, and hear what they are thinking, has a lot of value if done correctly.  

That's certainly one way to keep from being enveloped by a corporate echo chamber where everyone thinks alike.  

Bubbles are portable, meaning it's possible to stay in one even while traveling. Direct reports and executive staff often arrange schedules that make leaders visible but unreachable. When out and about, top management must insist on engaging with those who run the business daily.  

Getting fresh air

Hal Gregerson, Executive Director of the MIT Leadership Center, has written extensively about executive bubbles. "The greatest responsibility of a CEO is to recognize whether (the company) requires a major change in direction," Gregerson writes.  

How does one undertake that assessment without a free flow of ideas from different perspectives?  

Dr. Gregerson's interviews with CEOs highlight two disturbing themes: "People telling you what they think you want to hear, and people being fearful of telling you things they believe you don't want to hear."   

Nandan Nilekani, a co-founder of Infosys, says you have to guard against a "good news cocoon."  

What can a CEO do?

Are you insulated from information critical to your work? To find out, ask yourself these questions: 1

  • How many barriers do people have to cross to talk directly with you?
  • How much of your typical workweek is spent outside your office or headquarters?
  • When was the last time you were wrong about something at work?
  • How quickly did you uncover your previous mistake? How fast did you change course?
  • How often do you talk to people who make you uncomfortable?
  • How often do you wait silently for others to answer your questions?
  • How many times this week have you said, "I don't know," in response to a question?

1 Bursting the CEO Bubble


© Bredholt & Co.