The Problem with Executive Isolation

This article by Ron Ashkenas—featured on Harvard Business Review—begins with a vexing but not altogether unfamiliar situation: a person is asked to do a presentation by the CEO but is then, a few days before the meeting occurs, told by one of the CEO’s staff advisors to modify the presentation to take out the very thing the CEO asked for. Why does this happen?

According to Ashkenas, it’s a matter of “gatekeeping of senior executives” and it happens for a few reasons, not all of them bad ones. However, this gate-keeping also leads to some serious side effects:  

While this process does help to leverage a leader’s time, it also has its dark side — it shields the senior executive from direct contact with many of the issues, dynamics, and ideas that are percolating throughout the organization. As a result, all too many senior executives only receive views that have been filtered, orchestrated, and often censored to include only what the “senior circle” thinks he or she should hear. While this sounds extreme, it’s really a pervasive dynamic. I worked with another organization, for example, where project teams regularly held a series of “pre-meetings” with staff people before reviewing progress with a senior sponsor — with the goal of producing a slide deck that wouldn’t raise any questions.

So how does a CEO get outside of the gate? Jack Welch, CIO of GE at the time, managed to do so by establishing “listening posts” where he had regular meetings with managers across the company. You could also try creating “town hall” like meetings where anyone can bring up an issue or concern with the CEO, eliminating the gatekeeper’s opinions of what is important enough to go to the CEO.

Senior executive isolation, whether done well or poorly, is a good way for the CEO to lose track of what is happening throughout the company. Having an open ear and a clear line of communication from the bottom of the organization to the top is a key element in success, and by getting outside of the gate, senior executives can better serve the company and those who work for them.

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