CEOs: You’ll never hear the truth again

“When you make general or admiral in the military, they say: ‘Congratulations, general. You’ll never eat poorly again. And you’ll never hear the truth again.’ Well, that’s the last thing you can put up with, even in routine times.”
—James Mattis, former secretary of defense and Marine general, McKinsey interview

At 18,000 feet, you have half as much oxygen as you do at sea level. Pilots must either be in a pressurized aircraft or use supplemental oxygen above 14,000 feet; if they don’t, they’ll seem like they’ve had a pitcher of margaritas. Gaining altitude — whether in an aircraft, the military or a business — requires more diligence, different skills and supplemental oxygen.

In an aircraft, supplemental oxygen involves putting on a mask connected to an oxygen tank.

Federal Aviation Administration regulations require it — if you don’t do it, you won’t recognize when you pass from a reasonably intelligent pilot to a moron piloting an expensive piece of metal. You’ll probably die and take others with you.

In an organization, truth is the oxygen you need to avoid becoming a moron, and it requires special procedures to obtain. This problem is insidious, because it creeps up on you as you climb the organization’s ladder; it isn’t a switch that flips.

The more authority (really, power) you have, the more people want to please you. Even good-intentioned people. They’ll avoid upsetting you (in part because you control their paycheck), and they’ll tell you what they think you want to hear. This may be because you’re a scary leader (on the extreme end, a narcissistic leader who surrounds himself or herself with sycophants — can you think of one?), but it also may be because they respect and enjoy you. Maybe you had a big brother whom you admired when you were young. Do you remember doing things to please him?

I’ve seen this happen to very good people. A CEO title and a big salary are only part of the problem. Some of them are wonderful people, but when you’re breathing thin air for a long time, you forget what reality is. It might look like a sense of entitlement to most, but I know that it’s a result of not hearing the truth.

There’s a vaccine for this, and you can recover from the disorder, but both require a bit of suffering. You must find a truth-talker, ask the right questions, shut up and listen.

You may never have to eat poorly again, but if you don’t find the truth, you’ll eventually become a moron running a doomed organization.

Is coronavirus actually aiding decision making?

OK, the virus itself doesn’t actually improve decision-making, but many of my clients and other CEOs that I talk to say they’re making quicker and better decisions in “stay-at-home” mode. Why? Below are my observations. Incorporate them into your DNA or you’ll slide back into making mediocre decisions in the near future.

BP (before pandemic), there was too little emphasis on efficient communication when discussing and making decisions. Video and audio have limitations, but they tend to reduce bluster. I firmly believe that social interaction among team members is beneficial, but when it comes to analysis and decisions, focused thinking and discussion are better.

Takeaway: When (or if) you’re back in a face-to-face environment, allow for shoot-the-shit conversation, but delineate it from decision-making meetings.

BP, there were more meeting interruptions or even interruptions that prevented meetings from starting on time. Yes, you now have to shoo the cat or your kids out of your home office (nee bedroom) before a video call, but most start and end roughly on time.

Takeaway: With some discipline, you can actually manage your calendar when you’re in the office. I’ve helped talented, but whipsawed, executives tame their workweeks. Punctuality can become standard operating procedure. My son is often late to social events at our house, but when he was a Marine, he was never late for drill. The key is leaving enough open time to deal with the interruptions.

BP, participation (which is a function of your ability to facilitate a meeting) was often unequal. The person with the biggest paycheck or loudest voice got a lot more airtime. I’ve observed that there’s often more uniform participation in video. In other words, the more reticent team member who often has great input can participate, and the loudmouth has had his wings clipped a bit.

Takeaway: When you’re back in face-to-face meetings, make sure everyone participates and no one dominates. Here’s the East Coast version: “Thanks for your input, Jack — we understood your position 10 minutes ago. I’d like to hear from Jill!”

BP, people often came to meetings without preparation. Rushing from one meeting to another, they hadn’t read the background, which meant they either made bad decisions, or the meeting had to slow down so someone could read everyone in before the real discussion occurred. Remember how you used to hate the long presentations you sat through? Eliminate them!

Takeaway: Before you or anyone on your team schedules a meeting, consider what background information (focus on facts) the participants should have (no more than three pages), send it to them and demand that they show up informed. This will lead to much more productive meetings.

I’m talking about what goes on in your business with these suggestions. However, you also need to focus on building the trust, accountability and commitment outside of the decision-making meetings, or you’ll never reach your true potential as a leader nor have a highly functioning team.

Don’t let a pandemic go to waste. Capture the positive elements of decision-making that I delineated above and make them part of your operating system for good.