Karen sits in her office, slightly baffled. She’s in the middle of a major change initiative designed to dramatically improve her company’s cost structure. All along, she has been out in front of this initiative, explaining it, selling it, cheering for it. She made promises to the board.
But the results are stuck. Instead of moving up and to the right, the trend lines are flat. She walks into the executive board room and sits at the seat unofficially reserved for The Big Cheese. Around the table are key members of her organization: the CMO, CIO, VP of Sales, and head of operations. Everyone is smiling and nodding as her chief of staff opens the session.
What’s about to happen is predictable if not particularly productive. It’s Leader Theater complete with assigned seats, scripts, and an open caffeine bar.
In this highly staged art form, the team members carefully tell The Big Cheese exactly what they want to hear. Sure, it would give the crowd a bit of a buzz if someone broke from role or fluffed their lines. But that’s hard to do. The group has rehearsed this bit of stagecraft for a long time. They’ve studied their characters so much that they’ve actually started to become these characters. Besides, everyone knows that you shouldn’t tell your boss the truth at work. (Or should you?)
You might be tempted to think that the team members are cowards. I don’t think so. I think they’re smart. They know there’s a script. Big Cheeses love it when you follow the script. They can get a little testy when you don’t. Here are the cue cards people see the Big Cheese lay out.
- It starts with the entrance and place on the stage. They sit at the end of the board room table. If they’ve watched too many mobster movies, they choose a seat with their back to a wall, preferably where they can see the door. There will be no surprises.
- The Big Cheese asks questions like, “Don’t you think people are really on board with the direction we’re heading as a company?” These questions have obvious right answers. Given the power difference and the public forum, who is going to take The Big Cheese on?
- The Big Cheese talks without listening. It’s clear that there is a stump speech that is meant to pump the troops up. All visible signs in the past five meetings using that speech have been positive. So The Big Cheese stays in safe territory, hitting key points, watching the heads nod like a table full of bobbleheads.
In the unlikely event they make a subtle appearance at the show, The Big Cheese resolutely ignores reactions like fear, sadness, and anger. Privately, The Big Cheese is not quite sure what to do with these primal emotions other than ignore them so that things don’t slow down and get messy. Lord knows, they have enough mess in their life already. Better to avert the eyes.
This script, all too familiar to many of us, is just a symptom of a leader who has forgotten a fundamental organizational reality. My friends Eugenio and Kevin from Quarto Consulting call this phenomenon The Cloudline. Like a tall mountain, any organization will feel different depending on where you sit in the organizational structure. Those at the top are often above the cloudline. Things are clear. The sun shines. Yes the air is thin but you can see for-e-ver. Farther down the mountain, there’s weather – clouds, rain, mud. If you’re lucky, you can see your hand in front of your face.
When The Big Cheese refuses to descend into the weather – to slow down, to notice, to be curious – she’s missing out on the reality that most of the organization experiences each day. She may enjoy the sunshine, but she’s going to be pretty lonely up there. It will be hard to get things done. Once she leaves the room, everyone will exit stage left and go back to everyday life, pleased that they crushed that little scene of Leader’s Theater.
This is how so many leaders get nasty surprises. They leave the room thinking everyone is on board only to find out later that people were just reading from the script. Too many strategies die as a result. Too many organizations make less of a dent on the world. That, to paraphrase a certain Big Cheese, is #sad.
In case you’re feeling a little smug right now, wondering if you can cleverly forward this post to a Big Cheese in your world without getting fired, pause for just a moment. Chances are, you’re a Big Cheese in some arena of your workplace or personal life. Maybe, like me, you recognize a little Cheesiness in your own approach and behavior.
If so, the prescription is simple, though not easy:
- Slow down and come down below the cloudline. You can’t descend safely without reducing speed. Next time you’re leading or attending a meeting as a Big Cheese, take a deep breath. Remind yourself that speed kills. Think through who is going to be there. Put yourself in their shoes and ask, “How would I see this situation – and me – if I were in their place?” Based on what you discover, be ready to answer the normal questions they probably have about you and this situation as a way to open up the interaction. It’s amazing what a little empathy can do.
- Notice what you’re noticing. As you interact with others, take snapshots of the scene. Look for things that stick out to you. Then look one more time for things you might have missed on first inspection – a person’s expression, their fidgeting when you say certain things. Avoid judging, fixing, or even pointing out what you see. Just log it away.
- Be curious. Ask at least one question for every statement you make. Make them questions that do not have obvious answers. Questions like, “Help me understand what you’re seeing.” or “What would have to be true for that idea to be truly great?” are curious questions. When a response signals that another person may care more about a topic, gently dig into it simply to understand. Yes, this means you may have to wait minutes, hours, even days before you give your counterpoint to their point. That will be time well spent.
This may feel like it’s going to slow you down. But it’s almost always another example of the old wisdom, “When you slow down, you go faster.” Because avoiding Leader Theater will allow your team members to show you things you may otherwise have missed. Those perspectives are likely key to your organization’s success. That’s the kind of show we all want more of.