I’ve heard several times that by the time CEOs hear bad news, they are the last ones to know. And it’s their job (and responsibility) to act quickly.
Most likely, as a CEO, by the time you hear any news, it’s already permeated its way up through the organization, on person at a time, all the way up to you. By the time it gets to you, there’s a fair amount of dilution that’s already taken place. What starts as “Jenny is a micromanager who antagonizes us to no end” morphs into “We’re worried about the culture fit of Jenny” by the time it gets all the way to the top. This may seem like a benign comment to a peer, but the further away you are in seniority from the person telling you, the more likely it is that the criticism in question is being soft-balled.
And the amount of confidence required by an individual to spread the word to the next level up impacts how long it takes for that news to travel. So it may be weeks, even months, before this information finally permeates its way up to your level. But when it does — and eventually it will — the question is: Will you notice it? Will you recognize what it means? And will you know what to do next?
This skill, the art of recognizing problem spots with little to know information, is what I am starting to think is one of the greatest skillsets of organizational leaders of any kind. There’s a level of self-awareness that is necessary to make this work, and a series of questions you need to ask yourself: What is the information being conveyed? Who is conveying it? Who else have they told? Why are they telling it to me? What else aren’t they telling me?
After considering all of these possibilities, the most important thing you can do as a leader is to guarantee that you are the last one to know. Don’t add to the gossip chain by permeating this information further. Take what you hear and act on it immediately to get to the bottom of it.
This isn’t easy, but it’s important. And by the way, you can practice this skill today by making sure you’re the last one to know any problem. The next time you hear about something that’s not going right in the world around you…rather than pass it around the gossip mill, resolve it yourself.