Thursday, January 15, 2015

Leadership Blind Spots

When I was very young, my father often asked me to help work on cars.  Unlike my two brothers, I was not mechanically inclined and did not enjoy the task.  I recall situations that were unpleasant – most specifically when my father would call out – “Get me the crescent wrench!” (He added some colorful words).

At eight years of age, with limited mechanical skill, this task was daunting.  He had tool chests bigger than me and I had no idea what he was talking about.  You see, my father had a blind spot – he believed I knew what he knew.   Not getting him the crescent wrench was an unpleasant option so I would flail around with questions.  What drawer is it in?  What does it look like?  His blind spot caused me to exhaust a lot of his time.

My three decades with Johnson Controls provided me with access to leaders with multiple Fortune 100 leaders. I have observed some recurring blind spots in executives and leaders in high positions.  I share these with you for your benefit.  You may have one or all of these blind spots and they may be impeding your success.   

My father’s blind spot is common among executives.  We assume others know what we know. Sometimes leaders think about a decision for days, weeks, even months ... but when they decide to act, they forget that their team has not had the time to process what they've been thinking about, causing confusion and frustration in the ranks.   This is especially true when launching a new change.   It happened to me one time when I was working on a major retail account.  The VP I was working with walked past me and said “I need a storyboard for tomorrow’s meeting.”  That was it.  He could have been asking for a crescent wrench for all I cared.  I had no idea what a storyboard was, but I knew I needed to develop on in less than 18 hours.  

Another blind spot is what I call “Creating the world in my image.”  I worked with a young VP who came from a famous energy company.  He was extremely bright, polished and technically savvy.  But He tried to implement the processes, tools and strategies he had used at the other company, largely because they were successful in that arena.  The approach didn’t work.  He had the blind spot of creating the world in his image.  In other words, he assumed that the successes he had in one place would work in another.  When I hear the words “best practices” I often cringe, because those words mean someone is going to try and implement something that worked one place, but may not work at all in the new situation.  

Another blind spot leaders sometimes exhibit is what psychologists call the "Illusion of participation".  In change management and organizational development, we coach people to refrain from asking people for input unless they plan to use the input (Think employee surveys, for example). Leaders erode follower confidence in their sincerity when they act as if they're interested in someone's advice without including those thoughts in a solution. Loss of sincerity = loss of trust = loss of influence.  It’s a blind spot. 

Another blind spot I have observed is the notion that communication has taken place.  Sometimes, leaders and executives are so busy they simply don’t take the time to follow-up on communications they may have sent forth – emails, speeches, etc.  Part of the reason this occurs is because leaders may believe face-to-face communications will take too long.  I offer this: five minutes of clarity can launch immense employee energy.   People don’t need hours of communications – they need clear communications.  

Another blind spot is this: leaders sometimes fail to ‘check the rear view mirror’.  I worked with one extremely brilliant VP who moved so fast no one could follow him.  He would sometimes berate them for their inability to keep pace.  Yet, checking to see if people are really following your lead is important for your success.   It doesn’t take much, just a few questions now and then to ask the team – how are things going?  Does the team understand our goals? 

A final blind spot is the shiny new object.  Executives often start projects but do not follow-up until a project is complete because of novelty.  We get distracted, and yet our distraction becomes an organizational distraction.  

What are your leadership blind spots? Have you considered what they might be? Have you asked for true criticism of your style by a trusted colleague? 

The most important thing I learned in Driver's Education was 'check your blind spot.' Candidly, that bit of coaching has literally saved my life multiple times throughout the past several decades. Not checking a blind spot can mean destruction while driving a car, but I often wonder whether leaders take the time to check their blind spots. What you can't see can hurt you and others.

Feedback is the great blind spot remover.  Blind spots can be remedied with candid leader openness to criticism that articulates the danger of the blind spot, the short-term impact of the blind spot, and the long-term, career damaging blind spots that can run someone off course forever. One or two trusted colleagues can provide insight to leadership blind-spots.  We don’t need to listen to every Tom, Dick and Harriet that comes our way, but trusted feedback can prevent career damage and accidents.

"I don't need any feedback." Those who do not want to hear about dangerous flaws that may be impeding their success are especially vulnerable to this blind spot. Think 'ego on steroids'. As the old Proverb says: Pride comes before a fall.

Today, when you check your blind spot as you’re driving, remember that every leader has blind spots to overcome.   It’s worth taking the time to check your blind spot. 

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