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Burn Your Ivory Tower

Over the past ten years I’ve spent 784 nights in a Marriott hotel and another 126 at Intercontinental properties. Two and a half years were spent away from home office in order to be where life and business were really happening. If we are to effectively lead we must leave the comfort of our offices.

Executives are frequently lulled into the bad habit of spending too much time behind the desk and away from the people who make the company run. Ivory Tower Syndrome can be infectious and deadly. This fatal error may cause managers to miss changing attitudes, trends, and tech which will impact their company in minutes, days, weeks or years. Spreadsheets and report dashboards tell stories, but none more telling than conversations with clients, employees, partners, politicians and vendors.

Managers are permitting the culture of email, texting and data dashboards to rob them of the most valuable of actions, face to face conversations.

When is the last time you went to one of your remote facilities and sat with a level one QA individual, or went on a sales call with a field rep? Have your recently visited a vendor’s office and spent time with their R&D team? Have you stepped into the janitor closet for a conversation with a maintenance team member? Did you ask a line member if she could teach you a small lesson on how a gantry robot works? When have you last sat with a customer service person and listened to their calls and ask questions about their job?

These are the people and places where your business is happening. They may be far away or on the other side of your office wall.

When our company was smaller I spent days in the offices of the independent agents who sold our products. As I morphed into the president and CEO role I found I had less time to spend with agents, but I soon realized how disconnected I was becoming from their needs. I forced myself to go back into the field and listened, and this process reminded me of my love of others, and a desire to accomplish what was needed.

It is easy to forsake relationships in business. Each day you are forced to make difficult decisions that may change the lives of others. The further you are from people it would seem easier to make the hard calls, but the point is simply we need to be close to people so we can better make the hard calls.

A new hire has much to teach you. Everything from the outside view of your company, what excites them about joining the team and what they fear. I learned from others that new hires were the best outside judges and were sometimes excellent at asking one important question about processes and procedures, “why do we do that?” Often times, we old timers are resigned to our past experiences and stop asking why in an ever-changing world. This is only possible if the most senior in an organization spend time with those just getting started. We must walk out of our office and onto the floor. Burn down the ivory tower.

I’ve spent a large portion of my career serving reinsurers. The industry norm was to meet with them twice a year at industry conferences. The problem with this is everyone one of my competitors was there doing the same thing. I decided to stop attending these conference meetings and go to each of their offices. Doing this meant I was not getting lost in the last meetings gossip, I had time to meet the people they served and those who served them. I had the opportunity to experience their city with them. I offered a detail presentation of the state of our organization and then I learned from the questions they, their bosses and their subordinates asked. Over time I even created excursions based on their interest so I could have time with them outside the office and learn more about them as an individual. These are not new ideas, it’s that few executives make the time to do it.

My title grants me permission to make high level decisions, but it grants me no magical intelligence of the company, the market, our people or our problems. These can best be learned interacting and listening to others.

Making time for a lot of people becomes extremely difficult, but the best leaders, those who want to continue to learn and change, and those that care about individuals will work to make the time.

Clients may use your presence to be ridiculously critical. Employees may clam up because of your title. Vendors may make you feel more important than you are, but you can still learn something from them in even the most difficult of interactions.

Always ask questions, but more importantly be open to being questioned. You’ll learn more from the questions you are asked than those you submit.

Do the difficult thing and make yourself available to all of your staff, clients, partners and vendors. You’ll have to set the expectation and field that which is designed to entrap you, but there can be balance in your accessibility.

In your interactions with others never lord over someone because of your title. I remind staff that the plastic strip with my name on the CEO office door slides out very easily and that I am wanting to do the best I can with the responsibility given for the time I am permitted. As with all of us, a day comes when it is over.

Make time for the minutiae. Some of the biggest tech grabs or potential market flux can be found there, don’t forsake it.

Be willing to be wrong and praise the people who taught you a new lesson.

Take real action with what you learn. If you are not discovering where change is needed you are doing this process all wrong. There is always something to learn and change is a must.

Don’t be a poser. Interacting with front line team members, partners, clients and vendors cannot be a marketing stunt and render serious lessons. It is a continuous way of life. It means over years you’ve spent hundreds of days with the people and processes that make your business run and you are in a constant mode of learning and action.

You must never think or behave as if you have arrived. You must remain always a servant and student teacher living outside of the tower.

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