How to Get Out of the CEO Bubble? [7 Highly Effective Strategies]
“No matter how approachable you are, you will get less information in the top office.”
Mari-Britt Poulsen, Managing Partner for Boston Consulting Group
Do you stay on top of your company issues? How well are you tuned in to your company issues? Are you sure you haven’t missed anything important, both in your organization and world trends? Even those executives who said yes to all questions cannot be certain that the CEO bubble doesn’t apply to them.
Table of Contents
- What is a CEO bubble?
- Why is the CEO bubble dangerous?
- How to get out of the CEO bubble?
- 7 Effective Strategies on How to Get Out of the CEO Bubble
Surprisingly, a lot of executives live in the so-called “la la land” where everything seems perfect on the surface until one moment when it stops. Then, to a great CEO’s surprise, all problems are brought to light and need an immediate reaction. At that moment, a CEO usually realizes that the problems should have been addressed a long time ago, but he was in the CEO bubble since no employee dared to disturb his peace of mind with negative information.
Nandan Nilekani, a co-founder of Infosys, acknowledges the dangers of a CEO bubble, saying: “If you’re a leader, you can put yourself in a cocoon—a good-news cocoon.” He also observed: “Everyone tells you, ‘It’s all right—there’s no problem.’ And the next day, everything’s wrong,” according to Harvard Business Review.
In fact, such incidents occur quite often and are not restricted just to CEOs but also apply to chairmen and C-Suite executives. Interestingly, Hal Gregersen, the author of the Harvard Business Review article entitled “Bursting the CEO Bubble”, interviewed 200 executives and found out that almost all of them came across this challenge.Back to top
What is a CEO bubble?
Plenty of CEOs may live in the CEO bubble without even realizing it. The feedback that they get from their employees is always positive: everything is great and the results are getting better and better. However, it doesn’t result from people’s malevolence.
The underlying cause of the CEO Bubble is fear. As many people are afraid to tell their CEO negative information for fear of being fired or relegated, they end up saying only what they believe their CEO wants to hear. Employees usually learn very quickly how to deliver the reality expected by their CEO, sugarcoating it here and there.
According to Harvard Business Review, Walt Bettinger, the CEO of Charles Schwab, regards a CEO bubble as his “number one challenge” which takes the form of “people telling you what they think you want to hear, and people being fearful to tell you things they believe you don’t want to hear.” What’s interesting, not only high-level executives but also managers encounter similar employees’ behaviors; however, C-level executives are afflicted most strongly.
The power that was the ultimate goal becomes a curse that insulates CEOs from valuable information that could help them take advantage of potential opportunities, but also avoid upcoming threats.
As not many people in the company want to be the bearer of bad news, they tend to avoid telling their CEOs of problems and that they could be wrong. Guarded by power, prestige, and the feeling of infallibility, CEOs become walled-off from their subordinates and company challenges. That’s how a typical CEO bubble looks like.Back to top
Why is the CEO bubble dangerous?
Staying inside a CEO bubble is very comfortable, but very dangerous, both for an organization and a CEO himself. It may lead to not only missed business opportunities, deals, or chances but also some potential risks that may pass unnoticed, putting a business in jeopardy. No company wants to lose out on the chance to become an industry leader because of missing the early signals of changing trends or competitors making significant moves.
As CEOs are usually responsible for making key decisions, setting goals, or changing a course of company direction, they constantly need to be on top of the issues; otherwise, an organization can go astray, and eventually suffer heavy losses or, in the worst-case scenario, even go bust.Back to top
How to get out of the CEO bubble?
As Richard Branson said: “Being a modern business leader is all about having your finger on the pulse and knowing what you’re talking about.”
The only sure way out of the CEO bubble is to understand that your judgment, as the CEO, can’t be clouded by incomplete information. While being aware of the CEO bubble's existence is the first step to leaving it, it’s also critical to recognize potential risks resulting from staying inside it and taking bold and decisive action to be always up to date with the latest bona fide company news.
Despite the comfort provided by the obliviousness inside the CEO bubble, it’s essential to learn effective strategies on how to get out of the CEO bubble since hard truth is always better than the most beautiful lies. Despite it isn’t easy, each CEO, with the appropriate approach, can stay in the loop of his or her organization.Back to top
7 Effective Strategies on How to Get Out of the CEO Bubble
According to Mai-Britt Poulsen, the managing partner for Boston Consulting Group in the UK, Ireland, the Netherlands, and Belgium, who shared her insights in the LinkedIn video on the CEO Bubble and how CEOs may break it, using several specific strategies:
1. Be really close to your frontline.
CEOs can’t be cut off from the outside world, sitting constantly in their own office. It makes them isolated and out of touch with reality. The only solution is to start going out and “engage frequently with frontline leaders, employees, and customers,” as Mari-Britt Poulsen advises.
By talking to people, you can learn much more about your company and its challenges than from elaborate reports, prepared with the intention to impress you. Once you realize that people are the pulse of your organization, you will never stop keeping your finger on it as they can be an immensely valuable source of inspiration, motivation, and new ideas.
When you look at your calendar, you will see in black and white how much time you spend on getting to know your frontline leaders’ everyday challenges. I bet not so much so maybe it’s time to change it? Once you approach this issue like any other business objective and block time in your calendar to spend more time with your key frontline leaders, you might get unexpected results.
2. Listen to your customers.
To stay on top of your organization’s challenges, you need to be constantly in touch with both your frontline managers, and rank-and-file employees, but most of all, customers. They are always brutally honest and get down to the nitty-gritty very quickly. By listening carefully to your customers, you will discover your company's pain points that nobody wants or is ready to admit.
This strategy is effectively used by famous leaders such as Tim Cook or Jeff Bezos who run billion-dollar companies, but still want to keep their ear to the ground by being accessible to their customers and reading emails from them.
Your main point is to question everything in order to dig deep into your company's underlying issues.
3. Look at your organizational structure.
One of the aspects that may heavily influence the quality of information which gets to you, the CEO, is the organizational structure of your company. Generally, the more levels of management between the CEO and the frontline employees, the more distorted communication. You don’t need to make your company hierarchy flat at once, but maybe it would be worth thinking over its organizational structure to assess if you really need so many levels of management.
Note that a very complicated company structure may cause miscommunication. If for some reason, it isn’t possible to simplify your company structure, you can still take action to facilitate the flow of information between you and your teams.
4. Ask the right questions.
According to Harvard Business Review article, titled "The Surprising Power of Questions", “Asking a lot of questions unlocks learning and improves interpersonal bonding,” so the only way to not only discover true pain points of your employees and customers but also build trust and rapport is to pose well-thought-out questions. When used intentionally, questioning may be also an exceptionally useful tool for “uncovering unforeseen pitfalls and hazards.”
The best method to learn something new or uncover information is to ask open-ended questions which are a great source of innovation, triggering unforeseen responses expected by nobody. As a CEO, if you plan to learn more about your employees' setbacks or challenges, you may just ask an open-ended question and listen.
When people feel your genuine interest and care and don’t feel pressured, they are willing to share more than you think. You will be surprised how much information that can help you escape potential risks and pitfalls you can get by asking people a well-thought-out question and giving space to answer it.
5. Surround yourself with people different from you.
As mentioned before, when you are at the top level, not many employees in the company want to challenge you and openly oppose your opinions. With that in mind, your primary goal should be to find and surround yourself with business partners, managers, or other leaders who not only have enough courage to say what they think even if it goes against your way of thinking but also are different from you.
Why should they be different? Only people who have different experiences, different backgrounds, and a different viewpoint can tell you something you don’t know and draw your attention to some topics, issues, or challenges that otherwise you would never think of.
6. Seek negative feedback.
A lot of CEOs think that their ideas and opinions are the best and nobody should question them, as a result, few people dare to stand up to their bosses who are trapped in the airtight CEO bubble at their whim.
However, the opposite approach that is used by the most successful CEOs on this planet is more effective. Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla, SpaceX, and Neuralink, famous for actively seeking negative feedback, in an interview with Betty Liu, said:
“I think that you should always be seeking negative feedback. Positive feedback you’ll get automatically, particularly if it’s a friend. They’re happy to praise or compliment you on something, but they are less likely to tell you if you’re doing something stupid. They don’t want you to feel bad.”
This strategy is inextricably interconnected with the previous one, as different points of view may result in negative feedback that may force you to deeper analysis and greater innovativeness.
7. Get rid of the narcissistic mindset.
Some CEOs, who have the biggest problems with bursting the CEO bubble, beam with power and prestige, making an impression of being very distant, infallible, and omniscient. That aura of authority and dominance is so extremely intimidating to their employees that those leaders can never expect honest feedback from anybody in the company.
Note that thinking of yourself as flawless and larger-than-life makes you unreceptive to your subordinates’ ideas and opinions. Maintaining this power mindset may keep you inside the CEO bubble longer than you wish since people feel whether you are really interested in their thoughts or not.
According to Morten Dalum, CEO and Founder of Acadal and Playground Institute:
“If your people don't give honest feedback or if your people are afraid to upset you, it is your problem. Not your peoples' problem! If you approach your people with a power mindset you can be as close to your frontline, asking the right questions, and surround yourself with the best team but you will still not get the feedback.
Instead, loosen up, give your people the freedom to contribute. As CEO you don't need all the answers - let your people join the conversation on a level playing field.”
Once you decide to change your mindset and start valuing your subordinates' views, it will be easier to repeatedly commit time to your frontline leaders and customers. By getting to know their way of thinking, their work habits, everyday challenges, you can get lots of food for thought.
All in all, bursting the CEO bubble is possible, but challenging. It usually requires taking intentional action, but getting out of the CEO bubble may reward your effort with many benefits, including widening your horizon and creating new ideas. Once you leave your CEO bubble, you may start looking at challenges from different perspectives that can open new opportunities and that can be very profitable for your organization.Back to top
Author: Justine Ilone Siporski is the founder, CEO and Editor-in-chief of BUSINESS POWERHOUSE, the founder and CEO of LANGUAGE EMPIRE, coach, trainer, investor and columnist dedicated to the advancement of entrepreneurs, investors and the C-suite (CMOs, CEOs, CFOs, CIOs). Her key mission is to support leaders, business professionals and investors in achieving their highest potential, making the right business and investing decisions, and expanding their horizons.