How CEOs Can Identify Their Blind Spots

Leaders need to seek outside help to improve organizational culture

Back Article Oct 25, 2018 By Jessica Kriegel

Do CEOs really want to know what their employees say about them? Do they actually want to hear about inefficiencies, overly-complex workarounds or gossip going around the coffee machine? Of course they should — although many don’t.

CEOs need to fully understand the values, beliefs and norms of their organizational culture before they can create any change. But it’s challenging for a CEO to reach this depth of understanding because, unsurprisingly, people have a difficult time giving the person at the top bad news. The CEO controls the purse strings, and the hiring and firing decisions. Giving the leader critical feedback, telling them what they are doing wrong or where their blind spots exist, can be — to put it mildly — a career-limiting move.

CEOs are often most blind when it comes to their close leadership team. These are hand-picked, trusted executives who work closely together toward a common goal. Here’s the problem: Those leaders have blind spots, too. They may be excellent at managing up but terrible at managing down.

Related: Unconscious Bias in Talent Reviews

How is a CEO to gather reliable intel? You can start by conducting an anonymous employee engagement survey to get valuable intel fast. Although, surveys can be limiting. Many employees question whether they are truly anonymous and refrain from being fully transparent. Results also vary depending on the employee’s state of mind when taking the survey and whether they bother to fill out comment sections. Not to mention that questions are usually on a 1-10 scale and don’t offer much explanation for why employees rate as they did.

When seeking unfiltered feedback, some leaders look to employee reviews on Glassdoor or exit interviews conducted by human resources, but in both scenarios, it’s already too late.

A leader could also cultivate a courageous, trusted employee to share the good, the bad and the ugly. That role of consigliore is valuable, but usually short-lived: The ability to keep the trust of both the staff and the CEO is a balancing act not easily maintained. And a leader shouldn’t put that burden on an employee.

A third-party, outside consultant has enormous value in their objectivity and ignorance about the existing culture. They can walk into an organization and ask the dumb questions necessary to understand what’s really going on.

So, who has the necessary objectivity, expertise and time to deep-dive into the depths of the organization to discover the weakest link in the chain of command? How can a CEO figure that out if no one really tells them the truth? The answer: The CEO must ask for outside help.

CEOs often opt for a coach. While coaches are great, their purpose is to give the leader accountability toward their own goals. Most leaders actually need help in uncovering blind spots — that’s what an organizational development consultant specializes in. A third-party, outside consultant has enormous value in their objectivity and ignorance about the existing culture. They can walk into an organization and ask the dumb questions necessary to understand what’s really going on.

Organizational development consultants are curious. They take the time necessary to discover what’s working and what’s not. They ask questions and keep their sources confidential. They synthesize themes and make recommendations to leadership. They provide a voice on behalf of employees — a voice that speaks the truth to top management without the repercussions.

As an organizational development consultant, my first step is to ask the key question: Are you, as the leader, fully prepared for me to come back and tell you that you are the problem? The last step is to hold up a mirror to the organization and say: Here is what is really going on.

Here’s why you need to hire an organizational development consultant right now.

You will prevent small issues from becoming large ones. Most people reach out too late, when cultural issues become so great they can no longer be denied — and then they become much harder to address.

You will learn something beyond what is going wrong. You will gain outlying insights into the state of your business. You may be presented with fresh ideas on how to solve current problems. You might see existing issues from a new perspective that allow for greater clarity about options moving forward. You’ll be able to make better decisions because you’ll have a more complete picture.

You will build morale. Your team members want to know that you trust their ideas, and showing you value their input is an important step toward building employee engagement. The key to success, however, is to act on their input. You don’t have to take their advice, but you do need to listen.

Still skeptical that you need outside help? Well, then ask yourself: How else are you going to figure out what you don’t know?