I had the opportunity to be with two different CEOs of major organizations this week. The two events afforded me the opportunity to interact with each for an extended time. While this is certainly not the first time that I have interacted with CEOs, it might be the first time that I was with two different CEOs on two consecutive days.
While very different in style, what I experienced were two people who deeply care about their respective organizations, especially the people. They were down to earth, easy to talk with and presented as just “regular folk.” You might say, “That’s not unusual. Many CEOs are probably caring and easy to talk with.” You are probably right.
The reason I think this is noteworthy to write about is that my experience with the people who support CEOs or very senior leaders is that they often type-cast them very differently. There is often some trepidation when interacting with the C-Suite and some degree of super-humanizing them. They will talk about higher-ups as if they are programmed or wired in a particular way, lacking the human frailties that all others possess. They characterize them as perfect, having all the “right” answers and therefore are not to be challenged (If not explicit, this is certainly often implied). We can spend inordinate amounts of time preparing for a 30-minute meeting with someone in the C-suite. It is not unusual to spend 16-20 hours developing just the right message to carry to the top. There can be at least three levels of approval—if not more—and 99% of the time, the material will still be in draft form hours before the meeting.
In my 30-plus years in business, I would be wealthy if I had $100 for every time somebody said, “we can’t take “bad news upstairs” (or some variation of this). We have to “spin” it (whatever it is) in a positive way for the senior leaders, as if they are programmed to only receive “happy reports”. If I had $50 for every time someone said, “Our culture is like X, and the leaders only respond to Y,” I would be among the super-rich. Most organizations are perpetually in the process of culture change. They claim to be evolving to be more innovative, or more customer focused, or more flexible or more something. If that if the case, you would think that senior leaders would not want those who support them to only tell them what they think they want to hear and in a way that they think they want to hear it. You would think that senior leaders would want to be challenged and would want to know the real deal, not couched in “corporate-communication speak.”
I guess those who are not senior leaders believe that if they misstep, they might get type-cast or stereotyped, and it could be a career breaker. I would also guess that most senior leaders were at one point more junior in the organization and perhaps behaved in the same way when dealing with superiors. I wonder, if more junior folks really believed that “leaders are people too” and more senior folks understood that they are “super-humanized”, would there be more authenticity in these relationships?