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Keith McCambridge

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Why everywhere smells of fresh paint

People mislead their bosses, and bosses under-estimate the degree to which they are being misled. A CEO or Executive Director can wield considerable power, anointing those who deliver and marginalising those who don’t. Most employees want to please their boss and are usually determined to avoid his or her wrath.  Consequently, people can behave in extraordinary ways as they focus upon their own protection rather than applying their energies to the sustainable success of the business.

In practice, people can disguise the grim reality of the organisation, painting instead a more upbeat picture.  Their actions lay a smoke screen and make the job of leading the enterprise much harder.

We have always been struck by the amount of time that goes into the preparation of presentations and materials for Executive meetings. Organisations can be singularly preoccupied in the weeks leading up to a key Executive session, immersed in the design, look and feel of the material, and also in the rehearsal and staging of its delivery. Through this process, it is not uncommon for important content to be stripped out in order to ‘land the right message’.

Once the meeting starts, the presentations usually attempt to influence the Executive team towards a particular decision or course of action. The resulting message, however, can sometimes be a glossy, coherent and yet divisive fib. It has probably happened to you.

When we say ‘fib’, it is important to emphasise that, in our experience, these are very rarely consciously made. The fib sometimes is more a distraction – for example, focusing on those things that are going well and camouflaging those that are problematic. And, of course, the act of polishing a presentation for Executive consumption is not necessarily a bad thing – this is done out of respect for the senior players and in recognition of their scarce time. But nevertheless, the net result is that this process of messaging and refinement can distort the underlying reality, making it even harder for the boss to smell a rat and see beyond the beautifully choreographed story.

This is where experience and the hairs on the back of your neck come in handy. Putting people on the spot and not letting go until you are satisfied is critical. Even then of course, there can be other obstacles.  A grilling from the CEO can be so uncomfortable to watch, and the ethos of teamwork so ingrained in a culture, that other people often jump in to help the poor beleaguered presenter. Many times you may have heard: “I think we ought to take this off line” or “It is too early to talk in detail about the progress of the project at this stage.”

So what is the CEO to do, other than trust his/her instinct and push hard when he/she does not understand the rationale?

Of course, it is a very narrow CEO or Executive Director who depends solely upon Executive meetings for their understanding of the business. Many of these problems can be headed off by being visible - and we mean really visible – in the operation and with customers.

As leaders, we must be constantly present, open and vigilant, so the organisation has no choice but to show us ‘normal’. Your arrival should not be announced nor should you need a guide or a briefing before you talk to people or experience a location. You should be regular feature. Your leaders must do the same as this is the only way to encourage real transparency and know the truth first hand, rather than through the circus mirror of slick presentations in remote board rooms.

Her Majesty, The Queen probably smells fresh paint all the time. One can imagine that she rarely sees what a school or hospital looks like on a normal day. Her hosts want to please her so they put on a show – a show that usually can only be sustained for a short period of time before everything reverts to ‘normal’.  Are your (well-intentioned) people doing this for you?

So the message is to get out there. But we acknowledge this advice may trigger frustration, maybe even irritation, in many CEOs and Executive Directors. Of course we would all like to get out more, spend more time in the business. What prevents us, however is the barrage of issues to be dealt with: strategy, operations, budgets, people, brand, legal, environmental – the list is endless, and the constant stream can keep us billeted in HQ morning, noon and night.

None of this stuff makes sense, however, unless it is built on an accurate, realistic, and current understanding of the organisation.  As leaders we must find the time to build and maintain this constantly evolving picture. There are few higher priorities.

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