This morning I came across a case study in the online Harvard Business Review that I found quite fitting. The title was, "Who Can Help the CEO?" It posed the question of where a CEO can turn for safe and reliable advice. (April 2009 Harvard Business Review).
The basic premise was that the CEO had lost his second VP of Sales in two years, a week before the board meeting. He was having trouble meeting the board's expectations of building a solid team, and this was certainly not going to help.
He was frantic and didn't know where to turn. He talked to friends; he talked to executive coaches; and he talked to his wife. He rarely sought input from others: subordinates, peers, customers. He knew he had big problems, but he just didn't know how to start in resolving them.
The thing I liked about this case study is that it invited online comments from the readers. There were some real nuggets in there, many of which were applicable not just to this situation, but to the work we do with executives here at Geehan Group.
One reader's comment was, "Learning is hard to do if you feel like you have to be 'telling' instead of 'asking.' And if there's anything CEO's need to be doing, it's learning - from their customers . . . " When our clients meet with their strategic customers, whether in advisory board meetings, ESP's, executive summits or whatever the case may be, we advise them to do 80% listening; 20% talking.
And here's another: "He should talk directly and openly to the pleased and the displeased and see what he can do to continue the positive and replace the negative -- and build a mechanism for making this an ongoing conversation, not a once-in-a-while activity."
The key to that last statement is building a mechanism for ongoing conversation. Engaging customers must be thought of in terms of a long-lasting initiative rather than one-off events just to get some quick answers.
One of the benefits of ongoing dialogue , whether with customers or your internal team, is strategically identifying issues before they become problems. If this CEO had this mindset, he might not be going to his board meeting red-faced and panicked.