This week's Presidential inaugural festivities have quickly morphed into the daunting reality of governing. As he contemplated his assumption of office, President Obama repeatedly vowed that he is not going to let pressures and protocol deprive him from real, unscripted interactions with the American people. When interviewed by Barbara Walters last November, Mr. Obama noted that he was fighting to hang on to his Blackberry as a lifeline: “Well, I'm, I'm negotiating to figure out how can I get information from outside of the 10 or 12 people who surround my office in the White House. Because, one of the worst things I think that could happen to a President is losing touch with what people are going through day to day.”
To help counteract the isolation of the office, president Obama has surrounded himself with folks notable for adroitly taking the pulse of the American public, including the silver-tongued Millennial speechwriter Jon "Favs" Favreau, who reputedly coined the Obama campaign’s signature incantation “Yes we can.”
Yet ultroneous interaction is pert’ near impossible inside the bubble of the West Wing. The experience as a White House insider couldn’t be more foreign from that of “regular Americans.” The Presidential entourage doesn’t wait with the rest of us in traffic, get haircuts "worth" $200 aboard Air Force One, pump their own gasoline, or pad in stocking feet with 3 oz. bottles of shampoo in hand through magnetometers for the TSA.
Although isolation is most acute for President Obama and his staff, leaders at businesses can fall prey to a limited perspective managed and served up by “direct reports.” Corporate executives don't deliberately set out to limit their sources of information and insight, nor are the people who work for them sycophants parroting what they think their bosses want to hear. Nevertheless, it is shockingly easy to lose connection with what people actually think and what they’re doing day to day. It’s like the childhood game of telephone where various intermediaries garble what they hear until the message ultimately delivered has no meaningful relationship to the original communicative intent. And all too often the interests of executives trying to find out what’s really going on diverge from those of intervening layers of management intent on proving their value and effectiveness.
Whether a President, a CEO, or a mid-level executive, there’s really no substitute for listening and doing the legwork. It does little good for management to interact with front-line employees if everyone has been hand-picked for a photo op, or the visit has been sufficiently forecast to allow time to clean up and showcase what can be little more than a Potemkin Village.
That’s why Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts – an organization renowned for its customer service and cohesive workplace culture – has a ""direct line committee," where the most senior person in each hotel sits down with the most junior people every month. To augment this feedback, the company conducts annual opinion surveys among its 34,000 employees.
Some leaders like the CEO and COO of shoe juggernaut Zappos take employee input so seriously that they try to meet with every employee in a town hall format. Still, not everyone is comfortable asking the CEO an impertinent question in front of hundreds of coworkers.
The Home Depot thinks real, individual, spontaneous feedback is so essential to operating and governing its business that every member of the board of directors is required to visit at least 20 stores a year, not to catch employees doing something wrong, but to put themselves in the shoes of a regular customers.
On arrival at any Marriott hotel, CEO and patriarch Bill Marriott immediately heads to the loading dock. He’s found a strong correlation between a tidy loading dock and a well-run hotel – and something that’s hard to fake when a VIP visitor shows up.
Disney pioneered the idea of helping its top brass better understand the issues of front line employees by having executives don sweltering Disney character costumes and work the theme parts for a couple of days a year as part of its "Disney Dimensions" executive leadership development program.
Kidney dialysis leader DaVita runs a program for executives and managers called "Reality 101" that places leaders in clinics for three days to help them understand the technical, physical, and emotional demands of the job. Cynics deride such programs as meaningless pandering, but in many cases the experiences and insights from such immersion make their way back to the corner office.
Speaking informally to employees, fielding customer service calls or working the factory floor for a day won’t fully bridge the divide between the leaders and the led. The key is to remove the layers of opacity that prevent leaders from understanding the actual state of affairs when they are endeavoring to render crucial decisions. A first step: have leaders demonstrate not only that they’ll shut up and listen, but that they’re actually interested in and prepared to act upon what front line employees have to say. Workers just may tell the truth, and the truth will set all of us free.