Sep 092009

Scaling Frustrations

Scaling Frustrations

Two things have come up in spades lately for me that are frustrations for me as a CEO of a high growth company.  These are both people related — an area that's always been the cornerstone of my leadership patterns.  That probably makes them even more frustrating.

Frustration 1:  Worrying that I don't get completely candid feedback from deep in the organization.  I've always relied on direct interactions with junior staff and personal observation and data collection in order to get a feel for what's going on.  But a couple times lately, people had been warning me (for the first time) when I've relayed feedback with comments like, "Of course you heard that — you're the CEO.  People will tell you what they think you want to hear." 

So now the paranoid Matt kicks in a bit.  Can I actually trust the feedback I'm getting?  I think I can.  I always have.  I think I'm a good judge of character and am able to read between the lines and filter comments and input and responses to questions I ask.  But maybe this gets harder as the organization grows and as personal connections to me are necessarily fewer and farther between. I probably need to start recognizing that as the CEO, people may feel uncomfortable being totally open…and it is my job to figure out how to be sure people understand that I do want to hear their voices…unplugged and constructive.

Frustration 2:  Needing to be increasingly careful with what I say and how I say it.  This comes up in two different ways.  First, I want to make sure that while I'm still providing as transparent leadership as I can, that I'm not saying something that's going to freak out a more junior staff member because they're missing context or might misinterpret what I'm saying.  Ok, this one I can manage.

But the tougher angle on this is having unintended impact on people.  Throwing out a casual idea in a conversation with someone in the company can easily lead to a chain reaction of "Matt said" and "I need to redo my goals" conversations that aren't what I meant.  So I'm doing some work to formalize feedback and communication loops when I have skip-level check-ins, but it's creating more process and thought overhead for me than I'm used to.

Nothing is bad here – just signs of a growing organization – but some definite changes in how I need to behave in order to keep being a strong and successful leader.

7 responses to “Scaling Frustrations”

  1. Interesting timing on this Matt as it's recently come to my attention that the feedback I'm getting as co-owner/manager from within our own smaller but growing organization is also not necessarily as reliable as I'd hope. Evidently some folks say what they think I want to hear or don't say anything at all fearing that somehow they'll be punished for an idea I didn't like.

    As a manager, I make decisions based on the information that I have. With no ideas coming from other areas, it probably does look like corporate direction comes exclusively from the top, which over time has perhaps created this problem. A new project of mine is to solicit some real feedback, incorporate them into our processes, and to give credit to the sources.

    Good luck!

  2. #2 was a big issue at Apple – throwaway remarks by Steve would be treated as orders by the more nervous types in management. It took some smart folks to keep a steady course and understand what was direction, and what was just thinking out loud, and I'd imagine he had to be careful about what he said too.

    That's one of the weirdest things I've found about management, everybody around you is very attuned to your mood and your actions, so even minor comments can have a big impact.

  3. jdfalk says:

    Okay! Matt said to ignore the things he said. Got it. *grin*

  4. Especially this one, yes.

  5. Giff says:

    Definitely seen this as well — and getting honest information is so critical, whether feedback from employees or from customers.

    On the latter issue, among the most radically stark differences we saw in the kind of messaging an employee was comfortable with was between "startup veterans" and "startup newbies", which is easy to handle in 1-1 conversations, but made all-company calls quite a challenge at times.

  6. Pu10 says:

    I've noticed this problem in my organization as well. I changed the structure of meetings so now, instead of people giving me an update on their programs, they are asked to provide me with 3 things that they've accomplished/three things that are going well, and 3 concerns/problems they are having. In my mind, this provides a way for my managers to feel comfortable relaying bad information, while it also gives me an opportunity to reward them when things are going well. Would love to have your thoughts on this approach

  7. That’s a good idea – important to use not just with managers but deeper in the organization as well with any kind of check-in.