A popular reality TV show has top executives spending time in the field doing the work of front-line staff. The show is filled with examples of CEOs learning from the experience and making big changes to their company as a result.
In the business world, there’s a tendency for top executives to become out of touch with the experiences and problems the people at the bottom of the organizational hierarchy. These are the people who make and design products and services, or who interact directly with the people who pay the bills – the customers.
The ivory tower syndrome occurs when top management becomes disconnected from the reality of the business. Organization size, complexity, and information filtering all contribute to the problem. Leaders who isolate themselves too much from the day-to-day activity of their business run the risk of losing touch with their employees, their customers, and potentially even the company’s mission. In addition to a communication problem, this also represents an executive team that is out of touch because it relies entirely on the chain of command to get information about important issues instead of being directly plugged into the day-to-day activities.
The daily burden of casting vision, overseeing operations, and leading others causes a time crunch. Unless leaders specifically set aside time to make sure they stay in touch with the heartbeat of the organization, it is easy to lose a feeling for what made a company successful in the first place.
As a starting point, leaders must establish a safe environment where anyone can provide feedback without fear of retribution. Once this environment is created, leaders can take the following practical advice to avoid the ivory tower syndrome.
Every Monday, take 20 minutes to review employee feedback, paying particular attention to the feedback from employees who are farthest from you on the organization chart.
Every Tuesday, take 20 minutes to chat (in person, by phone, etc.) with a different employee each week. Get to know them and understand the work challenges they face. This will encourage them to reach out to you when they see something that you ought to know. Once in a while spend time meeting an employee who is leaving.
Every Wednesday, take 20 minutes to speak with a disgruntled customer. By having a better understanding of their pain points, you may be able to rebuild the relationship or improve your business.
Every Thursday, take 20 minutes to seek out internally what led to the customers’ dissatisfaction. Keep asking why? until you have a satisfactory answer.
Every Friday, take 20 minutes to research one of your competitors. This could include reviewing their job listings, reading the latest information posted on their website/ blogs, or signing up for product demos when possible.
The ivory tower syndrome is a common occurrence that can affect most busy leaders, unless the leader pays conscious attention, and allocates time, to staying in touch with those towards the bottom of the organization. One of the most critical steps to avoid this syndrome is for leaders to designate a small portion of their day to directly acquiring information FROM employees and customers.