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Lonely at the top? Find a good advisor – CEO Reflections #1

Updated August 20, 2022 by Carl Lindberg

Do you need more feedback as a leader? Do you need someone to talk confidentially with? It is lonely on the top of the pyramid sometimes. Here is one way to get an adviser that I have discovered during my career as a leader, especially when it comes to the management teams I have headed.

Is it lonely at the top of the pyramid?

The top of the organizational pyramid can get very lonely at times. It isn’t always easy to be the boss, right? I see two parts in this loneliness, namely lack of a confidant and lack of feedback. The later one is easier to fix in my mind, please continue reading.

Not having a trusted person with similar insight that you can discuss things openly and honestly with sometimes feel lonely. You cannot talk to your direct reports about everything, especially not about certain things that will effect them at a later stage. When you are having a tough period with a lot of difficult decisions you can of course turn to friends and family. The problem is that they have limited knowledge about the situation and the people involved making it difficult to really discuss the problem with them.
Perhaps you have a boss that you can discuss things with, but those relationships are often flawed. With some bosses you cannot show a crack in your armor or describe something difficult without having to look forward to loss of trust, micromanagement and similar things. Truly good leaders can handle this though, and can listen without altering their image of their direct report or feeling disappointed. But, as we move up the ladder, this gets more and more difficult. If you are lucky to have the good kind of leader that you can really talk with, does that leader in turn have someone to talk to?

Obtaining feedback from your team members

There have been many times over the years when I have been struggling a bit due to lack of feedback and 100% honest opinions. You make decisions every day, and sometimes you wonder whether they are good or bad, right? In some cases you will know for sure, in other cases you will simply have no idea.

I often ask the employees in our pyramid for feedback, but there are some problems in doing so:

  • Some people would see asking for feedback as a weakness. The strong tough boss shouldn’t have to ask
  • If the feedback is bad, many employees will not have the guts to tell their leader. Either because of concerns for “shoot the messenger” or perhaps they are part of the problem which they might not want to admit
  • If the feedback is good, many employees will be worried to seem like they are sucking up to the boss, so perhaps they keep it to themselves
  • If the feedback is good, perhaps the one giving it actually is sucking up to you. Is there a way to know for sure?

If asking for feedback is perceived as a weakness..

I don´t really care about the first one. I am OK with someone thinking I am weak since I know I am not. This could still be a problem for the person thinking you are a weak boss – it could make them doubt in their future, skeptical and less motivated if they see flaws in their boss. Some people are simply like that. When in front of such a person, I don´t mind saying: “Some people might say that asking for feedback as a boss is a weakness. I don´t see it that way, and I don´t care about the perception. I know I´m tough enough when that´s needed.” Do note that I say this for them, not for me.

What if people don´t dare to give you negative feedback?

If people do not dare giving you negative feedback you have a big problem. At least if your direct reports do not dare to give you negative feedback. This can be very dangerous as you run the risk of having a complete misconception of reality if the bad news rarely reach you and no one questions your poor decisions, even if they know beforehand that it will go bad.

Do you have several layers in your organization? Perhaps several hundred employees? I wouldn’t worry about not getting negative feedback from people far away from you in the organization. Employees that never interact with you and perhaps see you a few times a year cannot be expected to be able to give poor feedback in general. Who wants to be remembered as the guy with the complaint? If you want feedback from individuals you barely know, then you need to create the right environment for it through skip level meetings, small town hall dialogues etc.

Let me stress the first paragraph once more: if your direct reports do not dare to give you negative feedback, then you are in trouble. Take a good look in the mirror and start working on how to change this around to the better.

Are people sucking up or worried it would look like they do?

Yes, people are sometimes worried they would look like suck-ups to their colleagues or to you as a leader if they provide you with positive feedback. I have worked in many cultures over the years, and there are some cultures where giving positive feedback is OK and some where there isn’t.. That’s just how it is. What you can do is to create the optimum environment for feedback giving when you ask for it. It doesn’t hurt to say: “Do you have any feedback? Good or bad doesn’t matter, getting another perspective is the most important thing. Don´t worry, you won´t be judged and I can take it.” The last portion is not going to be enough for everybody to speak, but it will be sufficient for some of them. And it doesn’t cost anything to say. Obviously, if you are a power mongering, snake like inauthentic leader then no one will believe you anyway so no need to bother.

Then what about the real suck ups?

If we forget the worry part then.. Are people sucking up to you? I am sure they are. Luckily, the suck-ups are normally easy to filter out from the honest feedback givers. Their body language normally reveals them, here are a few examples. If someone fits several of these, they are probably suck ups. Or they are simply a little weird, that happens as well.

  • Smiling too much or providing a nervous laughter
  • Leaning in to you, seeking eye contact in a more than normal kind of way
  • They NEVER give you negative feedback
  • No chance that they would hold back positive feedback until you ask – they will be all over you
  • They will tell you jokes and laugh themselves all the time
  • In a group, they will never care about eye contact with other particants than you

Now don´t get me wrong. There is no need to judge anyone. Someone that is a suck up might still be a skilled and productive member of your organization. It simply means you should never trust any positive feedback from them. You probably shouldn’t trust any negative feedback either since the truth is probably far worse if the suck up even dares to say something bad.

Ensure feedback: get yourself an adviser or two..

Need more feedback?

During my career, I have several times managed to find a confidant my group of direct reports or someone I work with in a matrix with only a dotted line to me. This person would be a balanced individual who, given the right circumstances, will give you positive and negative feedback in a good and straight forward face. React in the wrong way and you will likely destroy this relationship immediately. When looking for a person who can fit the role as your advisor, look for these circumstances:

  • Someone who has no reason to feel threatened by you or anyone else in the team
  • Someone with confidence and insight
  • Perhaps someone who has a slightly different role than most of the others in you group of direct reports – almost like a third party

If you find one, what should you ask about?

If you have a person like this, then try to seek his or her advice on different matters. I personally prefer concrete things such as:

  • How do you think that presentation went? Anything that can be improved?
  • Do you think I am being to tough with the team right now? Anyone you think I need to boost?
  • Are people positive or negative our there, what do you hear?
  • Anything I could have done better this year, any ideas?
  • What did I do good this last period? Anything I should keep doing?

This can be a gold mine of information and reflections if you manage to get it going. Avoid asking advice about this persons peer’s though – this would put the person in a difficult position. Also, don´t ask for feedback or advice too often, then it will be a sign of insecurity or weakness. Just ask about the situations where you don´t feel strong indications or where you really need to learn.

Have you had an advisor in your team of direct reports or in your management team? What kind of person was that and how did you interact? Please comment so we can all get inspired!

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