You can’t know everything

In a meeting with one of my clients, a member of the leadership team mentioned that she was surprised when a member of the team she manages asked about a new development in another area of the business and this leader didn’t know about it.

The implication was that there was a communication breakdown at the leadership level and to her team it appeared that she was out of the loop.

I pushed back. Was it something she needed to know?

Growing businesses like the ones I work with require different things from their leaders. Some changes are obvious. Others are less so.

In the early days, everyone is a doer. But as you grow, leaders must become supervisors, managers or, well, leaders. Having to do everything will limit the growth potential of the company.

That part of leadership development is pretty straightforward.

But adaptation is also required when those leaders come together as a leadership team. They must play a new role there as well.

Just as they have to trust their team to perform their responsibilities, they must also trust other members of the leadership team to lead their part of the business.

That means that they can’t know everything going on because that would place another limit on the growth of the business. It would also make leadership team meetings a long series of informational updates. Anyone ever been in one of those?

As a business grows, you must become comfortable focusing your attention on fewer and more important aspects of the business. That goes for each leader individually and as a leadership team.

She asked how you know what you should share as a leadership team and what you shouldn’t. There’s only one way: constant communication.

If she felt like she really needed to know the information that surprised her, she should simply say to the leader of that part of the business, “My team surprised me with that and it would have been nice to know in advance.”

But I challenged her first to think hard about whether or not she really needed to know about it. If not, she could have simply replied to her team member by saying, “As the business continues growing I’m getting used no longer knowing everything that’s going on. But I have full confidence that the leader of that part of the business is leading well and will keep me in the loop whenever necessary.”

The only business where you can know everything is a small one. If you want it to grow, sooner or later you’re going to have to accept that you can’t know everything.

Elephants Don’t Bite

Near the end of The Invisible Leader (a book about which I will have more to say on this blog), author Zach Mercurio gave a useful analogy about African safaris to make a great point about modern business.

Mercurio pointed out that when people are on safari in Africa, they are focused on the elephants and giraffes in front of them. What aren’t they focused on? Malaria-carrying mosquitoes. Writes Mercurio:

Elephants don’t bite, but mosquitoes do. It is the small, even tiny, things that have a huge impact. Similarly, organizations focus on the big things – the branding initiative, strategic plan, key meeting, value proposition – while the little things are creating their reputations. How the receptionist out front says hello, how a call is handled or how an email is returned, these are all important experiences that, when added up, become the organization’s reputation.

What Mercurio is talking about, and something we wholeheartedly agree with, is the impact of customer experience on an organization’s reputation. Organizations can get the big things right, but it’s the hundreds or thousands of daily interactions with their customers that determine the public perception. It’s the little things that can kill you.

By the way, I looked it up. Elephants kill approximately 500 people per year, according to National Geographic. Mosquitoes? The W.H.O estimates 435,000 annual malaria deaths, or 870 times as many as elephants. Elephants don’t bite. Mosquitoes do. Get your organization to pay attention to the mosquitoes and you’ll stand a better chance of survival.