Far too many senior executives at large companies become isolated in the corner office. Their professional lives involve a series of handlers - people who take their calls, screen their email, drive them places, run errands for them, etc. They live in gated communities, travel in first class, and stay at five-star hotels. They have worked hard for these privileges; few would suggest that they don't deserve them. However, executives often find themselves living and working in a bubble. They lose touch with their front-line employees, their customers, and their suppliers.
Yes, many senior executives conduct town-hall meetings with employees, and they go on customer visits periodically. They tour the company factories or stores, and they visit supplier locations. However, these events are often highly orchestrated and quite predictable. People typically know that they are coming... which clearly alters the dynamic a great deal. Often, executives simply witness a nice show, put on by lower level managers to impress them. They don't actually come to understand the needs and concerns of people who work in their factories or consume their goods. Such isolation breeds complacency and an inability to see new threats or opportunities.
How can executives protect against becoming isolated at the top? First, engage your consumers and employees in authentic, unscripted conversations. At Xerox, CEO Anne Mulcahy and fellow corporate officers rotate serving as "Customer Officer of the Day" at the company's headquarters (one day per month for each executive). In that role, they must deal personally with all customer complaints that come to the headquarters that day. As Mulcahy says, "it keeps us in touch with the real world. It grounds us."
Second, go watch how consumers behave, rather than simply relying on the data summarized after marketing research folks have conducted surveys or focus groups. People call this "ethnographic marketing" because the researcher acts as an anthropologist watching people in their natural environment. At Proctor and Gamble, CEO A.G. Lafley engages in such direct consumer observation. A 2003 Forbes article describes Lafley making visits to consumer homes "incognito" so that he can learn directly from watching how people live and use his firm's products.
Third, go put yourself in your front-line employee's shoes for a day. Go work on the line - whether that be at the cash register in a supermarket or at a station along an assembly line. When I began working at Staples in the mid-1990s, after completing my MBA, my first assignment was to spend several days stocking shelves and running a cash register in a store. You learn a great deal about the business in this manner. Executives too need to periodically go to the front lines.
Finally, executives must interact with young people. Time spent with young people exposes executives directly to new societal and technological trends, as well as a different perspective on the world. They should visit college campuses, spend time learning about social networking sites, as well as listen to and watch some of the multimedia (music, books, television) that young people enjoy. Within their own firms, executives might even take up Gary Hamel's suggestion that they set up a "shadow executive committee" consisting of employees 20 years younger than the actual top team (2003 Harvard Business Review article). Seeking feedback from these young workers can provide a fresh perspective on the firm's strategies and initiatives.
In sum, executives must work hard to break out of the bubble that often forms around them as they rise to the top of large organizations. It takes a concerted effort, but the payoff is great. They will keep themselves grounded, as Mulcahy notes, and they will create bountiful opportunities for learning. That learning can drive innovation and improvement in their organizations.