Barbara DeBuono, CEO of Orbis, sat down recently with Adam Bryant of the New York Times for his Corner Office interview series. Orbis is a global health organization that helps to treat and prevent blindness. DeBuono offered some terrific leadership advice:
Let’s start with leadership. Be very careful that you don’t cut yourself off from everyone, either by hanging out in your office by yourself or hanging out in your office or your suite with three or four key people. I’ve seen that happen a lot — where people are in their bunker with three or four people, and they block everything else out. You lose all touch with your external customers and your internal customers, and nobody has a sense of your vision; nobody has a sense of who you are. I think that’s a huge mistake.
The other thing is to be articulate early on about what you want to do and who you are, but don’t be afraid to actually say, “It’s not all baked.” I think a lot of people go into a job as a leader or C.E.O. and say: “I have to have the whole vision thing. I have to have the whole mission thing down, with all the strategic objectives, all the programs to support that, all the pillars — and if I don’t, they won’t take me seriously.” I would say, “Don’t be afraid that you haven’t figured all of that stuff out, because really you should be spending your first six months to a year just learning the organization.”
How can you articulate a fully baked vision and mission and strategic objectives when you have to learn the business you’re in? Just learn the business, learn the people in your business, learn what they hope and feel, learn what they think the business is. Do they understand the business that you’re in? I’ve always been struck by how often people don’t.
DeBuono offers two critical pieces of advice there. First, I can't tell you how many new leaders fall into the trap of spending far too much of their time talking to just a few other senior folks in the organization. They isolate themselves from the troops, because they feel that they have to have a bunch of stuff figured out first before interacting with the front-line employees. That's a mistake. Being visible early on is key. However, DeBuono also suggests that being visible doesn't require having a fully-baked vision ready to be rolled out on Day 1. New leaders can use that early face time to learn, to soak in as much knowledge as they can about the organization. Moreover, that face time offers powerful symbolic value. It shows a level of transparency and engagement that will be respected and valued by the front-line employees.