Every leader has a gatekeeper or two amongst their team of closest advisers and confidantes. These folks serve a useful role in many cases. They manage the flow of information, so that the leader can use his or her time wisely. They help synthesize data, frame the pros and cons of particular options, and help leaders assess complex situations. They filter out issues that do not need to clog the leader's busy schedule. Unfortunately, gatekeepers also sometimes filter out the bad news, even if unintentionally. They also sometimes find themselves only telling the leader what they think the individual wants to hear. For that reason, I wrote years ago about the merits of occasionally "circumventing the gatekeepers" on your team, to insure that critical data and perspectives are not being filtered out in a manner that could lead to disastrous results. In the book, Know What You Don't Know, I wrote:
If leaders hope to uncover key problems in their organizations before they mushroom into large-scale failures, then they must understand why subordinates may choose to filter out bad news. They must be wary of how their own behavior may cause their advisors to hold back dissonant information. Leaders clearly must create a climate where people feel comfortable coming forward with new data, even data that might go against the dominant view in the organization. To become effective and proactive problem-finders though, leaders must go one step further. From time to time, leaders must circumvent the filters, reaching out beyond their direct reports to look at raw data, speak directly with key constituents, and learn from those with completely different perspectives than their closest advisors. In short, leaders need to occasionally “open the funnel” that typically synthesizes, packages, and constricts the information flow up the hierarchy. They have to reach down and out, beyond the executive suite and even beyond the walls of the organization, to access new data directly. They have to find information that has not been massaged and packaged into a neat, slick Microsoft PowerPoint presentation.
Later in the same chapter of the book, I profiled David Tacelli, CEO of LTX - a semiconductor test equipment company headquartered in Massacusetts. In an interview during my research, Tacelli described how important it was to not rely solely on one or two voices. Instead, he advocated a systematic approach to seeking different voices over time. Here's an excerpt:
In 2005 David Tacelli became the CEO of LTX Corporation, a producer of semiconductor test equipment located in Norwood, Massachusetts. Tacelli has implemented a rigorous customer review system to review the company’s major accounts on a regular basis. He aims to “surface customer service problems early” through this routine evaluation process. He has learned, though, that the system can become stale if the same senior manager reports on a particular customer at each review meeting. As he says, “They tend to filter. They think that they can fix the problem. Therefore, they do not tell anyone until far too late.” Therefore, Tacelli makes sure that everyone involved with a particular client presents over time at these review meetings. He explains:
“I rotate presenters very purposefully. If a problem surfaces at a particular meeting, I will go back to the person that presented at the previous meeting. I ask them if they were aware of the issue at the time of their presentation. If so, then I probe as to why they did not surface the issue sooner. The key is that I do not make that a blame game. I am simply trying to get them to understand that I want to hear about the issues sooner so that we can work together to fix them. Of course, I do look for patterns of mistakes. If someone repeatedly holds back on me, then I hold them accountable.”
Tacelli asks his managers to limit the number of slides they present at these meetings. He says, “I want them to talk with me and one another, not to read off of slides.” He explains that his role is to “play Jeopardy with them… to use the Socratic method to find out what the key issues are, to see what we know about the causes of particular customer complaints.”