During a recent session I led with 30 senior CHROs, one person related a story about the CEO of a large financial institution who convened a meeting to review the results of a major strategic initiative. A team of his top executive leaders had been tasked with this initiative, and now it was time to assess the work done to date.
As the executive team presented its work product, the CEO noticed a major gap in their plan. A gap significant enough that it would have easily scuttled the entire initiative.
The CEO was noticeably frustrated when he called out the entire team for this misstep. “We have had dozens of our leaders working on this plan over the past few months,” the CEO said, “and I can’t understand how no one caught this problem. That is hard to believe given the fact that we have some pretty smart leaders here. Why was it left to me to call this out?”
I tried to imagine how and why this had happened. Maybe the team members all thought it was someone else’s job to speak up about the gap. Maybe everyone felt they would do more damage to their personal brands by pointing out the gap, and it was safer and easier to stay quiet. We’ve all seen people get punished for speaking out about something controversial.
No matter how many scenarios I concocted to explain this anecdote, I came to the same conclusion: This team likely knew all along about the gap but decided to “let it slide” in the hope that someone else would address it at a later date.
Have you ever experienced this in your own company?
To me, this represents one of the most powerful examples of unaccountable leadership that I’ve seen or heard about.
I’ve certainly experienced the “let-it-slide” phenomenon over my own career. You see a lot of people working hard on a priority project. Some may see problems and gaps, but do nothing about it. They know things are off track or have a sense that the quality of work is poor. Yet, they just let it go, let things get worse, and hope that someone else fixes it.
Today you read and hear a lot about the need for leaders to demonstrate courage, but it’s often unclear what that actually means in practice. Courage is a pretty nebulous concept, something that we have trouble describing but can recognize when we see it. And I can say that letting things slide is definitely an example of a lack of leadership courage.
Take a few minutes to reflect on your own performance. Are you letting things slide? What’s the price your company might be paying in terms of wasted time, money and resources because you won’t step up and identify obvious problems?
You may think that letting things slide is a good way to get ahead. Keep your head down and everything will be okay. But as the anecdote above demonstrates, at some point someone will call you out and then everyone will suffer as a result.
This week’s gut check asks: are you letting things slide?