The Isolation Trap
Problem-finders do not allow themselves to become isolated from their organization and its constituents. They tear down the barriers that often arise around senior leaders. They reach out to the periphery of their business, and they engage in authentic, unscripted conversations with those people on the periphery. They set out to observe the unexpected, while discarding their preconceptions and biases.
Unfortunately, far too many senior executives of 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. 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 frontline employees, their customers, and their suppliers.
The isolation trap does not afflict only senior leaders. Leaders at all levels sometimes find themselves isolated from those who actually know about the problems that threaten the organization. Yes, many leaders 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 the true problems facing the organization.
Problem-finders recognize the isolation trap, and they set out to avoid it. They put themselves out there; they open themselves to hearing about, observing, and learning about problems. Problem-finders acknowledge and discuss their own mistakes publicly. They recognize that one cannot make great decisions or solve thorny problems unless one knows about them. Novartis senior executive Larry Allgaier told me recently that he always keeps in mind an adage: "I worry the most about what my people are not telling me."33 That statement reflects the philosophy of the successful problem-finder. They worry deeply about what they do not know. They worry deeply that they do not know what they do not know.34