The adage “it’s lonely at the top” can be quite accurate. So, when business leaders develop strong working and personal relationships with their second-in-commands they usually relax, step back and loosen the reigns.
This can be a real blind spot for CEOs, however. Lacking specific skill sets for close reporting relationships, CEOs often discover — too late — that their most trusted lieutenants are causing the most damage to the business.
Of course, very few people intentionally sabotage things. A CEOs’ closest reports are probably trying to do their best for the company, but they might not have the necessary leadership skills or be right for the role. Colleagues might wonder, “Why is the CEO allowing his closest report to get away with so much bad stuff?” That questioning quickly undermines the CEO’s credibility and rapidly erodes trust within the company.
These blunders may happen for the following reasons:
- The individuals chosen for the lieutenant roles were appointed because of excellent past performance rather than a true fit between leadership skills and the demands for the current role. Essentially, trust between the CEO and the individual was more important than role-person fit.
- CEOs paid too little attention to the role of their lieutenant within the business, assuming they had it under control and didn’t sufficiently examine or challenge them.
- The friendship between CEOs and lieutenants created rose-colored lenses, distorting views about true work performance.
- CEOs lived in a vacuum because coworkers didn’t dare share negative feedback about their close lieutenants.
- CEOs fell victim to the halo effect, where past excellent performance made it difficult to see and believe the current underperformance of the lieutenant.
So what should CEOs and other business leaders do if they find themselves in this same spot? To prevent blind spots and benefit from a tight collaboration while ensuring the business doesn’t plummet, they could cultivate the following seven strategies:
- Balance friendship and work. Friendship involves two equals, but a boss-report relationship doesn’t. Consciously toggle between the equal friendship and the hierarchical reporting relationship. It’s tricky, but sophisticated leaders can do both and move between the two, leveraging different behaviors at different times.
- Engage in tough discussions. Develop the skills to have challenging conversations while preserving relationships.
- Evaluate relationship dynamics. If leaders want to avoid getting caught in this dilemma, they might ask themselves — with regard to each close direct report — “What dynamic in our relationship could be causing me to have an inaccurate view of things?” Trust, friendship and a past mentor dynamic are some examples.
- Solicit constant feedback. Actively pursue feedback from others about close reports, listen carefully and thank them for it.
- Consider, what aren’t you looking at? Leaders should consider what part of the business they’re paying less attention to in favor of other areas. They should examine what stones haven’t been turned over for a while, and take action there.
- Continually evaluate present performance. Take the current performance of lieutenants at face value, regardless of past successes. Notice which direct reports are at risk of the halo effect, and reconsider their performance with discerning eyes.
- Cultivate self-awareness. It’s important for leaders to be self-aware; they may long for a partner to help run the business. This is normal and human; it’s not a weakness. But CEOs must recognize that there’s a risk with their close direct reports; they have to consider how this longing impacts their perceptions and, ultimately, the business.
Close reporting relationships can become powerful, productive partnerships. And friendship in business is a fortunate side effect of working closely with others. Leaders are human, so it’s natural to form attachments, but they must develop sophisticated self-awareness and relationship skills in order to prevent potentially disastrous outcomes.
Deb Hordon is senior vice president of leadership strategy for Bullhorn, a cloud-based customer relationship management solutions company. To comment, email editor@CLOmedia.