Robert Steven Kaplan is a professor at Harvard Business School and former vice-chairman of Goldman Sachs. His new book is, “What to Ask the Person in the Mirror: Critical Questions for Becoming a More Effective Leader and Reaching Your Potential” (Harvard Business Review Press, Dec. 2011):
Decker: What’s the most common leadership failure you’ve seen in senior positions in the corporate world recently?
Kaplan: Failures normally don’t happen overnight. Crises take years and years to build up. What’s the biggest mistake I see leaders make? It’s isolation. You sit up there in the CEO’s office, and you can hear a pin drop on that top floor. It’s dangerous to be there because you don’t know what’s going on, and people don’t say what they really think when they come face to face with powerful leaders. They come to the executive office, or let’s say they go to meet the president of the United States. They may complain and moan about the president until they get in front of him - but then they turn to mush. It happens in business, too. You get isolated as a leader because you never have to interact. Every leader has blind spots, and if you’re isolated you’re going to make some poor decisions. CEOs need to start asking questions and engage people. They need to start asking for advice. “Why?” is a good question. “Explain it to me. I don’t understand.” If you have a leader who is confident enough to say, “I don’t know,” I’d bet on that guy. You asked, “What’s the difference between successful leaders and unsuccessful leaders?” It’s motivation to learn.
Decker: You portray the corporate leader as a role model. What’s the importance of that top-down message being sent throughout an organization?
Kaplan: The point for any leader is: What you say is nice, but what you do is what people pay attention to. A lot of people think they can give a speech or they can tell employees what to do, but then leaders do something totally contradictory. I frequently have executives say to me, “I don’t understand why my people come to me with problems too late. They come to me with problems, but way too late for us to deal with them. I don’t understand why I can’t get people to take initiative.” The first thing they say is, “Maybe I ought to replace my people.” I say to them, “What’s the vision for your company?” And they’ll say, “That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about what’s the problem with my people?” I ask about leaders’ vision, priorities and how they spend their time. Too often, it’s clear why people are confused because management can’t articulate a clear vision. People mimic their leaders: If the chief executive is inconsistent and sends mixed signals about what’s important, that’s what you’re going to get down the line.
Decker: Why is a deep bench vital for leadership succession?
Kaplan: The first job of any leader is to pick people who can take your place. If I’m going to be successful, I want a strong team. If I’m confident, I’m going to build that. If I’m insecure, I won’t. Many CEOs who fail are insecure and don’t surround themselves with strong people because they don’t want the board of directors to have an option to replace them. That creates problems because when an adverse situation arises, they don’t have the talent to solve the problem. When you surround yourself with excellence, you have a chance to be effective - but you’ve got to be confident.
Decker: In the book, you mention the need to believe in justice in the workplace. What do you mean?
Kaplan: So we’re all working together as a team. We have a clear vision. We have priorities. I’m coaching you. You’re coaching me. I’m not isolated. People have to believe to work here that it’s going to be fair. When that’s the case, employees help each other out. No one even knows, but the right things happen because an individual realizes, “I believe in this place. What goes around, comes around. I’m willing to do for others without trying to figure out what’s in it for me.” It’s not transactional. That’s what I mean by justice. Why does someone help an old lady cross the street? It’s not because I want something in return. It’s what I should be doing. I’m not doing it for the money. I’m doing it because it’s the right thing. Great institutions are built around those kind of people and that mindset. The whole team is pulling in the same direction because they believe in the place and what it’s about. What undermines that is when valuable employees start saying, “I deserve better.” Or there’s a job I deserved but I didn’t get promoted. That sense of unfairness has to be addressed. What I always say is, “We will make mistakes.” There will be points where an injustice is done to you, but I will promise you that over time you will wind up where you should be. Justice will prevail over time so don’t throw in the towel.
Decker: This clashes with the general public view of big companies as dog-eat-dog places where you have to claw your way to the top. Isn’t performance increased by fierce internal competition?
Kaplan: Not if you want to attract great people. There are a few superb individuals who will want to be in that kind of high-pressure environment, but not many. Why is that? Businesses are competitive as hell. If I’m trying to compete against Morgan Stanley, I’m going to need to bring everything I got to win this game. Or if I’m in the Army fighting a war, I have enough problems staying alive. I don’t want to worry about getting shot in the back of the head. If dog-eat-dog means, “I better look over my shoulder,” we’re not going to do a good job. A better way is that culture of all of us pulling together. Let’s use our competitive energy and project it outward, as opposed to on each other.