Don’t Be Lonely at the Top

Ron Ashkenas’ recent Harvard Business Review article, How to Overcome Executive Isolation, highlights the dangers inherent in senior executives becoming distanced from day-to-day operations. It’s a situation that can be a significant issue in mining, where the executive team may be based in a different continent from operations. 

So, what are the dangers of executive isolation? And how can they be overcome?


The dangers of executive isolation

Ashkenas, a consultant and author of books such as Simply Effective: How to Cut Through Complexity in Your Organization and Get Things Done, argues that leadership isolation results in poor decision making and less effective leadership.

Without direct access to performance data, those at the very top are fed carefully-managed messages that have been filtered through layers of management. In the same way that the Queen of England is said to believe that every building smells of fresh paint, so some senior mining executives may conclude that all their operations are trouble-free.

Few executives can become immersed in the minutiae of every aspect of their organisation and their second in commands have a duty to make sure those at the top have a good understanding of operations. But reality TV shows such as Back to the Floor and Undercover Boss have revealed the startling insights leaders can get from simply mixing with operational teams a few levels down the hierarchy.

Executives get a spun version of truth – and restricted access to people’s real opinions – for a variety of reasons, including fear, sycophancy and cultural issues. It gets worse, says Ashkenas, when the leader lacks confidence and feels he or she needs to make every decision. As a result, they surround themselves with yes-men and stop taking on board others’ advice.

We’ve recently conducted a series of interviews with leaders with long and successful track records, for a forthcoming research report, On the Shoulders of Giants; people like Ross Beaty, Lukas Lundin and Catherine MacLeod Seltzer.

One of the most common features we noticed among our interviewees was the motivation to surround themselves with excellent and honest colleagues in the boardroom. Unsurprisingly, each had the confidence in their own ability to be open to ideas and suggestions from their peers.

Secondly, most of the interviewees attributed at least some of their success to a mentor or coach early in their career and several continued using mentors well into their executive career. Maryse Belanger, a board member of Mirabela, True Gold, Newmarket Gold and Plateau Uranium told us:

“Even at the senior vice president level I have had a mentor and a coach as well; somebody to talk to, somebody to help reflect on things as well. An important part of leadership is asking yourself questions and reflecting on things. It’s not always easy to do that on your own. You need somebody to discuss ideas and concepts.”

Ashkenas reports a case study of an executive who, as part of his pitch for the CEO role in his firm, assembled an advisory team with diverse opinions to help him form a rounded view of the challenges facing the company. Having secured the role, he dispensed with the team’s services and built a leadership team of like-minded people. Two years later, he was sacked for underperformance.

Numerous writers, including David Pendleton and Adrian Furnham in Leadership – All You Need to Know, have emphasised the need for leadership team members to have complementary – but not precisely the same – competences and views to be truly effective. A visionary CEO, for instance, may need the support of a reliable COO who can convert that vision into a clear plan of action and get the organisation rallying behind it.

Even a wide leadership team, however, can become isolated from day-to-day mining operations. That’s one reason why all our recent leadership interviewees stressed the need to spend time in operations early in any mining leadership career.

Legendary mining executive, Hugh Morgan, told me, “You’re better to get your hands dirty from experience with communities learning the flexibility that’s required to handle people, getting exposure to the multiplicity of obligations of management, remote location issues, and supply chain management. You get a first-hand experience of all that very quickly. It’s something you’ll never get in a university.”

Ian Pearce, Partner at X2 and former CEO of Xstrata Nickel, added, “Later in your career, as a CEO, you visit people who are doing these jobs and because you spent time doing them yourself, you can relate to the challenges they face.”


How to avoid executive isolation

  • Be particularly alert to the way people interact with you when you first move into an executive or leadership role. Do you get a sense that you’re hearing less than you should? Are you being managed upwards?
  • Consider the data analysed in leadership meetings. How much is needed? What gets omitted or overlooked? Is it presented in an easily digestible form? Is it credible?
  • Avoid a blame culture. This doesn’t mean people should avoid taking responsibility but witch-hunts are often a distraction from finding solutions.
  • Create a culture of genuine openness where people at all levels will be open with you or the rest of the leadership team about any problems or issues – easy to say but hard to implement.
  • Ask your team to challenge and hide nothing from you – and explain you expect them to do the same with their reports.
  • Delegation or is important but the abdication of responsibility is unhelpful. Make the limits of any delegation crystal clear and demand regular honest updates.
  • Spend time in operations at the start of your career and throughout your executive career. Whether this involves a bit of Undercover Boss-style subterfuge I’ll leave to you.
  • Organise on-site Town Hall meetings with Q&A sessions, meet with teams lower down the organisation and if necessary arrange tele or video conferences in which the audience can vote and ask questions anonymously.
  • Consider apps, intranets and other technologies to help get a fully rounded view of the organisation.

A leader in splendid isolation is a leader doomed to fail. Engaging fully with the organisation makes for more informed decision making – and a more fulfilling career too.

Click this link to download our latest report: On the Shoulders of Giants: Leadership Lessons from Mining Greats.


Will Coetzer, Managing Partner, Stratum International


Image (c) Shutterstock | Sfio Cracho