Lam: In your article you talk about the need for leaders to be quiet. That was so surprising to me. Can you tell me more about that?
Gregersen: What's intriguing is that even someone like Steve Jobs knew how to be quiet when he was on the hunt for new information. He would ask, and he would listen properly. Most leaders, if they're getting promoted to give answers, they're used to talking all the time. Unfortunately, a lot of people in organizations are more than happy to let leaders talk and take responsibility.
Think of the television show Undercover Boss. That's the classic situation when a leader gets into the kind of place where they're getting unfiltered information, either by what they see or what they hear. Some of that is going to be uncomfortable, and some of that is going to say, "Guess what, leader, you're doing something wrong. In fact, really wrong." That feeling of being uncomfortable and wrong is not normal. The natural tendency is to run from it or avoid it. When leaders embrace that, those conditions silence people. For example, Deval Patrick, who used to be the governor of Massachusetts, intentionally creates those pauses and just waits. Ed Catmull at Pixar, if you go to him and say that something might be wrong and uncomfortable, he almost always gives it a 24-hour gestation period before he'll really respond to it.
Lam: That discomfort and "you're doing something wrong" message from the front lines really brings to mind the recently leaked video of Uber's Travis Kalanick talking to one of his drivers.
Gregersen: You think about the leaders, like Walt Bettinger, who actually goes out of his way to have those conversations where people are saying "Guess what, things weren't what they thought they were." If leaders don't go out of their way to go after this passive data—the data that's there but doesn't, intentionally, systematically come at [them]—they'll get overwhelmed with all the information coming in and get blindsided like the Uber CEO did.
Lam: What else did you learn from talking to 200 senior executives?
Gregersen: Most of these people I interviewed were quite skilled at putting themselves in situations that forced them to ask better questions. What's intriguing is that the leaders who were most capable of explaining to somebody else how they go about surfacing the right questions, figuring out what they don't know before it's too late, they're also the best at teaching other people how to do it. They're the kinds of leaders that actually build a culture where it's not just one person doing all the talking, but it's a big part of the system to reward and support that.
Lam: As I read your article, I was wondering about whether it's really a good idea to have one person in charge.
Gregersen: There are a number of companies in the past who have had two or three CEOs. They're the exceptions. The challenge is, when there's more than one person guiding the organization from the top, they've got to be completely capable of resolving differences in a rapid enough way that the organization can keep moving forward.