Our biggest blindspots as CEOs

After collecting data from the past 2.5 years through Know Your Team, I’m sharing the most surprising things CEOs overlook…

“What’s the hardest part about being a leader?A few years ago, the Washington Post interviewed Peter Thiel, cofounder and former CEO of PayPal, and asked him this question.

This was his response:

“As CEO, you’re somehow both the total insider and the total outsider at the same time. In some ways you’re at the center of the organization. In other contexts, you’re like the last person to know anything.”

You’re like the last person to know anything.

Of all the things that make it tough to be a CEO — the burden of decisions you have to make, the psychological toll of risk you bear, the interpersonal politics you juggle — Peter felt that “being the last to know” was the hardest thing about being a leader.

He’s not alone in feeling this way.

I hear this sentiment all the time. As the CEO of Know Your Team, I talk with hundreds of founders, CEOs, and business owners who tell me: “I had no clue that a project was falling behind,” or “I was completely blindsided when our senior employee decided to put in her two weeks notice.”

As a CEO, it can feel utterly maddening. You want to know about issues in your company before they bubble up into something bigger, and you try everything in your power to be “in the know”: employee surveys, suggestion boxes, one-on-ones, town hall meetings… You tell your employees that your door is always open, that you want to hear their honest feedback, that you can handle the truth…and yet it doesn’t seem enough. You’re still always the last person to know anything in your company.

At Know Your Team, this is what we do best: we help CEOs clear the air in their companies, and not be the last to know. With our software tool, we ask the right questions, in the right way, at the right time, to help CEOs get the insights they want. Our belief is you only get answers if you ask questions.

We’ve done this for the past two-and-a-half years, asking carefully crafted questions to over 200 different companies with 10,000+ employees in more than 15 countries… and it’s been fascinating to see the data come together.

I decided to pull the most surprising insights from that data, and share them for the first time in written form here.

Based on the questions we ask thousands of employees through Know Your Team, here are the three biggest blindspots CEOs overlook…

Blindspot #1: Your employees feel like they could be contributing more.

When asked through Know Your Team, 75% of employees said, “Yes, there’s an area outside my current role where I feel I could be contributing” (688 employees answered this across 107 companies). This is contrary to a common perception CEOs have: that their employees are slammed and completely at capacity.

Now, that perception may still very well be the truth. Your employees often do have a whole lot on their plates.

But they still hunger to grow, learn, and further their own abilities in ways that we as CEOs might not always be aware of. This might be a management role they’ve always wanted to take on, or perhaps a new skill that they’ve been wanting to develop.

Employees have untapped potential that you could be helping to encourage… if only you knew about it.

What can you do about this? Find a way to help your employees develop the skills they want.

You want to nurture your employees’ interests and abilities that help them grow professionally and personally. This can be as straightforward as asking your employees, “What professional skill(s) have you always been wanting to develop?” or “Is there something you’ve always wanted to learn professionally but haven’t had a chance to yet?”

Another way to uncover this information is to consider that employees oftentimes love to learn from their peers. Ask your employees, “Is there anyone at the company you wish you could apprentice under for a few weeks?” This is one of the most popular questions we ask through Know Your Team. When asked across 145 companies to 1,756 employees, 92% of employees said “Yes, there’s someone in the company I’d like to apprentice under.”

You don’t need to go hire expensive consultants or create elaborate training programs to help your employees develop the skills they want. It can be as simple as utilizing the talents of the employees you already have.

Blindspot #2: Your employees think your company is behind the curve.

From the responses gathered through Know Your Team, we found that most employees believe their company is behind the curve in a certain area. In fact, when asked directly, “Do you think our company is behind the curve in something in particular?” 66% of employees said “yes” (1,072 employees responded to this across 147 companies).

On top of that, employees frequently notice competitors pushing out ahead and doing things they wish their own company was doing. Seventy-six-percent of employees have said, “Yes, I’ve seen something recently and thought to myself, I wish we’d done that” (1,119 employees answered this across 165 companies). Even further, 65% of employees said “Yes, I’ve seen something a competitor has done recently that’s really impressed me” (564 employees answered this across 104 companies).

Yet, how often do you have employees actively coming up to you, telling you about the latest neat thing a competitor’s done that you should be aware of?

My guess is… not that often. You’re sitting on a wealth of helpful observations and good ideas with the potential to improve your business. And you’re oblivious to them simply because, as leaders, we forget to ask.

What can you do about it? Don’t kill an idea too quickly.

We all have a bias against creativity in time of uncertainty. So when an employee brings up an idea or suggestion (especially if we’re feeling overwhelmed or flustered at that moment), our knee-jerk reaction is to cast it aside. “Not now,” we tell ourselves.

To combat this natural bias, ask yourself: “What are the ideas I’ve been hearing right under my nose that I should be listening to?” Force yourself to recognize that you might have a mental model or preconceived notion about what ideas are good and bad, which may be closing you off to ideas that are actually worthwhile.

You can also try spending 15 minutes each week writing down questions that challenge the status quo. This technique, often used to promote innovation in a company, will help you shake loose your predisposition to move things along in your company the way they’ve always moved along.

Lastly, you can simply ask your employees: “Is there anything in particular you think we’re behind the curve on?” From this question through Know Your Team, we’ve had companies make tangible improvements to business development, customer support, software security, and employee recruitment.

Blindspot #3: Your employees want more feedback… but they don’t want more performance reviews.

Perhaps this isn’t a surprise to some. It’s well documented that employees today, more than ever, crave to understand what they could do better at their jobs. In our data collected through Know Your Team, we found the same: 80% of employees want more feedback about their performance (1,468 employees were asked about this across 138 companies).

However, employees don’t see performance reviews as the best way to get this feedback. Sixty-three percent of employees feel that, “Yes, we do performance reviews frequently enough” (650 employees responded to a question about this across 73 different companies).

It’s no secret people don’t like performance reviews. Have you ever sat in one? They’re awful. We hate giving them. We hate being on the receiving end. Why? They’re a long, stressful, giant dump of information from the past year, often arbitrary with ratings and scores.

What employees want instead is regular, helpful feedback. The more regular this feedback and interaction is with managers, the more engaged employees are. A recent 2015 Gallup study show that managers who hold regular meetings with them are almost three times as likely to be engaged as employees whose managers do not hold regular meetings with them.

It’s more than evaluating employees at the end of the year just to “check a box.” It’s open, frequent conversations that are centered around mentoring and coaching employees.

What can you do about this? Communicate consistently.

Consistent communication from a manager — be it via in person, over the phone, electronically — is proven by Gallup to be connected to higher engagement. This could be one-on-ones, all company meetings, social opportunities, all-company get togethers.

In particular, Gallup found that managers who are most successful at engaging their employees use a combination of face-to-face, phone and electronic communication. And, the most engaged employees report that their managers returned calls or messages within 24 hours.

The key here is consistency. If you want your company culture to be open and transparent, you’ve got to practice open and transparent communication regularly. The more often you do it, the more natural it will feel. Practice makes habit. And those habits will evolve into your culture. This is how you create a culture of openness.

I understand how difficult this is to do. But your employees want to know you’re listening and are responsive — and your consistent communication shows this.

It’s not a one-off, “do it once and I’m done” sort of thing you do. It’s not transactional. It’s genuinely caring about the relationships you’re building with your employees, and showing that you care.

This means getting to know your employees outside of work as well. Gallup reported that employees who feel as though their manager is invested in them as people are more likely to be engaged. So creating opportunities for people to engage socially, share a bit of their lives outside of work, is a way to increase your employees’ engagement.

In sum, as a CEO, founder, or manager, you’ll want to keep these blindspots in mind…

  1. Employees feel like they could be contributing more.
  2. Employees think your company is behind the curve.
  3. Employees want more feedback… but they don’t want more performance reviews.

Now granted, these are insights we found across the 200+ companies who use Know Your Team. For your company, your blindspots could be different. Depending on how big your company is, what interpersonal dynamics you have, how well you communicate across the company, etc.… what you don’t know varies from company to company. And it changes over time, as you grow and hire new folks and other folks leave, as the market changes, and as your business offering evolves.

But by understanding what’s most commonly overlooked, and seeing what’s been surprising to our CEOs who use Know Your Team, you can avoid the blindspots that others have failed to see.

Enjoy this piece? Read more of Claire‘s writing on leadership on the Know Your Team blog. And, check out Know Your Team – software that helps you become a better manager.