July 10, 2013
The Problem With Executive Isolation

A client of mine recently experienced a jarring moment akin to a scene straight out of the old Broadway musical “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.” She was getting ready for a meeting with her CEO. After pulling together her materials, she was asked to review the agenda and presentation with her boss and one of the CEO’s staff advisors. During that prep meeting, the staff person strongly encouraged her to downplay or even eliminate any discussion of the newer, more innovative things she was working on — and not to ask the CEO for anything specific, like a policy decision, funding, or public support. “A senior-level committee handles these kinds of issues,” he assured her, “And the CEO prefers to focus on areas that he can influence immediately.” Finally, he told her to forward the final materials to several other people from the CEO’s office who would be in the meeting.

My client was puzzled by this advice; the CEO had personally requested the meeting a month earlier and seemed very interested in the longer-term initiatives spearheaded by her department — some of which could fundamentally change the company’s trajectory. As a result, her team had spent a great deal of time sharpening their plans and identifying specific ways that the CEO could help to advance them. Now at the last minute — on the way to the forum — this advisor was telling her to back off. What was going on?

The answer lies in a common phenomenon that I call the “gatekeeping of senior executives.” In many large organizations, executive assistants, chiefs of staff, schedulers, and advisors surround senior people; and that’s in addition to direct reports who handle particular subject or functional areas. The purpose of this entourage is to leverage the senior executive’s limited time — to sort through the myriad of issues and requests, establish priorities, filter out low-value activities, and keep the executive focused on where she or he can make the most difference.

While this process does help to leverage a leader’s time, it also has its dark side — it shields the senior executive from direct contact with many of the issues, dynamics, and ideas that are percolating throughout the organization. As a result, all too many senior executives only receive views that have been filtered, orchestrated, and often censored to include only what the “senior circle” thinks he or she should hear. While this sounds extreme, it’s really a pervasive dynamic. I worked with another organization, for example, where project teams regularly held a series of “pre-meetings” with staff people before reviewing progress with a senior sponsor — with the goal of producing a slide deck that wouldn’t raise any questions.

As a senior leader, breaking through this pattern is not easy. When Jack Welch was CEO of GE, he intentionally created “listening posts,” or meetings with managers from other parts of the company where he could get unvarnished views and engage in more spontaneous dialogue. He then urged his senior executives to do the same by insisting that they lead “town meetings” as part of the Work-Out process. Other managers overcome their isolation by setting up skip-level meetings or birthday lunches; or by dropping in on leadership development classes.

Now, if you are a middle manager and want to have direct dialogue with a senior executive, start by not taking everything that his staff people say at face value. They have the difficult job sorting through all of the issues that come the executive’s way, and sometimes their opinions about what to do are just that: opinions. So while you don’t want to argue or offend them, don’t take their advice as if it’s written in stone. Use your own judgment about what you want to say, and how you want to say it. Another approach would be to work up the courage to engage the senior leader in a dialogue, instead of just presenting and asking for approval. Most senior people actually appreciate a good discussion about alternatives and candid views about what might or might not work. And if you can get them to help develop an idea or solution, they will be more committed to helping you take it forward. In fact, in the case of my client she politely ignored the advice of the CEO’s staff people and presented an unadulterated version of the big idea. The CEO was so interested that he asked for a follow up paper and a series of meetings to explore it further.

Overcoming senior executive isolation is a tough challenge — whether you are the executive or a middle manager. But if you don’t break through it, you run the risk of having leaders who may be out of touch.


Reprinted from

  • Andrew Lamb

    Toyota had it’s braking crisis because of precisely this cultural dynamic – shielding senior people from what was really happening. Truth (although sometimes painful) is always something that needs to be faced not masked.

  • Joel Trammell

    This is a great article about the potential negative impacts of executive gatekeepers! I’ve responded with some additional factors that serve to isolate CEOs (often of their own making) and how to minimize them:

  • jimjr11

    I recently spoke to the CEO’s Assistant at a large mobile phone company. I was requesting a 15 minute call to discuss a $500 million earnings improvement and offered the assistant references. Her reply was exactly what this article is hitting on. she said “oh, he would never take a call like that, good by”. Now they’re having significant margin challenges and the gate is still closed. In effect, assuming I’m not a complete flake, that assistant just made a $500 million decision for the CEO.

    I suspect managers and employees in general find this CEO to be unapproachable, what a severe loss of opportuntiy.

    A CEO of a major US utility stepped out of his comfort zone and followed our approach to engaging with employees. With the culture, politics and silos suspended for ten weeks, he got what he asked for. Employees communicated 12,000 suggestions, 4000 were accepted and the results were a $300 million sustainable reduction in SG&A, a $200 million reduction in approved capital and an inventory reduction of $45 million. Announced layoffs (THE WARN ACT) were reduced by 60%. All that information was always there, the gate keepers art each level were protecting management from getting the news. Surely, many of the gatekeepers were in fact part of management.