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Breaking Down the Walls, Part I

Breaking Down the Walls, Part I

Distributor executives share tips for breaking down communication barriers from the top down.


Company CEOs have long commented that “it’s lonely at the top” and a recent Forbes feature confirmed that sentiment, with CEOs identifying ‘loneliness’ as one of their biggest job hazards/complaints in a national survey. Whether it’s because they feel they have no one to confide in about the many difficult and/or confidential matters that often roll up to them or that employees tend to shy away from them based on their position or professional style, the world of an executive can be challenging and isolating.

Following, in Part 1 of a special two-part series, tED magazine invited three veteran industry executives — Wes Smith, president of Mayer in Birmingham, Alabama, John Cain, president of Wiseway Supply in Florence, Kentucky, and George Vorwick, president & CEO of United Electric Supply in New Castle, Delaware — to weigh in on the challenges of communicating as a leader and how they’ve worked to break down the walls in their own firms to create an environment built on collaboration and community.


tEDmag:  Would you agree that loneliness/isolation can be hazards of an executive’s role?

Smith:  You always hear that it’s lonely at the top, but this doesn’t mean physical or even mental loneliness – it’s really about information flow. First, most leaders’ immediate team members are high achievers/problem-solvers who don’t necessarily want to be seen as needing help, so they don’t always ask for help in difficult situations. If the leader isn’t asked for help and they’re not a micro-manager, how do they ever know there’s a problem until it’s too late? I find this to be one of my bigger issues. It’s not that people want to keep information from me, but that they don’t want to burden me with a problem they feel they can solve, and I end up not knowing about something I should know about. When it becomes a crisis, others assume the leader knows and when the leader gets asked and they don’t really know about it, those asking begin to wonder how engaged the leader is and make assumptions that the leader isn’t leading. It can be quite a conundrum. At the same time, it’s true that leaders often deal with extremely confidential information; this is often disseminated on a need-to-know basis, which can then create walls between those who are ‘in the know’ and those who aren’t.

Cain:  I wouldn’t necessarily describe it as “loneliness” or “isolation.” However, there are most certainly times that you must deal with issues that can’t be shared with those on your team. One of my favorite sayings is by Mark Twain — “it ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble, it’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” That’s always scared me more than anything. For this reason, I’ve always developed a peer network of those I could ask questions of, confide in, and trust from companies I admire. One thing I‘ve learned over the years is that I seldom have an issue that no one else has encountered before. This industry has many great leaders who are willing to share their own war stories, successes, failures, things they wish they could take back, and initiatives that really propelled their companies forward. I, too, have been willing to share many things about my company, the way we do business, challenges we’ve overcome, and even those we haven’t. A network of peers is among the most valuable and pleasant things in this industry.

Vorwick:  Loneliness doesn’t always stem from a lack of approachability. Often, loneliness comes when you’re confronted with having to make the final call on big issues, when consensus isn’t achieved, or when a decision needs to be made and there’s no clear path. It’s the times when the people who report to you can’t help. This is when it’s important to have a network of trusted advisors, such as independent board members or mentors outside the organization.

tEDmag:  From your experience, what types of behaviors make executives more difficult for colleagues to approach (and thus at risk of becoming isolated)?

Smith:  Reactionary behaviors can create issues. Calm and reassuring behavior reinforces the message that “it’s safe” and “you can bring me anything,” but if the leader reacts otherwise, the outcome is that people will wait until the price of telling the leader is greater than the pain of the reaction. I try to be calm, reassuring, and fact-based versus emotionally-driven. I also tend to be a very focused leader, which people can perceive as “intense” and “don’t bother him.” Like so many others, I too have to work at being more open and approachable. Many leaders, surprisingly, are natural introverts and tend to give off an air of unapproachability. This isn’t true in reality, but whether it is or isn’t true doesn’t matter if others perceive it to be true.

Cain:  I think that being approachable is a “must-have” to be an effective leader. There isn’t a secret to being approachable, but I think a key quality that makes you approachable is ensuring that your team knows you genuinely care about them. Make sure you actively listen to them (which is sometimes a challenge for me) and, most importantly, hear what they’re communicating to you. A leader doesn’t have to follow every bit of input received, but genuinely considering it will ensure that the giver feels valued. I insist that each of my managers has at least one one-on-one meeting each month with those reporting to them, and I do this with my direct reports too. It’s important for them, but important to me as well. I’ve seen executives who aren’t approachable and they’re not well-liked. Their teams work begrudgingly for them and won’t go the extra mile. Their teams have higher turnover rates and don’t operate as efficiently as they could, which puts stress on others in the organization. What gets the leader to this point is a ‘do-what-I-tell-you-to-do’ mentality. They know everything and make sure the team knows they don’t need anything from them. While avoidable, it’s not as rare as it should be.

Vorwick:  A couple of behaviors that could cause executives to become isolated involves how they respond to mistakes and failure and whether they’re comfortable admitting their own shortcomings.

tEDmag:  At your firm, how do you break down the walls of communication with your team members to help ensure that colleagues find you approachable?

Smith:  In addition to the aforementioned practice of reacting to news with emotional intelligence, communication is key! Leaders must go out of their way to make people comfortable and show interest professionally and personally. If you invest time in people, they’ll get to know you and will be less fearful of you. I treat my co-workers like family. Family can direct other family members when necessary, so treating co-workers as family doesn’t mean that you can’t effectively lead other family members or have the difficult conversations. I think it makes having difficult conversations easier.

Cain:  As my company has grown, it’s become much more difficult to get to know the entry-level employees and new hires that are often on your front line. I have to be much more intentional about my personal interactions with them; it’s too easy to have all of your communications with your team revolve around problems, which can affect their perception of you. That’s why one-on-one meetings are so important to me and where most of our ideas take shape to move the ball down the court. One thing that I plan to institute is a new-hire lunch so that I can get to meet with all of Wiseway Supply’s new hires within the past quarter. It will be nice to get to know them on a personal level, hear about their career expectations, and share my own expectations of them.

Vorwick:  I schedule one-on-one time with my team. I try to make it safe for them to express their opinions or concerns and seek their guidance on a wide range of topics. I apologize when I should. We work hard and know how to laugh at ourselves. Occasionally we’ll spend unstructured time out of the office together. As an example, every January after the holidays have passed, my wife Kathy and I invite our executive team to our home for dinner with their spouses. Kathy cooks, I make a special playlist, and we serve drinks. We all spend a relaxing and enjoyable evening together catching up.

tEDmag:  Please share any final tips for other distributor executives when it comes to creating a working environment where team members feel that leaders are approachable.

Smith:  Consistent, predictable reactions and calm, reassuring emotional intelligence are key. In business, culture is the most important aspect of our existence and leaders are responsible for the culture. They need to reinforce a culture of open, safe dialogue.

Cain:  Model the behavior you expect of your team. Work extra hard to make even a few extra minutes available to spend with your team each day. Get to know those on your team and what makes them tick. When colleagues like each other and the CEO, they get more done for the company and it makes the CEO’s job more fun and results easier to achieve. But the biggest benefit of all is that you’ll enjoy your relationship with them.

Vorwick:  I think that in order to build trust, it’s important to be consistent. I have trusting and productive relationships with my senior and executive staff and they’re extremely competent. Our relationships are a source of comfort and strength.


Tune into tEDmag.com next Wednesday, September 4, for Part 2 of this series, when two renowned experts on leadership explore the topic of executive loneliness and ways in which a leader can enhance their approachability in the eyes of employees.


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Susan Bloomis a 25-year veteran of the lighting and electrical products industry.Reach her at susan.bloom.chester@gmail.com.

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