Why CEOs should stop worrying about being right

April 30, 2024

Why CEOs should stop worrying about being right

In his new book, Ty Wiggins argues that new CEOs should focus on being curious, instead of being right.

BY Ty Wiggins

When you start your new role of CEO, you will be more successful if you focus on being curious instead of being right. (There will be plenty of time to be right later.)

Early on, learning should be your top priority. Some people will be more open and candid with you in your early days and weeks than later and so it pays to be highly inquisitive. Stay in this mode as long as you can (some, including me, would argue that being curious is something that you should maintain to your long-term benefit as a CEO).

Truly curious leaders are less prone to hubris and ego. They are willing to be challenged and are comfortable to be proven wrong, which not only makes them more open to the information available, but it makes people more willing to tell them what they’re really thinking, feeling, or seeing, without fear of reprisal.

Curiosity is a wonderful trait and one that you see more in confident leaders who are not challenged by a personal insecurity about needing to be the smartest person in the room—all of the time.

One of the issues with curiosity is that it can wane as experience increases. As you get longer in the tooth, the weight of experience often starts to dampen your curiosity. This is why high levels of curiosity are often labelled as ‘childlike.’

This is a risk that you’ll need to mitigate.

At the more extreme end of the spectrum are CEOs who deliberately avoid curiosity. You may have the expectation of yourself that now you are CEO you need to have the answers. You were not hired as CEO because you are always right, nor because you have all the answers.

Of course, some people are more naturally curious than others and you may find yourself in the camp where curiosity is not commonly associated with the way you lead. Don’t let that get in the way. In every leadership transition, you get to refine some or all of your leadership style. Being curious is like being a better listener, it can be massively improved with attention, focus and some self-regulation.

Keep in mind the quote from Maya Angelou, the American author, poet and civil rights activist: “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

As the new CEO, there is much that you know, much that you don’t know, plus a good amount that you don’t know that you don’t know (unconscious incompetence). You’ll do best if you see this as an opportunity, rather than a challenge.

The benefits of staying in a learning mindset, of opening yourself up to challenge, are significant, as PepsiCo’s Ramon found. He focuses on making sure he creates a space for others to tell him what they really think. “It’s one of the most important things you can do as CEO as something I focus on every day.”

He adopted this mindset even before becoming CEO, as he progressed during the selection process, and had time to reflect on the things that he wanted to do when he took to the helm.

“I thought the company had become too focused on margins, so I wanted us to pivot to growth,” he said. “Secondly, I wanted to drive a big cultural shift to make the company more entrepreneurial and more transparent. And finally, I wanted to accelerate our digitalization and environmental transformation efforts.”

Why CEOs should stop worrying about being right

Recognizing that this was only his view, he was keen to test his ideas. So he ran day-long sessions with people from across the company—the leadership team and below it—where he asked for their thoughts, opinions, and co-creation on these areas.” For Ramon, it was a way to not only get their feedback and input but put a stake in the ground that the new culture of the company would be more bottom-up, and less top-down.

“I had my vision for the company and I decided to empower this group to co-create the new strategy with me,” he said. “I must tell you I was quite surprised by how positively the process went and how it helped me.”

There was an added, knock-on benefit as well: exposure to PepsiCo’s US team (the largest in the company), which Ramon, who’d spent most of his career in Europe, had previously not had before. “The personal relationships that I had built through the pre-work, not only with the US team, but broadly around the company helped me significantly,” he said. “It gave me a strong platform in the first year.”

So, doing the pre-work, pays dividends in the long run. A clear aspect of curiosity (and antidote to the challenge of not really knowing what is going on) is asking the right questions—and really listening. It’s obvious, but easy to forget when you are moving fast in your early days as a new CEO. There is a Turkish proverb that says, ‘If speaking is silver, then listening is gold’.

Meet plenty of employees during your transition and beyond. Embarking on listening tours, opening up the hierarchy, and asking them what the organization should be doing can broaden your sources of intelligence. People know the operations and their part of the business intimately because they are in direct contact with customers, and are exposed to complaints and compliments. They also know where the processes and systems break down and how employees fix or work around them.

It’s a powerful way of bursting out the CEO bubble—but an underused one. In RRA’s research, nearly half of CEOs said they spent too little time with middle managers and front-line employees. But for those who do, it can be an invaluable way to get a feel for what’s really going on.

For Whirpool’s Marc Bitzer, it involved keeping Thursdays and Fridays clear in his calendar from day one to visit the factories and stores—the parts of the organization that he believes he can get the truest sense check of what’s going on. For Carol Tome at UPS, it meant asking her senior leadership team to get out delivering packages to better understand the frontline experiences of its thousands of delivery workers. “Most had never done that before,” she said. “I’m like, ‘You’re kidding!’” For Starbucks CEO, Laxman Narasimhan, it meant spending half a day each month working shifts at one of the coffee giant’s outlets. For Uber’s CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, it involved spending months during the pandemic driving the streets of San Franciso, either as a courier for its food delivery service or picking up passengers for its ride-hail business. And for Airbnb CEO, Brian Chesky, it meant spending a year living only in the company’s network of rental properties.

In some cases, employee perspectives can be a better predictor of downward trends than data in spreadsheets. Ask them what you can do to make their lives better, what gives them satisfaction, what drains their motivation, what needs to be preserved, and what is ripe for change. Listen with true empathy and compassion, rather than just seeking facts. Answer their questions honestly and manage their expectations. If you can create an authentic engagement, you will potentially have the start of an invaluable information exchange that will help you make better decisions and build a better culture.


Excerpted with permission from the publisher, Wiley, from The New CEO: Lessons from CEOs on How to Start Well and Perform Quickly (Minus the Common Mistakes) by Ty Wiggins, Ph.D., Russell Reynolds Associates. Copyright © 2024 by Russell Reynolds Associates, Inc. All rights reserved. This book is available wherever books and eBooks are sold.

Ty Wiggins is a leadership expert who is committed to ensuring new CEOs are set up for success. He is a trusted advisor to world-leading CEOs, helping them successfully transition into their roles to unlock business and personal success faster. Ty is the global lead of the CEO and Executive Transition Practice at Russell Reynolds Associates.

 

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ty Wiggins is a leadership expert who is committed to ensuring new CEOs are set up for success. He is a trusted advisor to world-leading CEOs, helping them successfully transition into their roles to unlock business and personal success faster 


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