Kodak. Sears. Borders. The mere mention of any of these companies brings to mind the struggle to stay relevant amid today’s technology and boundless alternatives. But behind each of them lies a deeper story of at least one leader who is or was “sheltered” from the reality of their business.
This dangerous “white space” where leaders don’t know what they don’t know is a critical one. But often, leaders — especially senior ones — fail to seek information that makes them uncomfortable or fail to engage with individuals who challenge them. As a result, they miss the opportunity to transform insights at the edge of a company into valuable actions at the core.
Nandan Nilekani, an Indian entrepreneur, bureaucrat, and politician who co-founded Infosys and was appointed by the Indian prime minister to serve as Chairman of the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), believes it’s vital to keep this channel of communication open in any leadership position.
“If you’re a leader, you can put yourself in a cocoon … a good news cocoon” said Nilekani during our recent discussion. “Everyone says, ‘It’s alright, there’s no problem,’ and the next day everything’s wrong.”
So how do leaders keep themselves from being isolated at the top? For Nilekani, it comes down to one vital factor: asking and being asked uncomfortable questions.
The question “Why are we the way we are?” inspired him to write his book, Imagining India: The Idea of a Renewed Nation, which discusses the education, demographics, and infrastructure of his native country. Following his work with the UIDAI to help create a government database of the entire population of India (named “the biggest social project on the planet”) and his recent campaign for Indian National Congress, the question “How do you get kids to read and how do you get kids to learn arithmetic?” drove Nilekani to create a scaleable solution to bridge the education gap for younger generations in India and other parts of the world. And the umbrella question that defines Nilekani’s leadership journey is, perhaps not surprisingly, “What is it that I can do to have the best possible impact on the most possible people?”
But Nilekani understands that the power of questions doesn’t just rely on the inquiries we’re asking ourselves; it also is triggered through the often uncomfortable questions others ask us. Encouraging this two-way dialogue when it comes to questions, he believes, is critical.
“I consciously go out of my way not only to create an open culture for people, but also having lines of communication to a very wide set of people, because the bad news may not come direct,” he said.
Beyond encouraging a culture of questioning, Nilekani has another way to filter out the spin that employees within an organization may put on an issue for fear of “waking the giant.” He goes straight to the source — his customers.
“I’ve had many situations where customers had a direct line to me and would call up about something. I would know about a problem even before a number of people. So I think it’s important to be that lightning rod that attracts feedback both good and bad,” he explained.
Nilekani’s not the only leader who practices this two-way flow of information to obtain the information that is often at the edge of a leader’s day-to-day reach. This foundational value has helped many companies survive the complexity of the marketplace by challenging leaders to continuously question their strategy and effectiveness at every cornerstone. Ed Catmull at Pixar, for example, revealed “a hallmark of a healthy, creative culture is that its people feel free to share ideas, opinions and criticisms.” As a result, he’s created a Braintrust at Pixar where employees can feel safe sharing ideas and helping stories evolve from mediocrity to masterpiece.
The habit of asking the right questions and relating well to others inside and outside an organization helps leaders see beyond the protective “cocoon” that coworkers may be keeping them in. However, these habits extend far beyond the here and now. They also impact the next generation of business leaders.
“When you’re building an institution, you’re consciously building something that will be beyond you,” said Nilekani. “It’ll exist beyond you, it’ll grow beyond you, it’ll sustain itself beyond you … it’s about creating culture and values that persist. It’s that psychic glue that holds it all together.”
By establishing a candid culture, companies, nonprofits, and governments alike can empower future frontrunners to never stop challenging the status quo — and each other — in order to create sustainable, positive impact. While you may not always like what you see and hear, it’s better to have the option to change your path now versus learning too little, too late tomorrow.
“As my colleague and former chairman said, ‘The bad news should come up in the elevator and the good news should walk up,’” said Nilekani.
Nandan Nilekani, an Indian entrepreneur, bureaucrat and politician who co-founded Infosys and was appointed by the Indian Prime Minister to serve as Chairman of the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), sits down with Hal Gregersen, executive director of the MIT Leadership Center, to discuss why sustaining a two-way dialogue is vital in any leadership position.
Hal Gregersen is executive director of the MIT Leadership Center and a senior lecturer in leadership and innovation at the MIT Sloan School of Management. He is the author The Innovator’s DNA: Mastering the Five Skills of Disruptive Innovators and founder of The 4–24 Project. As part of the MIT Leadership Center Video Series, he sits down with innovative leaders to explore how they are solving the world’s most challenging problems.
Originally posted May 06, 2015 on HBR.