Time is running out

Today is an important day in British democracy because it’s the last opportunity to register to vote in the forthcoming general election. We may be fed up already of the strong-and-stable or for-the-many-not-the-few mantras (other mantras are available). But whatever our political persuasion, we have the democratic right and responsibility to make our voice heard. With less than 12 hours to go to register, over 2 million people have signed up since the election was called but this still leaves another 7 more million people who haven’t.

Like the French election, it seems as though it’s not just the typical apathy – particularly prevalent with younger people – that’s at play here. Instead, there are genuine voices of ‘why should I bother?’ which reflect a conscious choice to abstain simply because these potential voters do not believe that there is a political party to represent them. It’s not a dissimilar picture in some organisations where the ‘ordinary employee’ (if there is such a thing) feels disengaged by the leadership narrative or sees a conflict between the corporate rhetoric and the leadership decisions that are taken.

Never more than now do CEOs need to engage their people with an authentic and personal vision that reflects the decisions that are taken day to day. In fact, simply making sure that capital, cash and leadership attention is allocated to match the corporate narrative will help make that vision an authentic one.

But there’s something more. Leaders need genuinely to listen to what’s going on. When messages of change fail to make sense to those in the organisation who are closest to the customer for example, the CEO needs to stop and take note. These are important signals that need to break through the acoustic firewall that inevitably surrounds any leader. There are of course always dissenting voices in any organisation but these can’t automatically be dismissed as belonging to the 10% of people who dislike what the CEO does, no matter what. (There is also a different 10% of people by way of counter balance, who like what the CEO does, no matter what). Even adjusting for the louder volume of negative comment, statistically, dissent will fall into the 80% ‘middle’ group of the normal distribution. This group is a valuable barometer of opinion – and with it, an indicator of the likelihood of success with organisational change.

Listening to dissenting voices is not easy. It requires both humility and resilience on the part of the CEO. Humility to listen to the underlying argument – even if the comments come from the constant-negative 10%, there is likely to be a kernel of real learning for the CEO inside the ball of emotion and subjective opinion. And resilience is required too because the lonely walk of the CEO has to be underpinned by a core of self-belief and strategic intelligence. Resilience and humility may seem strange bedfellows but working together, they will give the CEO the wisdom and influence she or he needs.

Employees don’t of course ‘vote’ for their CEO every four or so years. They vote for their CEO every single day of the week in their commitment, their productivity, their engagement and their sponsorship of change. How CEOs listen, and how they reflect the corporate vision in their day to day decisions affects not just their popularity but their success.

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