Human Resources | February 2011 | By Robin Van Tan

How to Fix the 'Blind Spots' Everyone Else Sees

By identifying and addressing their blind spots, chief executives can strengthen their brand and encourage a stronger corporate culture.

Executives must identify and work on strengthening their weaknesses.
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Chris Newcomb, cofounder, president, and CEO of Newk’s Express Café, would have called himself an understanding manager. His two co-owners, however, would have described it differently—something along the lines of too forgiving.

“They came to me and said, ‘You sure do give people a lot of chances,’” he says. “And you know what? They were right—sometimes you need to realize when a person’s just not a good fit with your company or your culture. Now I separate my employees’ personalities from their professional skills when I evaluate them from a business standpoint.”

Newcomb’s difficulty assessing his staff in an objective way was one of his management blind spots—a weakness he hadn’t even realized he had.

According to a recent study by Development Dimensions International (ddi), 91 percent of managers have at least one blind spot, and the average manager has three.

“Those blind spots don’t just hurt the individual who has them,” says Brad Thomas, a manager at DDI. “They can hurt the entire company.”

The study had 130 front-line managers rate themselves in a variety of leadership skills. DDI then conducted leadership assessments on a sample of the same front-line managers.

While the most recent research did not directly focus on them, CEOs are similarly evaluated by DDI, Thomas says—and they’re far from immune to the phenomenon of blind spots.

Phil Gerbyshak, cofounder of The Management Experts, says time management tops the list of areas in which CEOs typically underestimate their leadership skills.

“No one at this level genuinely feels like they’re spending their time in unproductive ways,” he says. “But just because something is important doesn’t mean it should be your top priority. If you take a look back at where your days go, you’ll often realize that you haven’t devoted enough hours to the most important tasks on your plate.” Gerbyshak recommends doing regular time audits to become more conscious of time-management skills. Prioritizing goals—both long-term and short-term—can also be a helpful reminder of where time would be spent most productively.

Communication is another weak area for many top executives.

“Things can be crystal clear to you but often are not crystal clear to other people to whom you’re trying to convey information,” Gerbyshak says. “If you feel like you’re putting out fires all the time, that can be a sign that things weren’t communicated to staff or vendors as effectively as you thought they were.”

Welcoming follow-up questions and responding to them in a calm, clear manner is essential, Gerbyshak says. When trying to convey key concepts, it can also be helpful for CEOs to ask the people they’re speaking with to repeat what they’ve communicated back to them.

The final area Gerbyshak points to as a common blind spot for CEOs is relationships. As with personal relationships, it’s easy to fall into the trap of taking working relationships for granted.

“This can be a problem both with internal relationships and with those you forge outside of the company,” he says. “You can have an open-door policy and assume someone will come to you if they need to, but if you don’t regularly put time and effort into maintaining your relations, they can deteriorate quickly.”

Gerbyshak recommends putting any valued connections on the calendar—even if there isn’t a specific agenda for the meeting.

Blind spots vary from CEO to CEO. While improvements can be made on the most common ones, effective leaders install mechanisms to regularly assess their individual blind spots.

“There are a number of ways you can do this,” says DDI’s Thomas. One is to request evaluation of specific competencies through something like a test or simulation that can be provided by a company like DDI, he says.

Thomas also recommends 360-degree surveys as a way to stay aware of strengths and weaknesses.

“With 360s, you have the person rate themselves in a variety of areas, you have your direct reports rate you on those things, and you have any peers or managers rate you on those things,” he says. “That way, you’re getting a complete, 360-degree view of your management skills.”

Cheryl Bachelder, CEO of Popeyes, does regular 360s with her leadership team, her franchisees, and her board of directors.

“I think self-awareness is an essential characteristic of a leader,” she says. “I’ve made several adjustments as a direct result of the feedback I receive.”

If you feel like you're putting out fires all the time, that can be a sign that you're not communicating well.

For example, Bachelder says she always knew she was hyper focused on productivity. But she didn’t realize how that was negatively impacting her staff until employees started telling her that they craved more down time with her.

“I have to manage my time precisely to get everything done, but my direct reports were telling me I had to find ways to be available to them informally,” she says. “Otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to coach them or help them develop in the way that they would like me to.”

So Bachelder found a compromise: She now sets up meetings with members of her C-suite that have no set cut-off time.

“I did it a couple of weeks ago with the international team leader of Popeyes,” she says. “We started at 2 o’clock, and I think he asked me three times, ‘Are we OK on time?’ I kept saying, ‘I have no constraints—we can go to 9 o’clock tonight.’ He really enjoyed that.”

For any feedback mechanism to be effective, employees must feel that they can be completely open about what they see as the CEO’s weaknesses.

“If you can create a corporate environment where you’re encouraging open, honest feedback and where you’re making it clear that you want to grow as a person and are receptive to criticism, that will go a long way,” Thomas says.

Bachelder found that the way feedback is solicited can also affect the quality of the responses received. Asking employees questions like, “What would you have liked to see me do differently in that situation?” will result in much more useful information than asking, “What could I do better?”

“By being concrete like that, I’m going to get very specific help,” Bachelder says, “and my employees are also going to walk away knowing that I’m genuinely interested in receiving guidance from them.”