Staying Out of the Ivory Tower

Have you ever noticed that your favorite band or writer was a lot better when they first broke out? Those first couple of albums or books really resonated with you. They inspired and shaped you. Since then? Meh.

What happens to our favorite artists when they get popular? A lot of things do, but the reason they resonate less is that they’re in an ivory tower. The pains and struggles they sang about when they made their first few albums are gone. The unique perspective they drew upon to write in an original way no longer exists. They are different people. They still have problems and struggles, it’s just that now those are ivory tower problems; problems that are meaningless to you.

This is the same thing that happens when you are promoted up through the ranks. You were a rock star and led your peers in overcoming problems. You led disruptive change – that’s why you are an executive now. The bigger you get and the longer you are away from an individual contributor role, the less you participate in the small picture and flex your critical thinking muscle. Since your role now involves spending more time on big picture communications to executives and external stakeholders, that’s what you focus on. When you talk to your team, you may notice they become quieter over time. They have less to say because they don’t relate to you anymore.

The cool thing about those now-famous artists is that sometimes they hit bottom. They realize they have lost touch with themselves and aren’t relevant to the real world anymore. It hurts them. Bouts of depression, followed by time off and self-discovery, lead to a new album or book that is totally excellent. You love it because they are relevant to you again, only this time they are more evolved and inspire you in new ways.

When it comes to your own corporate ivory tower, you don’t have to hit bottom or go through depression to come out of it. Here are some ways to proactively be more relevant to your direct reports and individual contributors:

  1. Balance your meeting time in their favor: If your team meetings are comprised of you talking and then leaving a small amount of time at the end for feedback, reverse that. Make it 80% employee-driven content and 20% you talking up the big picture. This way you know what is actually on your people’s minds.
  2. Participate as a team member in a project: Let your people see you in action as an individual contributor. Take a role on a project or two throughout the year and stick to your role – resist the urge to take the meetings over just because you can. Use the experience to make more relevant changes at the top while also leading by example.
  3. Be in the field: Meet your employees and customers in their environment, preferably together. Listen to them. Be receptive (not defensive) to the noisy ones and draw out viewpoints from the shy ones.

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