Why CEOs Should Broaden Their Learning Network

A CEO of a Fortune 500 company said to me recently, “If I could do it over again, I’d spend less time at my desk and a lot more time out of the office learning from others.” 

I have worked closely with more than 75 CEOs in my consulting career, and what I hear more than anything else from experienced CEOs is this reflection. They wish they had spent more time outside – out learning from the larger business and community landscape around them – and less time consumed in the internal operations of their organizations.  

Three Reasons CEOs Get “Trapped” Inside

What stops CEOs and keeps them trapped in more insular work?

Reason #1: Hubris – “I Don’t Have Anything to Learn”

Some people assume they just know best.  Rather than being curious and open to learning new approaches, they stick with what they know and push back on new ideas.

I recall working with a CEO who had the opportunity to join an industry learning group of other CEOs. He said to me, “I’m so far ahead of these people, I have nothing to learn.  We are the best company in our category, and I just don’t see the value in getting out to learn from these other CEOs.”  

A mere seven years later his company was facing bankruptcy. Why? There was no one around at his CEO’s level to challenge him on key decisions that put the company at risk. He wasn’t challenged or pushed to justify his thinking. A peer group of other CEOs might have been able to do this or at least increased the odds of his seeing risky choices as they were being made.  

Reason #2: Control – “I Can’t Step Away” 

It can be difficult for CEOs to take their hands off the dials they are trying to move.   However, if a CEO will commit to being outside the office more than inside, he or she can build a quality operating team that can be trusted to keep their hands on the right dials. 

I was an early member of the TED conference from 2004 to 2009. Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon, showed up at every conference, which in those days lasted a week. He was approachable, asked good questions, and listened carefully to the talks. At the same time, he was building an internal juggernaut at Amazon. Somehow, he found the time to get out and learn for a solid week, trusting that the rest of his team had things under control.

A CEO truly can’t step away until he or she has built strong talent ready to take the hand-off. But at the same time, if the CEO does not start stepping away first, the people next in line will never learn what they need to learn to rise to the next level.  

Reason #3: Avoidance – “It’s just more comfortable and manageable to stick to a routine inside the office.”  

There are some CEOs who just like working with a few people and not interacting with the many. They get comfortable with the routine, wait for people to come to them, and end up isolated. Once this behavior becomes a habit, it creates an unhealthy pattern – and people respond accordingly. 

I know many CEOs who are introverted and have found productive ways to get out into the world on a regular basis. Roughly 4 in 10 CEOs are introverts, including Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and Larry Page, co-founder of Google. While introverts have many strengths (see Susan Cain’s, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking), they need to push themselves out of their comfort zone and stay alert for new opportunities. 

No matter how you are wired, if you want to be a successful CEO, you can’t hide yourself away.

Three Steps to Breaking Out

So what are the best actions a CEO can take to break the habit of being too internally focused?  

#1 Draw Out Your Stakeholder Circle

Write down key relationships you want to build with each stakeholder group. Begin with one group of stakeholders and start setting up phone calls and personal appointments.  Take the initiative to make it happen.  

David Brooks, the New York Times opinion writer was told to make two calls a day to learn what is happening out in the world.  He makes a point of listing these people out each week and making sure the calls happen daily.  

As Doug Conant, the former CEO of Campbell’s Soup says, “You need these outside touch points if you want to really know the truth of what is going on.”

#2 Find Your Tribe

Pick a group of peers you can learn from. Right now I’m involved with nine CEOs of large organizations who are all members of the Center for Higher Ambition Leadership.  We meet regularly and are learning together how to design and build out purpose-driven organizations. We share, challenge, and question as we go, and each one of us is actively participating. 

It’s not enough to only learn from your direct stakeholders, you must also learn from peers outside your industry. Leapfrog innovations often come from unexpected places. For example, Procter & Gamble found a way to reduce the wrinkles in shirts fresh out of the dryer by starting with a polymer invented by a computer chip expert at a European university. Start by reaching out and asking questions, and see where that takes you.

#3 Know Your Competition

Get to know your competition:  Almost every CEO attends trade associations or investment banker meetings within their industry. What can you do beyond that?  

Get out and spend more time with your suppliers and customers and ask them what they think of you and of your competition. Probe deep. Tell them not to hold back in terms of how you as a company measure up. 

To take it one step further – and this requires discretion – get to know the senior team of your competition. We are in the age of co-opetition where CEOs who compete with each other have also found ways to cooperate with each other. Good things start with relationships.  

Don’t look back with this regret: “I should have spent more time out of the office.”  Start getting out today! Commit now to a way to structure your time differently, and list out ways during the next three months you will get out. Set up your team and build the runway you need to create opportunities for direct personal exploration and learning from others.  

For more fun ideas of where to go outside for inspiration, read this article from strategist and author Dorie Clark, “6 Unexpected Places to Look for Innovative Ideas