8 water cooler comments CEOs shouldn’t overhear about themselves
NB. masculine and feminine are interchangeable in this article.
1. "She's asked us all to come back to the office, but she's still working at home three days a week."
Although you’re a leader, you’re also a member of a team, so walk with your team. If you want everyone coming into the office to connect, then connect. If you work better at home, then they probably do too, so why are you asking them to come in?
If you’re asking everyone to work in the office just to check up on them, restrict their freedom and show who’s boss, then you need to think about why you feel this way about your team.
2. "She spent £50,000 on that new logo and it looks awful – she didn’t even ask us what we think."
Branding is big picture stuff. It’s not just stylised image, a few words and a Pantone that matches your favourite handbag. It says everything about your organisation to everyone – including those working inside your organisation. It needs to be owned by everyone and that means involving them in the process. But you need to guide that process and keep control of the big decisions, so you don’t end up with a Committee Camel that nobody likes.
3. "The CEO of Megacorp was keynote speaker at the Industry Convention the other day. Why does our CEO never do that kind of thing?"
You are the face of your organisation. To get your organisation noticed, get yourself noticed. Offer yourself as a speaker, not just at industry events but out there, where your organisation’s message needs to be heard. Have a carefully curated social media feed and keep it up. Think about your personal brand. People follow people, so be that person.
4. "She's giving Victoria that nice corner office, even though Victoria’s never here."
Office geopolitics is a minefield. People who work in an office full-time spend as many waking hours there as they spend in their own home, so the environment can have a big impact on their wellbeing and motivation. Where you place people says a lot about what you think of them. Could that nice corner office be used as a bookable interview room so lots of people could make use of the privacy when they need it, rather than standing empty as a monument to your misplaced favouritism? Rethink the geopolitics for hybrid working.
5. "She's taking credit for the Megatron takeover, but it was me who got us that lead and she hasn’t even put me on the takeover team."
Give credit where credit’s due and let people run with their ideas. Don’t be like the Sigourney Weaver character in Working Girl. It’s not nice, it’s not honest and it will come back to bite you. Stealing people’s contacts without due credit is like stealing their ideas. If they made that contact there’s obviously something about them the contact likes, so let that relationship roll and facilitate it, don’t take it over.
6. "Did you see what she was wearing?"
It’s unfortunate that society still judges people – men and women – by their appearance. I’m not condoning it, I’m just saying it’s a thing.
So, gents, button that shirt and straighten your tie. Ladies, put on the warpaint. We may judge these conventions but while they prevail, we are making a statement if we rebel against them. People, the people in our team, our service users, our potential clients or donors, will notice if you don’t make an effort and will wonder why. Don’t try to be a supermodel, though – you can go too far the other way and not be taken seriously, but at least act like a civilised human being who can brush their hair in the morning.
Your ‘look’ doesn’t just define you to other people; what you’re wearing sends signals to you too. If you’re wearing PJs on your bottom half in your Zoom meeting, your bottom is still in bed. Have some self-respect and acknowledge that your body is a single entity.
7. "She’s so brilliant I just can’t keep up."
So, you’ve got a double first from Oxford, an MA from Cambridge and an MBA from Harvard. You learn Rachmaninov piano concertos to wind down, do Tough Mudders for fun, have an equally talented spouse, four high-achieving children and a very tired nanny. But most people don’t. They’re talented, they’re bright, they’re hard-working – that’s why you hired them. If they’re not keeping up with you, it’s probably not because they’re lazy or incompetent or uncommitted. Let them be good at their level and don’t make them feel bad that they’re not in the top 0.1% of the population. If you are genuinely a super achiever, that’s not a patronising attitude, that’s just realistic.
8. "She never says hello."
Why would you walk past your direct report’s desk and ignore them? That’s just not very nice. It takes a second to say “good morning”, a lifetime to undo the effects of making people feel invisible.
You shouldn’t have more than eight direct reports (if you do, you need to restructure), so make sure you say hello to each one of them if they’re in the office. And ideally everyone else too – at least the people you walk past.
If you’re not back in the office, make times in the week when you can check in with people, even just five-minute tea breaks on Zoom, just to connect.
What you want to be hearing is:
She’s brilliant, she’s fair, she makes me feel valued and she’s a great poster girl for our organisation.
Primavera Moretti is a freelance fundraising consultant. She’s worked with a large number of third sector organisations in the last 30 years and observed a huge number of leadership styles. One of the best pieces of advice she ever heard was from a Cambridge professor: “Don’t try to be clever – we’re all clever round here. Just try to be nice.”