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From Where We Sit

For leaders and the bubbles we are in

Anton Ng

6:04 a.m.: My wife needs the car, so I am using Uber today. As we traverse the 17-kilometer route, I chat briefly with Michael, who is driving me to Makati today. He is surprised with his designation to pick me up, considering he was a good four kilometers away from the pickup point. Apparently, this is only one of his concerns as a partner-driver; he is also concerned that his service rate is plummeting. I don’t empathize with him much because, at this point, all I want to do is take a nap.

8:17 a.m.: I step into my office and look for my table. It got buried under the mountain of reports that seem to have piled up overnight and had been quietly begging for my attention since the night before.

11:15 a.m.: After three hours of pure working bliss, my stomach starts complaining. I step out to grab some lunch.

12:00 noon: I pay my barber a visit. While Eugene is trimming my hair, another customer steps in, looking for one of the other barbers who apparently did not report for work this day. Eugene explains to me that some of the barbers have been having issues with the new shop policies, which could be the reason why some of them skipped work today. If only the owner knows about this, he sighs… The owner has been making himself scarce at the barbershop these days. I don’t express much sympathy as well because at this point, all I want to do is go back to work.

12:33 p.m.: I’m staring at my laptop once again. I answer emails, execute some more administrative stuff, sit in several short update meetings, and when I look at my watch, it is already…

4:16 p.m.: My eldest daughter is calling. She facetimed (Yes, I just used FaceTime as a verb) me to seek help with one of the math word problems I specifically prepared for her. Praise God for technology because it is easier to discuss math problems when I can make out her thought process as she solves them. Before we bid our goodbyes, I ask how the first day of her exams went. She only says, “It’s fine.” I’m not really satisfied with the answer but, since she is just answering my question, I can’t complain.

10:17 p.m.: With weary eyes and exhausted mind, I’m calling it a day. I sit on the back seat of the Vios that picked me up. I put on my headphone and listen to an episode of the Harvard Business Review podcast. The guest for this episode is Hal Gregersen, a senior lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management, and his topic, entitled “Bursting the CEO Bubble,” is about CEOs, or any leader, being trapped oftentimes in their own bubbles.

Remember when Uber CEO Travis Kalanick was caught on camera having an argument with Fawzi Kamel about premium pricing for Uber Black? After Kamel expressed his concerns over how Kalanick is dropping prices and changing the business, which eventually drove Kamel into bankruptcy, Kalanick fired back by telling Kamel that people like him don’t like to take responsibility for their own actions. That response made Kalanick feel he has been out of touch with his own partner-drivers. Problems such as these arise because leaders sometimes create, whether intentional or not, a cocoon that isolates them from everything other than the good news. Oftentimes, this bubble prevents leaders from identifying unanticipated risks or the “unknown unknowns” (a term made famous by former US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld).

11:03 p.m.: I am preparing to go to bed when the thought about Gregersen’s recommendations on how to burst the CEO bubble, in line with the different conversations I had today, hits me. I imagine: what if it was Kalanick who was chatting with Uber’s Michael this morning. How might have Kalanick responded? When Kamel confronted him, Kalanick wasn’t actually prepared to be wrong; hence, he became defensive. Based on Gregersen’s idea, a leader who already burst his own bubble would be willing to be unexpectedly wrong on some of his decisions. Kalanick would have listened and tried to understand whether there were merits to the concerns being raised. If his conclusion was that he made a bad call, he would be willing to adjust, and do so quickly.

Regarding the concerns at the barbershop, Gregersen might have advised the owner to be ready to be uncomfortable with his own people. Yes, the owner might already have an idea that his barbers do not agree with the new policies. Yes, difficult questions might be asked when he finally visits the barbershop. But then visiting the barbershop would be the only way for him to find out what the real concerns were. Without the willingness to leave his comfortable “owner cocoon” and be in that uncomfortable situation, the owner would not discover what was truly happening in the trenches.

Lastly, I, as the CEO of our family, and also tasked to be in charge of school concerns, would have to start learning how to frame the right questions, lest I’ll always get the “It’s fine” kind of answers. I should have asked questions such as “Which particular question did you spend the most time on?” or “If we are going to redo our study sessions, how should we do it to better prepare you for your exams?”

11:59 p.m.: Almost drowsing off. I’m sure reports are again magically accumulating on my table. I got to start bursting my bubble at work.

Anton Ng is a partner at Audit & Assurance of P&A Grant Thornton. P&A Grant Thornton is one of the leading audit, tax, advisory and outsourcing firms in the Philippines, with 21 partners and more than 800 staff members.

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As published in Manila Times, dated on 29 March 2017