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The success and the failure of any given company are inextricably linked to its executives of the highest pecking order. Thus, it is imperative for C-suite executives to consistently adapt to the changing business landscape.

The C-Suite is at the top of the pyramid and there are only a few in these coveted positions. Hence, the executives who reach that height can be considered to be amongst the most successful executives. They are the most powerful and highly paid professionals, not only in their company but in their industry and their community. Lionized in the press, courted by fundraisers, headhunters, lawyers and many others who want to discuss business with them, they are the most sought after professionals.

Decades ago, C-suite members had more time to relearn, revive and re-engage in their learning & developmental goals. Executive development did not have the urgency it does in today’s landscape. In the super-scrutinized environment of today’s boardrooms and C-suite, boards are becoming more and more intolerant to executives who stall growth after attaining the leadership position. The myth of ‘attainment’ after ‘entering’ the C-suite is the greatest danger in the path of development for an executive. The other end of the sword is the myth of infallibility. Professionals who have been successful and have consistently made good decisions and driven unbelievable success to their companies often believe that they have the gift of being infallible. This can only get amplified by the C-suite status.

Life in a fishbowl

In the C-suite, executives live in a fishbowl. That is, they are constantly being watched by their team, by their board, by the press, by everybody! They are looking for signs of encouragement and/or danger. When the ‘leader’ is downcast, everybody else is. Conversely, when the leader is confident and relaxed, it foreshadows their team. The professionals closest to the top, often, read their leader’s actions and moods carefully – this is the organizational equivalent of reading tea leaves to predict the future.

This life in a fishbowl may render most executives to become hypersensitive to every word and gesture of theirs. In a fishbowl, everything is amplified. Leaders are aware that they will inadvertently create a sense of uncertainty, anxiety and maybe even panic if they show signs of weakness or even doubt. This is the so-called ‘captain of the ship’ syndrome. Everyone aboard the ship has someone to confide in. Yet, ‘the captain of the ship’ can’t pull crew members aside and chat about their fears and anxieties, as it could sink the ship. The information passed by them to anybody on board may soon be common knowledge thanks to the lighting-fast grapevines.

On the other side of the fishbowl

How does the fishbowl effect affect people on the outside? In their book ‘Heart-Centered Leadership: Lead Well, Live Well’, Joel B. Bennett and Susan Steinbrecher urge leaders to ‘know their impact’ and develop an ability to see things from the viewpoint of the employees.  “The leader swims around minding their own business and doing what they need to do. Meanwhile, the rest of the world views them through the perfectly translucent fishbowl. As a leader in the proverbial fishbowl, your actions are magnified or possibly blown out of proportion. Your associates rarely see things from your perspective, and, in this era of rapid change, we are experiencing a shift to increased transparency as employees and customers alike demand truth and honesty from their leaders and the people they do business with.” Culture strategist and leadership specialist Samantha Woolven writes “No matter your leadership style, a culture will grow around you, and great leaders are those who grow this deliberately and consciously. One of the ways that we, at t-three, have found to visualise “culture” more easily is to ask our leaders to think of a fishbowl” The authors of the book champion the message that leaders must develop healthy attitudes and take responsible actions to guide and inspire those around them.

Circumventing the ‘Fishbowl Effect’

A sense of togetherness and shared culture is key to leaders and everyone else in a company. The fishbowl effect creates an environment where siloed working and miscommunication can become rampant. It can also create an illusion under which proximity can be mistaken for togetherness. The ‘weeds’ or issues that accumulate inside a fishbowl can end up costing productivity and slowing down the momentum of growth. So what can leaders do about it? Here are some strategic deep dives and development needs that are recommended by the top executive coaches from around the world.

Leading from a position of trust

Trust is the currency of leader-team relationships. While the connections that leaders have with external stakeholders such as the press and clients are critical, their connectedness to their team is special. Great leaders understand that respect is earned, through empathy, compassion, and trust.

Solving issues together

Leaders cannot just ‘lead’ expect their teams to follow. The kind of leader everyone wants to work for is the kind of leader who works alongside the team. One good place to start is to encourage team members to brainstorm and come up with their suggestions instead of imposing solutions from the top down. Fostering a sense of collective ownership can go a long way.

Levelling up communication skills

Every leader must be able to share knowledge and ideas to transmit a sense of urgency and enthusiasm to others. Most who reach the C-suite have good communications skills, especially when it’s one-on-one. However, many don’t (especially when it comes to communicating with large groups) Developing the right tone in public events is a skill many senior executives need help developing.

Developing a strategic perspective

Many new leaders at the C-Suite have excelled in lower-level tactical management positions and are promoted. Their success depends on adapting to a new model of decision-making that is informed by a long-term view. When leaders plan ahead of the curve and devise long-range strategies, any perception gap that exists between them and their team can be bridged.

Managing major organisational changes

When a company goes through mergers, acquisitions and divestitures, people at the frontline are required to navigate transformation systematically and diplomatically. Leaders can make or break organisational change management. Any change initiative needs to be rolled out in a way that does not disregard the company’s cultural history.

These 5 guiding principles offer a powerful template for leaders to circumvent the infamous ‘Fishbowl Effect’ and ensure a sustained sense of togetherness.


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