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Staying Close to the Frontline

Ben Legg
Former COO of Google, Europe

Learning outcomes

  • How pulse lunches, regular, casual interactions with front-line employees, can ensure leaders get fair and straight feedback
  • How leaders can engage with front-line employees to create a transparent environment

Executive Bio

Ben Legg

Former COO of Google, Europe

Ben is an engineer by training and spent over 10 years in the Royal Engineers in the British Army career before moving to McKinsey. In 2002, he moved to Coca-Cola where he ran teams across Eastern Europe before turning around the Indian business leading 12,000 salespeople. Ben then moved to Google where was COO of UK and Ireland for 2 years before being promoted to COO Europe where he was responsible for writing the monetisation blueprint of Google’s various properties. This involved defining the role of ad units, properties, interactions with agencies and partners, and devising how auctions should work. Ben then ran a Yellow Pages turnaround before running an ad-tech business for 6 years which ran $200m of ad spend through the major technology platforms. Ben is the author of Marketing for CEO’s and is on the Board of The Oxford Foundry where he is a mentor and investor to multiple startups. Read more

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Interview Transcript

How do you build a culture to enable straight feedback from employees to the leader?

It’s critical, and there’s a lot of tips and tricks. The first thing to say is leaders need humility. If a leader always behaves like, “I’m right, you’re wrong,” if they try to belittle people, if they steal other people's ideas and reflect them as their own, it’s not going to encourage openness. Say things like, “I screwed up on that one.” “Guys, I just don’t understand this.” “What does that three-letter abbreviation mean?” So many people don’t want to show they don’t know stuff — it’s fine. Humility, probably with a bit of humour, is a good thing.

Other things you can do to make sure your people aren’t just telling you what you want to hear is deep dives into certain areas. That might be looking at a dashboard you don’t normally look at. “This is the weekly dashboard you normally see, where’s the data come from for that particular point?” or “What dashboards do you use, can I have a look at those?” That kind of deep-dive or, “Let’s carve out a couple of hours to do a brainstorm on this because I’m not sure we’re doing it right.”

Another very simple trick I’ve done, if you’re a leader of leaders, so your direct reports also have teams, you can go and talk to people at the frontline, bypass the layer of management. That’s dangerous if you try to manage your direct reports’ direct reports, you shouldn’t do that. But talking and listening to them is a great way. Something I’ve done in the last few CEO jobs is what I call pulse lunches, which I think is a phenomenal concept; I’d recommend it to any leader of leaders.

How it works is I would say to my assistant, “Two or three times a week, I want to have breakfast or lunch with a group of five or six people who do not report to me. I want a mix of levels, duration with the company, teams, and functions.” People I don’t normally talk to who do a diverse range of roles. We’ll go somewhere nice but not crazy expensive. First, intros. Then I’ll say, “Here’s what I’m working on, here’s what’s on my mind, here’s something interesting going on in my life, and here’s something keeping me awake at night.” Just updating them about what’s going on, showing them I’m human and that I don’t know everything. Then we’ll go around the table, and each person needs to talk about one thing at work they’re doing that they’d like to share. Could be a problem they want to solve, and they want input, could be something they’re proud of — doesn’t really matter.

Then it’s one thing about their personal life they want to share because it’s fun and because they’re human. And then a question for me, with nothing out of bounds. Go around the table and do that five or six times, depending on the number of people there, and it does some amazing things.

First, it connects with the frontline, they realise you’re human, but also, you get to listen to people you don’t normally listen to. You also get to hear about diverse, cool stuff that maybe you wouldn’t hear about. I don’t necessarily know what’s going on in the depths of HR or engineering because I tend to talk to a product manager, not an engineer, or I talk to the head of HR, not the head of compensation and benefits. It’s great to get involved in that, but also, the team realise there’s lots of cool stuff going on in other teams, which helps them appreciate other people's perspectives and realise, in general, what a cool company they work for because there’s all sorts of cool stuff going on that they didn’t know about. It’s a really beneficial thing and it’s got rave reviews.

Often, before people go, people say, “Why am I going for lunch with the CEO? Did I do something wrong? Am I going to be grilled on something?” But once they realise it’s very open and collaborative, it goes down well. I highly recommend it.

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