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October 18, 2011
Hiring Outside the Echo Chamber
 
Many management teams have been working together for years. Even when executive boards bring in new CEOs, this leadership soon fills the ranks of the management team with familiar faces that are tried and true. CEOs typically want to surround themselves with “known quantities” or “trusted confidants” and often with the “devil they know.” In many cases, this formula for building a management team works (or works temporarily), but more often than not, team performance seems to plateau. In my experience, the reason for the deceleration of a once well-oiled machine is the phenomenon known as the echo chamber.

In many high-charged entrepreneurial environments, when people work together for many years, they often spend more time with their colleagues than with their families. This is when the echo chamber forms. The echo chamber does not happen overnight, but it takes time to evolve and form a life of its own. It manifests itself subtly. Members of the team get assimilated. You become the “Borg,” and all Trekkies know that resistance is futile. Your management team becomes a single-celled organism.   

In order to maintain a fresh perspective and generate innovative ideas, be conscious of the signs that an echo chamber is forming:
  1. People finishing each other’s sentences: Like an old married couple, a management team that has worked together for years can finish each other’s sentences. This may create a comfortable environment, but is not necessarily healthy for an entrepreneurial business environment.  If you need comforting, get a dog.
  2. Lack of Diversity: Ah yes, the word most used around corporate HR departments for the last decade. Diversity, or shall we say cultural, ethnic, and social diversity, is important. However, this type of diversity is not as important as the diversity of ideas. Management teams that live in the echo chamber lack a diversity of ideas. People who work together for a long time tend to think alike. “Birds of a feather” don’t necessarily create the best chemistry for thought leadership.                                                                                                                                                                                                            
  3. No Constructive Conflict: This is the dynamic of disagreement. We always hear business pundits speak about consensus. Gaining consensus should be difficult. Management teams existing in the echo chamber lack constructive conflict and the passionate sharing of different business viewpoints. Meetings tend to be the rubber stamping of a fait accompli. Without constructive conflict, consensus is hollow.
In order to neutralize the echo-chamber phenomenon, it is important for CEOs and managers to hire people outside their comfort zone. Bring in senior members to the management team from the outside. Further, hire not only from outside the company, but outside the industry. Look for people with needed skills and talents and not for people who necessarily have industry experience.

When working with existing employees, openly ask for criticism. Criticism is good as long as the critique is immediately followed by a suggestion. As a leader, one can never take criticism personally. Remember, it’s business, not personal. If leadership is open to new ideas, suggestions, and yes, even criticism, that will help prevent the manifestation of the echo chamber. Create an environment that is not hostile to new ideas and varying points of view.  Lead from the front, ask people to do as you do and, of course, never take yourself too seriously. 

Neutralize the echo chamber!

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Nick Balletta is CEO of TalkPoint, an industry leader in global communications technology. With more than 25 years of experience in media and technology, he is a pioneer in the field of unified communications and interactive webcasting. Nick launched his first company — Voyager Data Networks — in 1996 and sold it two years later. In 1998, he founded TalkPoint's predecessor — NextVenue — as an offshoot of CNBC/Dow Jones Desktop Video, a joint venture among Microsoft, NBC and Dow Jones. Here he led its global expansion and merger into streaming media company iBeam Broadcasting. At iBeam, he served as president of enterprise services and was a member of the board before buying back the company, now known as TalkPoint, in 2003.
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