The Skill of Reading Weak Signals in Leadership Situations


Over the past few years there have been several excellent publications about the concept of “readingwooden balls with technology icons and diagram media on computer as cloud network concept-1.jpeg weak signals” in business.  One of my favorites was published about 3 years ago by McKinsey called “The Strength of Weak Signals” by Martin Harrysson, Estelle Métayer, and Hugo Sarrazin.  Published in The McKinsey Quarterly, this piece is similar to others and points out how critical it is for leaders have the Business Acumen skills needed to analyze market trends to anticipate changes and get in front of competitive threats.  The McKinsey article by way of example suggests that senior leaders should spend time looking at trends about their company in social media.  What are customers saying about us on Twitter?  Is it good or bad?  Are there patterns in complaints that we can fix?  What are customers saying about our competitors? Are there things competitors are doing and customers like that we should be doing? Once business leaders gather the information from Social Media they should digest it and map actions for change and evolution of the strategy and value proposition to their customers.

The concepts are very sound and the skills of reading weak signals extends to other parts of the Business Acumen approach including innovating new products, processes for operational enhancements, and new ways to connect with customers.

Reading weak signals in business shouldn’t just be limited to the types of Business Acumen elements mentioned above; there are also weak signals – maybe many more weak signals – on the Business Leadership side of the business as well.  At Advantexe, we define Business Leadership as the execution of business strategy through people.  Without engaged, excited, motivated, and well trained people every great strategy and product will die.  There are no exceptions to that rule.

This morning, I said hello to an employee I like and admire at a service provider business that I have been frequenting to for about 10 years.  Instead of his usual energetic happy greeting, he looked down, closed his eyes for a moment, and shared how horribly wrong things in his career at this business are going.  One of the reasons I love working with this person so much is his unbelievable energy, big personality, and extremely positive attitude.  During the time I’ve known him I’ve never seen him down for even one second, so seeing him so despondent and disengaged made me really sad and concerned.

When I asked him what’s up, he shook his head and said “The man in the front.”

The man in the front he was referring to is the General Manager of the business.  Over the past two years there have been several weak signals of business leadership situations generated by the General Manager including:

  • 80% turnover of the staff
  • A controversial decision to stop providing services to a key and profitable customer segment for very weak reasons (leaving many customers extremely upset)
  • Rumors of an inappropriate favoritism to some customers over others
  • Rude and inappropriate remarks to direct reports in internal meetings
  • Refusal to meet greet or talk to customers when they come into the business

Unfortunately, the owner of the business who hired the General Manager has missed or refuses to see these weak signals and sadly it’s not a matter of if, but when the story will have an ugly ending.

Although this scenario is different that the stories I usually share about Business Acumen, Business Leadership, and Strategic Business Selling in large companies, there are three significant lessons that have universal application to leaders of businesses and leaders of people everywhere:

Really listen to and understand your employee engagement scores

If your employee are telling you that a Manager is doing or saying inappropriate things, listen to the signals.   If your employee turnover is 80%, listen to the signals.  If employees who leave write a lot of negative things on social media about how terrible the Manager is, listen to the signals.

Engage with your customers and ask about their perception of your managers and employees

Customer satisfaction reports aren’t always accomplished by taking a survey.  Talk with your customers. Go visit them and ask them specific questions about Managers and employees they interact with and listen to the signals.

Ask yourself the hard question: Is your loyalty to Managers and employees blocking out the weak signals you should be listening to

Loyalty to your people is a great thing if they are loyal and adding value back.  Blind loyalty unfortunately can create blocking fields to the weak signals you should be listening to.

why business acumen matters

Robert Brodo

About The Author

Robert Brodo is co-founder of Advantexe. He has more than 20 years of training and business simulation experience.