We don’t have an "open door policy" at Widen. I find the notion of using doors ridiculous.
When a key component of my job is to remove obstacles, a door is just a physical obstacle that prevents me from having open, impromptu discussions with people. So despite the popularity of business leaders claiming to have open door policies, I think they have it all wrong. You shouldn’t have doors at all . . . or walls. You should be in the open, be vulnerable, and be part of the team. In one word, be transparent.
Transparency becomes part of business culture when employees learn that they are allowed to say, "I was wrong." My response is usually, "Fantastic!" That means they did three very important things right:
- They came up with an idea to help us become better
- They took action
- They recognized their mistake
That’s worthy of a gigantic "thank you" instead of the traditional consequences. This clashes with years of schooling that taught us being "right" is good and being "wrong" is bad. However, the right-wrong mentality is antiquated in a world where innovation demands mistakes and admitting mistakes requires transparency.
To break the mold of employees thinking they always need to be right, you need to show that mistakes and vulnerability are encouraged.
At Widen, we have open exchanges, fireside chats, employee meetings, and daily interactions. My people know that nine out of every 10 ideas I share are not very good, and I think that percentage is even too high. However, that one idea, every once in a while, catches on. I want everyone to feel comfortable with sharing because that is how employee ideas become innovations that can change the world.
Almost everyone I have worked with knows I gravitate to the new, shiny objects. I don’t like the confinements of an existing structure and process, but that doesn’t mean structure can be neglected. Those processes drive functionality, scale, satisfaction, and, without that structure, the system would be broken. People far more skilled than me run those processes, and I get to contribute as a team member.
In some cases, I am even left off the team because I can be more effective generating new ideas than formally vetting them. For example, I was not invited to participate on our new product development team. Instead, this group of employees, representing a variety of software roles, has been reviewing new ideas and plotting our advancements in marketing technology. Some of my ideas have not made it past the first review stage because they are not good enough to advance. Fantastic, I need to be better.
I consider this a triumph of transparency. Not many CEOs have their ideas subjected to this type of scrutiny because most companies don’t make a connection between transparency and innovation. Coworkers get to shoot down my ideas because that makes us better.
Because transparency is part of culture, I can let someone else recognize and compensate for my weaknesses. I don’t want to fix certain weaknesses; they are weak because I don’t like doing them in the first place. So I concentrate on accelerating my strengths in pursuit of my passions. The beautiful thing about people is that we are all different and someone else is strong and passionate within my areas of weakness. Constantly moving people around, hiring new talent, positioning people where they want to be, and providing educational opportunities drives our culture, innovation, and customer satisfaction.
Transparency is a leadership challenge because our management strategies all come from a world of hierarchy. Governments, militaries, and, until recently, most businesses implicitly believed in a chain of command. It worked well in an industrial economy where businesses needed few decision makers and a lot of listeners who could complete repetitive processes and always get them right.
Today, CEOs don’t need answers, and they can’t thrive with a team of robots. The post-industrial economy requires that CEOs hire people who are much smarter than they are and willing to question everything. CEOs need checks and balances to their own power and thinking.
A transparent culture views vulnerability as a strength rather than a weakness. At an innovative business, the CEO is not a coach on the sidelines—he or she must be a captain on the court. Most times you are not the best player, you just need to know how to support the best players and make decisions in the best interest of your team.
—Matthew Gonnering is the CEO of Widen Enterprises, a Madison, Wisconsin-based digital media solutions provider. He has been recognized by Madison In Business Magazine's 40 under 40 list and, in 2012, was named Madison’s fittest male executive in the under 50 category by the same magazine.