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Openness, Generosity, and Accountability

Where do those attributes fit in today’s bustling business world? Leaders at a recent conference learned firsthand.

Those three words in the headline at the top of this page-openness, generosity, and accountability-are nice words and laudable traits, but where do they fit in today’s ROI-driven, transaction-based world? Especially “openness.” I mean, how touchy feely can you get?

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These thoughts crossed my mind at the opening dinner of a recent conference, the “2006 Big Task Weekend: Healthier Americans,” as I listened to founder (and fellow fastcompany.com columnist) Keith Ferrazzi articulate the values underlying the conference. I’m sure many of the more than sixty business leaders, public luminaries (including Dr. Dean Ornish and author Arianna Huffington), and press (including Forbes and Reader’s Digest along with yours truly) all shared a bit of this skepticism. The companies represented at the Big Task Weekend, including Coca Cola, Del Monte Foods, GlaxoSmithKline, Google, Heinz, IBM, Kaiser Permanente, Martha Stewart Omnimedia, Safeway, and Starbucks, collectively employ over 2 million people and earn over $570 billion in revenue. What would openness or generosity mean to them?

I tried to put my skepticism aside inasmuch as I was not only joining the dialogue on the weighty issues of American health and wellness, but I was also facilitating one of the optional sessions on leadership. As the attendees and I gathered for my program, something remarkable occurred almost immediately: an impressive and surprising display of openness.

After forming groups of four, the participants were directed to “check in” by describing themselves professionally and personally. I led off and shared some of my professional challenges. I then shared the personal concerns I had for some people close to me who could likely benefit from the psychological assistance I could offer them, but who fought me at every turn when I tried to help. My voice quivered with emotion during the sharing of these personal experiences.

Within minutes the groups followed suit. The attendees lowered their guard and the crowd was transformed into people both speaking and listening from their hearts. It was clear that these leaders were usually caring for and solving the problems of their subordinates and had much less experience being cared about by others. Interestingly, whatever shyness or awkwardness people may have had in opening up in this forum quickly gave way to relief and gratitude for having the opportunity to let themselves feel cared about.

Nice feelings, sure, but was there any more for these leaders than this Kumbaya moment? The participants in my leadership session — and at the conference at large — were not “takers”. Nor were they people who take being cared about by their peers — or by anyone, for that matter — for granted. The gratitude for the chance to share what mattered to them and to be listened to spontaneously inspired these leaders’ generosity as they eagerly repaid the kindness they felt.

This generosity played into the talent of the impresario, Keith Ferrazzi, who entreated everyone to tap that generosity by actively working together for a successful weekend addressing the issue at hand, Healthier Americans. By forming strategic partnerships with other attendees, and making five personal commitments to work toward the mission of Big Task, he didn’t have to do much for the participants to act upon his challenge.

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Of course the real challenge from these events is the follow through. Both Ferrazzi and I have learned from too many of these meetings that the only way to secure follow through is to hold people accountable for their good intentions and promises. But how do you hold people accountable when they return to their companies?

To that end, Ferrazzi finished the conference with a “gratitude circle,” where the executives shared the benefits they derived from the conference and what they promised to do going forward. Not wanting to leave anything to chance, I asked people to raise their hands if they had made a meaningful connection at the conference. Nearly everyone’s hands rose.

While sometimes you need to reinforce words with actions, it also helps to reinforce actions with words. So I asked next: “With a show of hands and then by saying ‘yes,’ how many of you will make a commitment to follow through on your promise with action?” Again, nearly everyone raised their hands and sealed the deal by saying “yes.”

To that end, many of the commitments made from Big Task weekend are just beginning. And the take home for these leaders? When people lower their guard, allow themselves to feel genuinely cared about, and take in that caring without dismissing or dodging it, they feel less isolated, more grateful, and want to give back by being more productive.

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