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Lessons in Transparency: Part I

Get an inside peek into how a 45 minute intervention effectively injected a much-needed dose of transparency into the performance and functioning of one CEO.

Tom Cruise: “We want the truth. We deserve the truth”

Jack Nicholson: “You want the truth? You can’t take the truth!”

A Few Good Men

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“Mark will collect what you wrote down, then he and I will review and discuss it and get back to you,” the CEO told his assembled executives.

“No. I will collect them and read them right here, right now,” I interjected flexing the authority I had been given by the CEO to facilitate this meeting meant to increase transparency in the senior team of his company. I had just asked the other assembled occupants of the C-suite, and a handful of other senior executives, to write down what the CEO does or fails to do that causes them to lose their respect, confidence and trust in him.

“Huh?” the CEO flashed a look at me.

“Do you or don’t you want transparency?” I replied. “It’s all anonymous and I will delete anything that might identify the contributor. It’s important that all of your team see that they are not alone in their assessment of you; it’s also important that you see yourself through the eyes of your most trusted senior team members, especially if they are having trouble trusting you. Don’t worry, you can handle it,” I continued.

I sincerely meant it because this CEO, like many others in early-stage companies, never intended to hurt or frustrate or intimidate anyone, although that was how many of his people felt. He was just keenly aware of the window of opportunity that his three year old company had and didn’t want to miss out on seizing it.

The ballots came in and they weren’t pretty. “Too flighty,” “Has trouble setting priorities,” “Will compliment you one moment and beat you up the next,” “Treats ‘important’ people much better than his peers or subordinates,” “Doesn’t live the brand,” “Doesn’t walk his talk,” “Needs to prioritize,” “Needs to stop changing his mind at the 11th hour and disrupt projects.”

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To his credit, the CEO took notes on what I said and then re-read all of them to see if he had understood the scathing input. He took a very deep breath and paused. “I could take issue with some minor points, but I don’t disagree with any of this. And I am committing to all of you that I will change in these areas,” he said, deeply affected.

You could feel the collective sigh of relief of the eight people sitting around the conference room table as well as the beginning of some hope that the CEO might actually keep this commitment. Hiding just under that relief were the stirrings of newfound respect that the man would respond to such scathing input in such a non-defensive way.

The meeting continued, but it was clear that this intervention had been the most meaningful part of it. Towards the end of the meeting, the CEO, now quietly attentive and not checking his Blackberry nor acting distracted as was his tendency in meetings when he wasn’t the one who was speaking, politely said to me: “Can I make a request? Could I ask the people here to write down the positive things they think about me that increase their trust, confidence and respect?”

“Let’s do that,” I replied. I added however that the time for the meeting was over and that I would gather those and distribute them by email to all the attendees after the meeting.

That input was a different story: “One of the hardest working people I know,” “Endless energy and passion,” “Inspiring,” “When he’s focused, one of the smarted people I have ever met,” “Has helped me to grow both professionally and personally more than anyone I have ever worked for” and I could continue that list.

Fast forward six months. The CEO has followed through on his commitment to do the positive and stop doing the negative things that were preventing him from being trustworthy, confidenceworthy and respectworthy. And his executive team and staff (where a similar Accountability Group has now been implemented) not only continue to breathe a collective sigh of relief, but are happier and more productive at work.

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What did this 45 minute intervention accomplish that three prior 360 reviews hadn’t and why?

  1. 360 reviews are often too abstract: when you use such terms as communication, delegation, management skills, etc., there is often a collusion between the respondents and the person being reviewed that results in people avoiding anything that is palpable or allows for intervention.
  2. Delay in using or implementing 360 reviews: by the time the information is tallied and follow up meetings scheduled after accounting for everyone’s overly busy schedules, the “punch” and even the point of the reviews gets lost.
  3. Language in 360 reviews is not potent: not being trusted, instilling confidence or inspiring respect are all much more potent than “lacks delegation” or “communication skills.” When someone looks you in the eye and tells you they don’t trust, have confidence in, or respect you, that cuts much closer to your core than merely telling you that your interpersonal skills need improvement.
  4. The importance of experience-near vs. experience-distant language: words like distrust or disrespect are experience-near, meaning that you can feel their impact more deeply than experience-distant words like communication or delegation. Experience-near language is compelling — it gets embedded in the hardwiring of our emotional brains. On the other hand, experience-distant language is more convincing but requires focus, concentration and thinking that requires much more energy and doesn’t endure.
  5. Collective relief by gathering feedback: collecting opinions anonymously and then sharing them during the same meeting bring barriers down — teams become more cohesive. Also perceiving the CEO as not only receptive, but also contrite and grateful for the input, can do wonders for the group’s relief and up their respect for the leader.

A few years ago I spoke with Kevin Sharer, CEO and Chairman of AMGEN regarding some of the keys to his leadership success. Two that stood out:

  • Recognize and deal with reality. You can’t afford to delude yourself.
  • Be coachable. Don’t take criticism personally and spend hours dwelling over it. Take it seriously and when valid, learn from it and change.

To that end, Kevin keeps on his office wall a picture of General George Armstrong Custer as a reminder of both of the above.

An additional point: when you are able to recognize and deal with reality head on and are able to take and use feedback, it not only makes you more effective, it makes you more trustworthy, confidenceworthy and respectworthy.

And if you embody those three qualities, to quote Jack Nicholson from another movie, As Good as it Gets, “You will make your people want to be a better man or woman.”