From Legislated Optimism to Radical Transparency - Fierce Leadership: A Bold Alternative to the Worst “Best” Practices of Business Today - Susan Scott

Fierce Leadership: A Bold Alternative to the Worst “Best” Practices of Business Today - Susan Scott (2009)

Fierce Practice #6. From Legislated Optimism to Radical Transparency

There are few diseases for which the cure is more dangerous than the affliction. Alethophobia—an intense, abnormal or illogical fear of the truth—is one of them.

It sounds like a rare and serious psychiatric disorder, but I’m betting that two out of three people suffer from alethophobia. And the approved cure, administered by companies all over the world, is far worse than the disease.

How many times have you told someone—your boss, a colleague, a customer, your spouse—what you thought he or she wanted to hear, rather than what you were really thinking? Painted a false, rosy version of reality, glossing over problems or pretending they simply didn’t exist? Tossed out the ceremonial first lie?

Telling it like it is, speaking the ground truth as opposed to the official party line (which we know to be bogus) is no one’s notion of exalting. It’s so upsetting, alarming, and risky that we’re willing to place a FOR SALE sign on our integrity to avoid it. After all, we’ve all witnessed a kind of violence—a lost promotion, raise, or place at the table—visited on those who’ve spoken their hearts and minds, and it is raw.

Weak leaders want agreement. But fierce leaders want to know the truth. As leaders, we need to encourage those we lead to tell us the whole truth, paint the whole picture, even if it’s ugly, unpleasant, not what we wish it to be. Because only then can we put our best efforts forward to fix what needs fixing.

Several years ago, following a training in Fierce Conversations at Washington Mutual, the participants were wildly enthusiastic about the bank’s need for these practices. They were sobered by the idea that their careers, their organization, their relationships, and their lives were succeeding or failing—gradually, then suddenly—one conversation at a time. There was unease in the room and during the debriefing after a Beach Ball conversation, they were eager to bring Beach Ball conversations to all levels of the organization. Executives didn’t see it that way. Gradually, committed to a failed strategy, WaMu spiraled downward, arriving at “suddenly” on September 25, 2008, when JP Morgan Chase acquired the deposits, assets, and liabilities of what was left of Washington Mutual’s banking operations. Good for JP Morgan Chase. Sad for WaMu. Now, whenever I look at the WaMu tower, the most beautiful office building in Seattle, in my opinion, I wonder if things might have turned out differently if Kerry Killinger, the CEO, had frequently gathered people around him who could have alerted him to trouble and advised him what was needed to turn things around.

The first frontier is finding our own courage. You know how it goes. Someone speaks the truth out loud, in the presence of leaders, and soon it is difficult to breathe. Tension fills the room. The leader stiffens, gives us the look, sweeps the room with it. Then there’s more silence, lots of fidgeting and darting eyes, until finally, the leader speaks solemnly, as if to a carrier of dengue fever. “I’m aware of these concerns, John (Jane, Larry, Linda). We’ve got it covered.” Translated: “What part of ‘team player’ did you not understand!”

And this is a shame because our first thoughts, unfiltered, uncensored, are usually on to something. We may not even know how or why we know what we know, but we do know, and these thoughts are usually the most true, most honest, yet all too often we are scared to capture and voice them. (Later in this chapter, I’ll invite you to capture your own first thoughts.)

Admittedly, sometimes what we “know” is off because we don’t have the whole picture. I’ve often wondered what the first day would be like for a newly elected president of the United States. A briefing by all the agency heads: “Mr. President, we feel we should begin this briefing by informing you that aliens do exist. …”

But while you and I may not be privy to everything there is to know, our BS detectors sound the alarm when something doesn’t look, sound, or smell right. And it’s the courage to admit it to ourselves and point it out to others that signals the presence or absence of fierce leadership in our companies: “Thank you for telling me about this. Let’s work to correct it.” NOT “Don’t mention this to anyone else. There’s nothing to worry about.”

What Is Legislated Optimism?

So what happens when honesty is discouraged, when leaders distort reality and insist that everyone perpetuate their rosy version of the current disaster? I call this legilated optimism, and I’ve saved this practice for last because it may hit a nerve, possibly your nerve, as this practice is largely about ego, about our insistence on building a public story of our lives into one we can live with, even if it’s a fantasy. It’s a protection mechanism. By God, we will be viewed as heroes, not jesters or villains.

Don’t get me wrong. I am a card-carrying, verging-on-lunatic optimist who tends to see a burning bush where others see a brush fire. I’m all for upbeat, and I suspect that optimism is one of America’s most valuable contributions to the world, a powerful asset that helps individuals and organizations reach and surpass lofty goals. Optimism isn’t the problem. It’s the “legislated” part that should concern us.

Legislated optimism is the purview of the one-way leader. When optimism is legislated, meetings produce more nothing than something. Ideas die without a funeral or proper burial. Communication is primarily from the leader to everyone else. The reverse is not valued, not welcomed, because the leader and his inner circle of advisers know best. Always have, always will. And the message is always upbeat. Accurate information is presented with a coat of whitewash and abracadabra laid over it, as if leaders would have us believe they’ve sent all the Death Eaters flying. Naysayers will be sent to Azkaban.

In a culture of legislated optimism, leaders know only the sound of one hand clapping. They ask questions not because they want answers, but because they want to hear how they sound asking them. In this environment, conclusions are reached at the point when everyone stops thinking, which is often short of brilliant. The leaders have already done the thinking for us and have called it good. No point in telling them what we’re actually dealing with every day, since to do so would not be a career-enhancing move.

Conclusions are the point at which everyone stops thinking, which is often short of brilliant.

Reminds me of Jon Stewart’s impersonation of former president George W. Bush: “You either agree with my position or you’re looking to have a thermonuclear reaction bake your shadow instantly into the sidewalk.”

In short, legislated optimism is the tactic of those who attempt to camouflage rotten news with pretty words, confusing words, empty words. It’s the tactic of those who replace the bold headlines with the small print—the kind of false advertising that allows credit card companies, mortgage brokers, and wireless carriers to raise rates unexpectedly, for no apparent reason, or the kind of euphemisms that result in the misleading labels on things we buy every day. Organic (read overpriced). Low-fat (read low flavor). Healthy (read not really). New and improved (read new and improved price). Free (read sucker. nothing is free).

The Today Show recently ran a segment about how food manufacturers are shortchanging the consumer by “downsizing” the products. One example was Skippy peanut butter. The standard jar looked the same as it always had, but in fact, Skippy had reduced the jar size from 18 ounces to 16.3 ounces by creating a large hemispherical “dimple” in the bottom of the jar while retaining the same jar height and diameter. Even though the price of Skippy had gone up slightly, consumers felt the manufacturer was basically holding the line in tight economic times. In truth, consumers were paying more for less. If it sounds like deception, it probably is deception.

Which reminds me of a poem by Tony Hoagland called “The Big Grab.”

Big Grab

The corn chip engineer gets a bright idea,
and talks to the corn chip executive
and six months later at the factory they begin subtracting
a few chips from every bag,
but they still call it on the outside wrapper,
The Big Grab,
so the concept of Big is quietly modified
to mean More or Less Large, or Only Slightly Less Big than Before.

Confucius said this would happen:
that language would be hijacked and twisted
by a couple of tricksters from the Business Department

and from then on words would get crookeder and crookeder
until no one would know how to build a staircase,
or to look at the teeth of a horse,
or when it is best to shut up.

We live in that time that he predicted.
Nothing means what it says,
and it says it all the time.
Out on route 28, the lights blaze all night
on a billboard of a beautiful girl
covered with melted cheese—

See how she beckons to the river of late night cars;
See how the tipsy drivers swerve, under the breathalyzer moon!

We’re in the wilderness now,
confused by the signs,
with a shortness of breath,
and that postmodern feeling of falling behind.

In a story whose beginning I must have missed,
without a name for the thing
I can barely comprehend I desire,
I speak these words that do not know
where they’re going.

No wonder I want something more-or-less large,
and salty for lunch.
No wonder I stare into space while eating it.

Of greater concern than misleading advertising, though, is that the practice of legislated optimism—withholding ground truth, assuring us that all is well, that the grab is big, urging us to sing the official hymn, In Leadership We Trust, insisting that you’re “either for us or against us”—is dangerous and extends to those who lead countries, as well as those who lead companies. The price paid by people all over the world is heartbreaking. I’d like us to rail against this practice, to insist that all leaders, whether leading companies or countries, tell us the truth, surface mokitas (more about that later), and find out what we’re made of.

Human beings are hardwired to solve problems and are usually successful when they address the real problems, the root causes of whatever miseries they’re experiencing. But often those who recognize the real problems hesitate to name them because (a) they are afraid they will be seen as party to creating the problems; (b) they don’t know how to solve them, which would be embarrassing; (c) somebody else might figure out how to solve them, which would be more embarrassing; (d) what kind of leaders would they be if they didn’t “lead,” as in devise the plan and issue directives?; and (e) as Sinclair Lewis said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something if his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

I was once working with the key executives of a company when it was acquired by another company. One of the first pronouncements from the visiting executive was, “Our culture is one of compliance. This means if you’re told to do something, don’t ask questions. Just do as you’re told.” Most of the men and women I had known for a year, accustomed to regularly interrogating reality and a steady diet of candor, declined to remain.

At Fierce Inc., thanks to Cam Tripp, who pushed back repeatedly on my determined plan to build a stable of world-class facilitators, we instead began developing world-class materials and empowering clients to become certified and teach our courses themselves. I admit that when Cam first floated this suggestion, my exact words were “Over my dead body,” but luckily, I was able to open myself up to his suggestions—and in the end was extremely happy I did.

“Dead body” is now a joke in the company and the code for a possibly crazy and brilliant idea that is about to be suggested. As in, “This could be one of those dead body ideas that could take us to the next level.”

When someone says, “This is how it’s going to be. This is the truth, the right way to go. ALL IS WELL!” in spite of rumors or what you’re feeling in your gut, in spite of the dead and dying, and having failed to interrogate reality and solicit competing views, well, that person doesn’t just burn her bridges to brilliance, to innovation, to employee engagement, to high levels of collaboration and cooperation, to a healthy top and bottom line, she blows them up.

For the Rhythm of Your Home

Of course, there are some things leaders keep under wraps—such as impending mergers or acquisitions or the newest top secret gizmo in development—for security or legal reasons or to avoid wild swings in the stock price. But when leaders keep secrets or cover up or sanitize risky material in order to avoid or postpone the recognition of failure, they put the company and everyone in it at risk. This practice is not fierce. It’s insulting, deceitful, and foolish.

Consider NASA’s refusal to divulge its disturbing survey data on airline safety because knowing the truth would upset air travelers and hurt airline profits (Is it just me, or does anyone else suspect concerns over profits trumped concerns about you and me possibly being upset?); the CIA’s destruction of videotapes of harsh interrogations (read “waterboarding”), of suspected al-Qaida operatives, despite repeated, detailed requests by members of the September 11 Commission for documents and other information related to interrogations; and Merck and Schering-Plough’s admission that they had known for two years and failed to disclose that their widely used cholesterol drugs, Zetia and Vytorin, not only failed to slow the accumulation of fatty plaque in arteries but actually seemed to contribute to plaque formation (Why tell the truth when it will trigger an immediate net worth-ectomy, even though millions of people are taking a drug that doesn’t benefit them and in fact may raise their risk of heart attack? After all, the overriding purpose of all business is to make a profit!).

We all recall the breathtaking collapse of investment bank Bear Stearns, one of the most alarming indicators to flash on the U.S. economy’s dashboard. Yet days earlier, the CEO of Bear Stearns had assured investors, employees, and the press that there was no cause for alarm.

In the fall of 2008, it took nothing less than the failure of Lehman Brothers, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Merrill Lynch, AIG, Washington Mutual, and the top U.S. automakers and the subsequent devastation on Wall Street for many executives and political leaders to admit the gravity of the situation. Brian Williams interviewed CNBC experts who, with refreshing candor, didn’t try to sooth and smooth. They were worried and said so.

How long had these fires been smoldering? How did these companies go bankrupt? “Gradually, and then suddenly.”

If the leaders of these organizations had caught their downward trajectories early in the game, and owned up to them, rather than painting a rosy picture to assure shareholders, and the world at large, that everything was A-OK, would their stories have had a happier ending? Optimism is not warranted when “management” withholds or manipulates the truth as the organization slides toward illness. When a company’s pronouncements don’t match reality, the company’s immune system is weakened, making it vulnerable to getting sick when faced with tough developments—a downturn in the economy, a competitor’s fabulous new offering, the rising price of oil. These and other challenges can kill a company whose immune system is already compromised.

If your house stinks to high heaven, don’t go looking for whatever expired under the sink; just mask that odor with a different one. If the smell is really bad, set the air freshener on “high.”

Reminds me of a television commercial for a scented air freshener that could be programmed to spritz an odor-masking fragrance every five minutes, fifteen minutes, or sixty minutes. The tagline was “For the rhythm of your home.”

Doesn’t that sound lovely? The rhythm of your home. But of course, air freshener doesn’t get out the nasty smell, it just hides it. If your house stinks to high heaven, don’t go looking for whatever expired under the sink, just mask that odor with a different one. If the smell is really bad, set the air freshener on “high.”

In the news recently, I learned that room deodorizing sprays and drier sheets can cause physical harm to those who use them. This perfects the metaphor. Cover-ups are unhealthy, which begs the question, what is the rhythm of your home, your team, your organization? Is there an odiferous issue that you or others have been attempting to mask?

Practicing Squid Eye

What might you notice if you were practicing squid eye that would suggest you and/or people in your organization tend to tell people what they want to hear instead of telling it like it is, that they legislate optimism, operate from a narrow point of view, stifle disagreement with leadership, and insist that all is well when it might not be? Check any of the following “tells” that apply to your team, your organization. Or to you.

Only the usual suspects are invited to the table. It’s always the same people, the same flow, the same distractions, the same argument for the same strategy, which nets the same outcomes. We’re committed to implementing option A, while the guys in the warehouse are suggesting option Q (which could save us). But they weren’t invited to the meeting.

You hear words like burning platform and playbook. This grandiose verbiage is a special language spoken from the bully pulpit. It’s an attempt to add weight to the task at hand, to add importance to what we’re doing, like the Wizard of Oz behind the curtain, operating his thunder machine. No one really buys it.

The “corporate nod” is prevalent. When people are asked what they think of a leader’s ideas or plans, heads lower around the table, eyes are averted. If the leader calls on someone to speak, he or she adopts a thoughtful expression and nods his or her head, which is mistaken for agreement. In actuality, there is little or no agreement, but since those who point out problems are considered troublemakers, no one pushes back.

Mokitas abound. Mokita is a term from Papua New Guinea. It means “that which everyone knows and no one speaks of.” The health of any community is judged by the number of mokitas that exist within it. Mokita is apparently also the name of an umbrella drink. I assume that is because when enough goes in, the truth comes out.

There is a gap between “official truths” and “ground truths.” When a company nears disaster, people who work there admit they knew it was coming, based on the reality with which they were confronted daily. In spite of the CEOs’ exhortations to the contrary (the official truth), all was not well at Enron, Bear Stearns, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Washington Mutual, AIG, GM, Ford, Chrysler. … By the time this book is in your hands, the list will have grown.

There is a dearth of innovation. When optimism is legislated—the forecast is always sunny skies, no chance of rain—forget about innovation. Since all is well, we can relax, keep doing what we’ve been doing. We’re good, we’re great, we’re successful; we’ve got it figured out. Nothing can touch us. Tra, la, la, la, la. Take the rest of the day off.

We experience implementation agony. If we’ve been assured that all is well, why struggle to implement new initiatives that require us to change? If a new initiative is difficult to implement, we assume it’s because it is unnecessary, the wrong thing to do. So we move slowly, drag our feet, point at obstacles.

There is an absence of accountability. We’re not fond of taking accountability for the success or failure of someone’s decision if our input was not solicited and valued in the first place, especially when leaders peddle rosy predictions and deny corporate dysfunction. Our leaders can hold us accountable all day long, and nothing will change. This is their plan, their bright idea, not ours.

We declare war on the wrong things. The problem isn’t HERE with me, with us. It’s over THERE. It’s YOU. It’s THEM. It’s THAT. It’s THIS. Production engineering, not manufacturing. Offshore, not on shore. Sales, not merchandising. You, not me. Our competition’s brilliant products. Not our lack of innovation. Not our unworkable plan.

If our organization were a car, many of the warning lights would be flashing red. While the CEO or the press secretary smiles broadly into the camera and denies that there is reason for concern, those privy to the real numbers are talking with headhunters, hoping to bail out before the whole thing comes crashing down. What are the rest of us pretending not to know?

We may not cook the books, but sometimes we cook the truth. We tell ourselves that technically, withholding, obfuscating, avoiding, reframing the truth isn’t lying, it’s just being optimistic. The last frame of a Dilbert cartoon captures my thought about this: “If you hear a whistling noise, that would be your soul escaping through your nose.” That sound would be your immune system deflating. That would be your team exiting, your world crashing.

If any of this is occurring in your organization, what part has your name on it? Could be a lot or a little, depending on your beliefs.

What Were We Thinking?

Take a look at the following list of beliefs and check those you currently hold.

Leaders do know best. That’s why I am a leader. Let me lead.

Leadership doesn’t imply omniscience. No one has all the answers. I certainly don’t.

As a leader, I’m privy to more information than others, so others aren’t equipped to advise me.

The best decisions are made with input from multiple sources. If anyone’s point on the compass indicates danger, I want that person to speak up.

I get paid the big bucks, so I do the heavy lifting. Others get paid to implement my decisions and strategy.

A strong leadership bench requires that people think and behave as if they are at least one level beyond their current role. I want everyone to think, as well as do.

Most people can’t handle the truth. Why upset them unnecessarily?

People can handle the truth and need to know it so they can help us figure out what to do.

I speak in order to present myself, my ideas.

I speak in order to become myself. I hope to be different when the conversation is over.

I rarely ask a question unless I already know the answer. Makes me look good.

I never ask a question to which I already know the answer. I want ideas and actions to move in one direction only—forward.

If I openly share all my ideas, people might steal them and pass them off as their own.

I freely share my ideas with colleagues so we can engage with one another, counsel one another, maintain energy and momentum.

When people are fed a story they know to be at odds with reality or downright untrue, there is psychological breath holding. Souls asphyxiate

WHAT ARE YOU WINNING?

To the extent you hold the beliefs on the left, be prepared for the consequences. When we lie or distort the truth, we do so at a horrific cost to ourselves and others. When people are fed a story they know to be at odds with reality or downright untrue, there is psychological breath holding. Souls asphyxiate, which creates a chronic wound, so great in some that they eventually blow our cover. People whose beliefs lie on the left may call them whistle-blowers, try to find out who they are, then make their lives hell on earth. A prime example of declaring war on the wrong thing.

Whistle-blowers aren’t the problem. The problem is that we aren’t asking ourselves why anyone who works for us would feel he or she had to go behind our back or over our head to express serious concerns about our practices. Unless, of course, our practices are dead wrong, illegal, and/or putting others in danger. Let’s not let that out!

Another consequence of a culture that subscribes to the beliefs in the left column is that when people are told not to question reality, just DO, they are unlikely to look for and point out threats and opportunities or share information on a day-to-day basis that could be relevant to things like new product innovation. What’s more, are these yes-men really the type of people you want working at your organization? What person with a healthy self-image, high emotional intelligence, and an appetite for personal development and career growth will be attracted to or remain in a culture of compliance?

An additional cost of legislated optimism, or hiding or shying away from the truth, is employee misunderstanding—and this is expensive. The CEO of an airline told me that if he could capture the cost of misunderstanding to his airline, it would probably be one of the largest numbers on his P&L statement. In June 2008, a white paper commissioned by Cognisco determined that employees in the United States and the United Kingdom were costing businesses $37 billion every year by not fully understanding their jobs. The study defined “employee misunderstanding” as actions taken by employees who have misunderstood or misinterpreted (or were misinformed about or lacked confidence in their understanding of) company policies, business processes, job function, or a combination of the three.

The research suggests that by ignoring problems or issues, firms erode employee confidence, compliance, and productivity, risk public safety and legal problems, and damage both brand reputation and customer satisfaction. In fact, all four hundred companies surveyed reported that employee misunderstanding had placed them at risk of injuries to employees or the public, and 99 percent cited risk of lost sales and reduced customer satisfaction. And much of this is because, despite very real evidence to the contrary, their employees are assured that all is well: “We’re doing great!”

Carl Jung pointed to the inevitable consequence of legislated optimism: “What we do not make conscious emerges later as fate.” In other words, in the end, we will win precisely what we have been attempting to avoid, pretending not to know. Our fate is already sealed, and by trying to hide it, we make it inevitable.

“What we do not make conscious emerges later as fate.”
—Carl Jung

Letting the Fresh Air into the Room

So, given the deadening effect legislated optimism has on an organization, why is it still so prevalent?

Well, there truly are people who believe that while they can handle the “truth,” the rest of us can’t. Perhaps they view us as the human version of fainting goats or suspect that when we understand what a dreadful hash they’ve made of things, we’ll throw them out. They could be right on the second point. We are not fond of those who’ve made one wrong move after another, while lying to us along the way. And as far as fainting goats, we really, really don’t enjoy being patronized, as if we needed protection from the tough world out there. We’re bigger than that, thank you very much. So go ahead, lay it on us.

There’s also the popular myth that it’s lonely at the top. That leaders must privately bear their cross—that decision making falls to them and them alone, which requires them to hole up in their private brainpans, pull the shades, and ruminate until they’ve arrived at a conclusion.

It is most definitely NOT lonely at the top.

What a crock! It is most definitely NOT lonely at the top. Leaders are smack dab in the middle of a vast community of good, talented, often underutilized people who would love to be invited to the table to lend their expertise to any challenge you could name. And this may surprise you, but nobody cares that you, the leader, scorched a gazillion of your brain cells staying awake all night thinking this through and have now arrived at a brilliant decision. We get no sense of fulfillment that you are apparently a genius. You were alone when you made your brilliant decision. You’re alone with it now. For the sake of the company, we hope it was a good one, but please stop waving it in our faces. We’re busy trying to attract attention to ourselves.

Another false belief some leaders hang on to is that if they tell people how dicey things are and that the immediate future doesn’t look good, their best people will leave, customers will desert them, the stock will plummet, the board of directors will hand the CEO his head on a plate, and …

These things only happen when we disclose seriously bad news that no one has seen coming. For example, it was hardly a surprise when the U.S. government initially refused a $30 billion bailout for the auto industry. What had the people who ran those companies been pretending not to know? And why, when the CEOs of GM, Ford, and Chrysler first pleaded for money, could not one of them produce a credible plan to quickly turn things around? Remember, problems arise gradually, and it’s only when we’re taken by surprise, having ignored or suppressed all the signals, all the signs, do we arrive at a negative “suddenly” and the now-inevitable, drastic consequences. Whereas when we’re honest with ourselves and others from the start, we can spot trouble coming and form a sound plan, allowing us to turn things around.

In the spring of 2008, Starbucks reported a significant decline in sales, laid off people at every level, and closed a number of stores nationwide, yet most who left hoped to return when the situation improved. Meanwhile, everyone wondered how bad things were and how long it would take for Starbucks to turn around. Howard Schultz announced, openly and honestly, at the company’s annual meeting, that there was no “silver bullet” for fixing Starbucks, whose stock had dropped 40 percent over the previous twelve months. Given everything that was going on in the U.S. economy, he admitted, a $4 cup of coffee was no longer affordable for many people, and Starbucks’s U.S. expansion plans had been too aggressive.

What happened? Goldman Sachs immediately dropped the stock from “growth” to “neutral,” and no one wanted to touch it. But because Starbucks’s management fully disclosed its problems, talked down expectations, crafted and implemented a sound plan, and kept revenue moving up at the rate of 20 percent a year, the company and the stock began to benefit from the law of modest expectations and from the turnaround plan.

As this example shows, even if a stock has been abandoned by Wall Street, if there has been full disclosure about the extent of the bad news and there is a sound strategy that the company can implement, hitting modest targets with relative ease, the stock may begin to move up again.

Still, at our own organizations, many of us lose sleep over the stock price and keeping shareholders and the board of directors happy, when we should be disclosing organizational shortcomings, even if it means we’ll take a short-term hit. But instead of coming to terms with our problems and looking for new and innovative ways to solve them, we hide our heads in the sand, avoiding the conflict we fear will be our daily lot if we fully disclose our sad state of affairs. Why tell it like it is if we can manage to keep things relatively peaceful?

Yet a strong leader—a fierce leader—knows things will improve only by coming to grips with how bad things are and how they got that way, building a good plan, and staying the course. Steve Hankins, the former CFO of Tyson Foods, once told me, “Sometimes we really can’t get there from here. So we have to go someplace else to start.”

“Sometimes we really can’t get there from here. So we have to go someplace else to start.”—Steve Hankins

An obstacle for most of us—I include myself—is that we are in love with our beliefs and practices, so convinced that they are true and right, irrefutable, that we do not entertain the possibility that our truths may have only an element of truth in them. Or that they were true once upon a time but are no longer true today. Or that they may be true in theory, but in reality, they aren’t working.

When our false version of the truth is cast in bronze, when we suppress all evidence to the contrary by silencing those we lead, we continue to practice old habits and are ultimately left contemplating the ashes of our downsized opportunity. We wonder when the next turning point is going to come along, failing to recognize that we’ll incinerate that one, too. Someday history may judge us badly, or worse, accurately.

The point I’d like you to consider is that being “strong” and “right” can be turnoffs, not turn-ons. Modesty is called for here. Humility. You may be great, you may know stuff, but you’re not that great, and you don’t know everything.

What is needed now is for leaders to become more open, more flexible, less egoistic, and less hypocritical. We must loosen our death grip on whatever we believe to be the truth simply because it is how we want the truth to look. We must be honest with ourselves and invite honesty from others.

We can do this. We can let the much-needed fresh air—fresh voices—into the room. As Martin Luther King said, “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people.”

The Fierce Practice: Radical Transparency

WHAT IS RADICAL TRANSPARENCY?

A post on Wikipedia describes radical transparency as

a management method where nearly all decision making is carried out publicly. All draft documents, all arguments for and against a proposal, the decisions about the decision making process itself, and all final decisions, are made publicly and remain publicly archived.

The only exceptions to full transparency include data related to personal security or passwords or keys necessary for physical access required to carry out publicly negotiated decisions. Any technical actions which are perceived to be controversial or political are considered to lack legitimacy until a clear, radically transparent decision has been made concerning them.

Okay, but it’s more than that. Throughout this book, I’ve attempted to persuade you that human connectivity is the key to exponential growth for companies and for individuals, a sustainable, competitive edge. Radical transparency is at the very center of our increasingly hyperconnected world. In fact, it is already a trend. And I recommend it as a way of life. If you’re not moving toward open-source thinking and full disclosure, please note that this particular train has left the station. But if you run, you can still jump on.

In the nineties, many organizations adopted Jack Stack’s “open-book management” approach. This practice involves giving employees all relevant financial information about the company so they can make better decisions as workers. This information includes, but is not limited to, revenue, profit, cost of goods, cash flow, and expenses.

The basic rules for open-book management are

· Give employees all relevant financial information;

· Give employees training to understand the financial information;

· Give employees responsibility for the numbers under their control; and

· Give employees a financial stake in how the company performs.

We do this at Fierce. Everyone understands our financials and has ongoing access to the data, a liberal amount of decision-making power, and a discretionary budget to do what’s needed to achieve our goals. Our president meets with the team once a month to review our goals, our “critical numbers,” and our performance against those numbers. Based on results, everyone in the company (EVERYONE) receives a quarterly profit-sharing check. The number may be big or small, but what’s important is that everyone understand how each of us influences that number by what we do every day—by the quality of the decisions we make and the strategies we design and how well and how quickly we execute them.

You can adopt this fierce practice of full disclosure, too—in your job, at your company, even at home with your family. Want to start a college fund for the new baby? Remodel your home? Buy the newest hybrid car? Save up for a dream vacation? If your partner and your kids are aware of what goes into these decisions and what sacrifices they might entail, they may come up with new and interesting ways to go about it. Here are my ideas. What are yours?

This is lightning in a bottle.

But why stop with the financials? Why not fully disclose everything and fling open the doors for suggestions and ideas? We’ve done this at Fierce from day one, and I swear by it. The best ideas have come as a result of ongoing, fully transparent free-for-alls to which everyone, including our clients, is invited.

This is what radical transparency means to me and to my company, but before I describe how you can put radical transparency to work in your organization, let’s talk a bit more about what it is and clarify what it requires of you and others and what results you can expect.

THE “SEE-THROUGH CEO”

Clive Thompson wrote a terrific article titled “The See-Through CEO” for Wired magazine. It’s a long article worth reading, in which Thompson cites CEOs and companies who have revealed flaws in their strategies, confessed missteps, solicited input from employees and customers—in other words, practiced radical transparency—and seen their business grow as a result.

For example, when the real estate firm Redfin posted internal debates about the underbelly of the real estate business on its website, it did not discourage customers. Instead, it radicalized the conversation about problems and got customers pulling for Redfin. Sun Microsystems’ CEO, Jonathan Schwartz, is respected because he dishes company dirt and apologizes for start-ups he’s accidentally screwed. And after JetBlue trapped passengers for hours in its storm-grounded planes and canceled 1,100 flights, CEO David Neeleman won back consumer loyalty and confidence by airing a blunt mea culpa on YouTube. Even Microsoft, once a paragon of buttoned-down control, now posts uncensored internal videos—and encourages its engineers to blog freely about their projects. A company-wide wiki at Zappos.com, the rapidly growing online shoe retailer, lets staff members complain about problems and suggest solutions.

Thompson makes a strong case for voluntarily and promptly broadcasting a company’s news—both good and bad—and actively soliciting an ongoing, robust dialogue with all those who are interested. And why not? With just one click on Google, people will find out what’s really going on anyway!

Speaking of Google, that’s another company that practices radical transparency. There are many internal e-mail lists at Google dedicated to the discussion of particular ideas, issues, and complaints. For example, on the “Google Ideas” website, Googlers regularly submit their thoughts on product improvements or suggestions about how to make things better around Google. Their colleagues can then weigh in by rating the suggestions from 0 (dangerous or harmful if implemented) to 5 (Great idea! Make it so). The management team pays very close attention and is responsive to issues that Googlers deem important enough to discuss on one of their internal e-mail lists. Sometimes, the conversations started on one of these e-mail threads actually become topics of larger discussions. Plus, the highlight of Google’s quarterly “Kick-Off” meetings for its North American Sales Organization is the very candid, no-holds-barred Q&A session with Google’s entire senior management team.

If you’re still hesitant to do business in the buff, Thompson’s article may change your mind:

“Fire the publicist. Go off message. Let all your employees blab and blog.”
—Clive Thompson

Fire the publicist. Go off message. Let all your employees blab and blog. In the new world of radical transparency, the path to business success is clear. … Radical forms of transparency are now the norm at startups—and even some Fortune 500 companies. It is a strange and abrupt reversal of corporate values. Not long ago, the only public statements a company ever made were professionally written press releases and the rare, stage-managed speech by the CEO. Now firms spill information in torrents, posting internal memos and strategy goals, letting everyone from the top dog to shop-floor workers blog publicly about what their firm is doing right—and wrong.

“You can’t hide anything anymore,” Don Tapscott, coauthor of The Naked Corporation, says. … If you engage in corporate flimflam, people will find out. He ticks off example after example of corporations that have recently been humiliated after being caught trying to conceal stupid blunders. …

Secrecy is dying. It’s probably already dead. In a world where Eli Lilly’s internal drug-development memos, Paris Hilton’s phonecam images, Enron’s e-mails, and even the governor of California’s private conversations can be instantly forwarded across the planet, trying to hide something illicit—trying to hide anything, really—is an unwise gamble. … Radical transparency has even reached the ultrasecretive world of Washington politics: The nonprofit Sunlight Foundation has begun putting zillions of public documents in elegantly searchable online databases, leaving it to interested citizens to connect the dots. … All of which explains why the cult of transparency has so many high tech converts these days. Transparency is a judo move. Your customers are going to poke around in your business anyway, and your workers are going to blab about internal info—so why not make it work for you by turning everyone into a partner in the process and inviting them to do so?

Some of this isn’t even about business; it’s a cultural shift, a redrawing of the lines between what’s private and what’s public. A generation has grown up blogging, posting a daily phonecam picture on Flickr and listing its geographic position in real time on Dodgeball and Google Maps. For them, authenticity comes from online exposure. It’s hard to trust anyone who doesn’t list their dreams and fears on Facebook. …

Google is not a search engine. Google is a reputation-management system. And that’s one of the most powerful reasons so many CEOs have become more transparent: Online, your rep is quantifiable, find-able, and totally unavoidable. In other words, radical transparency is a double-edged sword, but once you know the new rules, you can use it to control your image in ways you never could before. …

But here’s the interesting paradox: The reputation economy creates an incentive to be more open, not less. Being transparent, opening up, posting interesting material frequently and often is the only way to amass positive links to yourself and thus to directly influence your Googleable reputation.

The notion of a “reputation economy” makes sense. In our world of blogs, YouTube, and social networking, if you let down one person, you run the risk of being publicly exposed to hundreds or even thousands of that person’s closest friends!

Want to know something fantastic about radical transparency? It deepens accountability. When decisions, strategies, the debates behind them, and bumps and successes along the way are openly shared with an organization’s community, our arguments, our deeds of derring-do and what-was-I-thinking are there for all to see. Corrections and improvements are encouraged along the way, often stopping poor decisions in their tracks, before they’re implemented.

So if you want to model accountability and hold others able, as I talked about in “Fierce Practice #3,” radical transparency is your ticket to the land of “I did it. I own it.”

SURFACE MOKITAS AND GET TO GROUND TRUTHS

The fierce practice of radical transparency requires that our conversations reveal mokitas (that Papua New Guinea word for “that which everyone knows and no one speaks of”) and get to ground truths—what’s really going on—rather than the “official truth.” Such conversations compel us to change when change is called for and help to ensure that any changes we commit to come from our best thinking, our A game, rather than the same idea mold as our predecessors and perhaps some of our current leaders.

I suspect we all want this, so it’s puzzling that, even though radical transparency is destined to win out in the end, it remains a fairly rare experience. Unfortunately, many of us have gotten so used to saying what we think others want to hear, that we forget that some people actually want the truth.

In The Summer Book, Tove Jansson captures questions I wish more of us asked:

“Why do you use so many euphemisms and metaphors,” the grandmother replies. “Are you afraid?”
—Tove Jansson
, The Summer Book

“Why do you use such harsh words?” the grandmother’s old friend Verner asks her, when he comes for his yearly visit to the island. “I was only telling you the news.” “Why do you use so many euphemisms and metaphors,” the grandmother replies. “Are you afraid?”

Perhaps you are afraid, at times, to disclose the truth, your truth. My hope is that you will do it anyway. So to encourage you, let’s talk about what truths need disclosing and how to go about it.

Interrogating Reality Through Beach Ball Meetings

A goal of our work at Fierce Inc. is to enhance the collaboration, alignment, and accountability of teams and to track and celebrate the healthy cultures and financial results that go hand in hand with this. And what we’ve found is that when a team or company can’t come up with the right answers, it may be because it is asking the wrong questions. So much of our work with leaders has involved helping them master the courage and the skill to interrogate reality, to ask the right questions.

reality

1: the quality or state of being real.

2a: a real event, entity, or state of affairs; the totality of real things and events b: something that is neither derivative nor dependent but exists necessarily—in reality: in actual fact.

reality check

1: something that clarifies or serves as a reminder of reality, often by correcting a misconception.

When realities outside our organization—and often outside our control—change, it can affect our plans. Think about advancing technology, scientific breakthroughs, global warming, hurricanes, earthquakes, and other challenges nature hurls at us (some of which we bring on ourselves). Think about a rocky economy, bankruptcies, an erratic stock market. Think about changing demographics and how this affects who our customers are and what they want and need from us today. Think about the changing landscape of competitors and what this requires of us. Think about internal organizational changes, new leadership, dwindling resources, which affect our decisions and our ability to execute.

Not to mention the changes in our personal lives—partners, children, parents, pets, health issues, geographic moves, balancing goals, balancing budgets, trying to keep everyone happy and whole.

Mastering the courage and the skill to interrogate reality is where Beach Ball meetings come in. We talked about them in “Fierce Practice #4.” As a reminder, picture your organization as a beach ball. Each person in your organization—as well as each of your customers, vendors, and advisers—stands on a different colored stripe on the corporate beach ball and experiences reality from that perspective.

Who owns the truth about what color your organization is? That’s not a trick question. The answer is that every person connected to your organization owns a piece of the truth. No one owns the whole truth. Those who think they do make it doubly difficult for the rest of us. You and I may know a lot about a particular topic, but we don’t know all there is to know on that topic, and, while we may have a lot of great ideas, we don’t have all of them, so when there’s an important decision to make or a problem to solve, it’s essential that we examine the multiple, often competing realities existing simultaneously on every topic under the sun.

Interrogating reality is complicated. Things get even more interesting when you expand the notion of “reality.”

So far, we’ve referred to lowercase r realities. Before we talk about how to utilize Beach Ball meetings to tap into radical transparency, let’s examine reality with a capital R—the reality of our own intellectual, physical, or emotional capacity and contribution. This is where the courage in “master the courage to interrogate reality” comes in, because R reality has to do with a self-examination, being transparent about our own role in creating or sustaining any current reality—positive or negative.

As you know, each practice begins with yourself, so let’s go there.

STEP 1. PREPARE YOURSELF.

R reality may arrive unexpectedly as input from our boss, our peers, our direct reports, our customers, our spouse. What if we learn that we often leave a negative emotional wake or that people don’t feel we’ve been clear with them, that our leadership style is ineffective, or worse, offensive? What if we learn that a customer feels ignored, undervalued, made wrong. We are advised, “Don’t take this personally.” But we do, because there’s no other honest way to take it. Our careers and our lives are deeply personal, or what’s the point?

Where am I in all of this? What did I bring to the party?

The bravest among us actively seek a glimpse of R reality by asking, “What am I pretending not to know about my contribution to this situation or problem?” While interrogating realities about business performance, the question good leaders invariably ask is, “Where am I in all of this? What did I bring to the party? How have I behaved in ways guaranteed to produce the results on my plate, on our plate?”

For example, in the middle of a recent conversation with a prospective client, I sensed that the client was distracted. I was disappointed and a bit annoyed that she had asked for time with me and yet was so unengaged. And then the recognition hit me that I was distracted, too. My mind was drifting to the article I needed to write by the end of the day. The instant I realized what my Reality was in the situation and brought all of my attention back to the prospective client and the problems with which she was dealing, she became animated and energized, and we had a terrifically enjoyable and productive conversation.

Let’s return to the dictionary.

virtual reality

an artificial environment that is experienced through sensory stimuli (as sights and sounds) provided by a computer and in which one’s actions partially determine what happens in the environment.

Sans the computer, given this definition, virtual reality is the reality in which each of us lives every day, all day. Our own actions do determine what happens in the environment. Our companies, our teams, our marriages are an accurate mirror reflecting us back to ourselves. There is simply no other place to look.

To truly understand our own leadership potential is to truly understand ourselves—
capital R reality
.

To truly understand our own leadership potential is to truly understand ourselves—capital R reality. It’s about taking ownership for our results and making choices with clear intentions. We can learn the skills and the tools, but true leadership is about learning to maintain a state of being that is both authentic and powerful.

Leaders are ineffectual if they fail to move quickly and honestly to their own inward essential character. It is like the water that flows underneath the earth’s surface. If you dig a hole down deep, you’ll realize that water is down there under everything. It’s been there for a long time. Your character—your gifts and your flaws—influences everything and everyone around you. But first you have to go deep to find it, tap the water table.

Self-examination is not ethics, nor judgment, nor a quest for perfection. It is recognition, awakening. Thomas Merton said, “If you want to identify me, ask me what I am living for, in detail, and ask me what is keeping me from living fully for what I live for.”

Where are you going? Why are you going there? What are you living for? Are you on the right path, headed in the right direction? The right direction not from someone else’s perspective, from yours.

Only when we better understand ourselves and our own direction can we change the beliefs and practices that are keeping us from happiness and success. And once we change, the people around us can change, our careers can change, our companies can change. The world can change.

I’ll let you in on a personal story. Nine years ago, many people were urging me to turn my fierce conversations workshops into a book, but I had no desire to write nonfiction, plus I knew writing a book would take time I couldn’t spare and was probably a guaranteed way to go broke. I had just left a long-term marriage and had money on my mind. I could pay my monthly bills but didn’t earn enough to save for retirement. Besides, I had been thinking about an idea for an Internet start-up that I was convinced was a good idea.

I hired someone to help me in the incubation stage of the business plan and assembled a board of advisers. I spent five months and most of my savings to flesh out the plan. With growing excitement about the success I was certain to enjoy, I pitched the idea to venture capitalists, all of whom turned me down.

Surprised and a little discouraged, I remembered a man who had deep pockets and was well connected to others equally well heeled. He had told me several times that he was my biggest fan, so I bought an airline ticket, met with him, and pitched the plan. He turned me down.

I told him, “If you don’t see the value and potential of this business plan, it’s not because the plan isn’t good; it’s because I’m lousy at pitching it. I’d like to leave it with you. If you get bored, take another look at it.” He agreed to keep it, though I suspected he was just being polite.

I returned to Seattle. It was December, the time of year when I take stock, reviewing my answers to the “stump speech” questions: Where am I going? Why am I going there? Who is going with me? How am I going to get there? And as I imagined what my life would be like if, by some miracle, I got enough money to launch the new company, I remembered something Annie Dillard wrote: “How we spend our days is how we spend our lives.”

I was fairly certain that if I did not spend the majority of my days in the high art of serving others, even if I accumulated money, possessions, titles, and all the trappings, I could expect the following:

· deep regret

· the slow death of my soul

· empty rooms

· a weakened immune system

· no joy

My stomach clenched when I imagined spending my days doing what it would take to launch and run the Internet company I had conceived and the inevitable, ongoing, capital-raising treadmill that is the fate of most start-up CEOs. I know you’re thinking, “Well, duh! Didn’t you think about that earlier?”

No, I didn’t. I should have, but I was thinking about doing something others would think was really cool, about stepping into that high-tech world filled with possibility and potential. Mostly, though, I was thinking about how much money I would make and how I would spend it. I wasn’t thinking about my life and how I would spend that. This was personally legislated optimism at its finest. I had convinced myself that the plan was a good one and, in spite of rejection by venture capitalists, I believed I would ultimately succeed. And be happy. And wealthy.

But once I was finally honest with myself, once I finally interrogated my Reality, I realized that if I was “successful,” depression would probably be my lot. Which prompted the question: “What is the one thing that if I got to the end of my life and looked back, I would regret not doing?” The answer was immediate and clear. Write the book.

I argued with myself. I went back and forth. I’ll spare you the details. And finally, fairly exhausted emotionally, I gave in. Okay, I’ll write the book and go broke! Satisfied?!

Well, actually, yes, I was satisfied. The decision felt so good, so right, it was almost embarrassing. I felt ridiculous. What had I been pretending not to know about where my life really wanted and needed to go?

The next day, my wealthy acquaintance called and said, “I get it. I’ll give you ten million of my own funds and go to others for the rest on the condition that you run the company.”

When your heart is in your mouth, it’s difficult to speak. So I barely managed a whisper. “Can I call you back?” And then I sat and stared, paced and debated. Ranted and raved. “Accept ten million dollars or paper my bathroom walls with rejection slips from publishers? Take the money or go broke?”

I landed on “go broke.” I called him back and said, “You’re going to think I’m nuts, but I’ve decided not to do this.” He did. And I began a year of writing, which, to my amazement, resulted in a book deal, a generous advance, and the launch of Fierce Inc. Meanwhile, the high-tech world took a dive. There is no doubt my start-up would have tanked. And I would have been not only miserable and broke, but guilty of having mishandled other people’s money.

To say that I have no regrets is an understatement. I am in the right place, doing the right work, with the right people, at the right time, in the right way—for me.

Fierce leadership meets nobody halfway.

Please don’t take this story to suggest that I imagine you are in the wrong place. I don’t. But if your heart has been lobbying for a reality check, then I urge you to give it one, even if confronting reality leads to a change that initially complicates your life. Fierce leadership meets nobody halfway. Without a clear sense of what’s important, without principles and values to be “true” to, it will be difficult to do the hard things that happen to be the right things.

If you want to take an honest look at your capital. reality, please take a moment now to answer the “stump speech” questions below. Twice.

Where am I going?

Why am I going there?

Who is going with me?

How am I going to get there?

First write down where you are actually going right now and why, whether you like your answers or not. Then write down where you would like to go, if you could go anywhere, do anything, with no one to please but yourself. Be specific. For example, many people say they want to make a difference, want to have a positive impact, want to give back, want to influence others. Sorry, these vague statements won’t cut it. In writing your stump speech, you want to clarify a powerful, specific direction that wakes you up and gives you goose bumps. What, specifically, is the difference you want to make? What, specifically, is the positive impact you want to have? How, specifically, do you wish to influence others?

I’ll give you an example. My friend, Michelle, has loved animals all her life. Over the years, she’s talked about wanting to learn sign language to work with chimps, wanting to volunteer at the zoo, all kinds of things. But, apart from caring for Bosco, her Labrador, she never did anything about it. About two years ago, she began mentioning this horse she often passed on the side of the road on her way home, and how it looked unhappy and malnourished and dirty. After the fifth time she mentioned how bad she felt every time she saw this poor horse, I said, “Well, why don’t you see if they’ll sell it to you?” What followed was a very long list of excuses about how she couldn’t afford a horse, had nowhere to keep it, et cetera.

But her husband and I kept encouraging her to take action, and after much soul-searching, Michelle finally bought the horse, which she named Dodger, and found a wonderful place to board him and a creative way to pay for it—by offering the owner her website design services in exchange for the horse’s board. By confronting her Reality, by asking herself what she really wanted, what was really important, she shifted from wanting to make a difference to actually making a difference, a profound difference in the life of one horse. She changed Dodger’s life forever, and hers in the process.

Happy ending.

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
—Mary Oliver

The poet Mary Oliver asks, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” One’s career direction, much less one’s life direction, can be tough to wrestle to the ground, so don’t be hard on yourself if the answer doesn’t immediately spring to mind, but that’s the question on your plate, and the answer will be worth the work. I encourage you to write down whatever comes up for you, first thoughts, no editing. Right down what your real goals are, not what you imagine other people think your goals should be, or even what you think your goals should be. Take the should out of it and name your heart’s desire.

Where you are going doesn’t need to sound loft y or inspiring to anyone else. This is your life. Be straight with yourself. Tell it like it is. Radical transparency starts with you.

Given your answers, what are the most potent next steps you need to take?

1. ___________________________________________________

2. ___________________________________________________

3. ___________________________________________________

STEP 2. PREPARE OTHERS.

Now that you’ve clarified your own capital R reality, let’s talk about how to make radical transparency part of the woodwork in your organization. And what this requires of you, as a leader.

Is it possible that, as William Stafford suggests, a pattern others made still prevails and, following the wrong god home, you are missing your star? Is there something you and others are pretending not to know?

In Good to Great, Jim Collins quoted Fred Purdue, an executive at Pitney Bowes, who said, “When you turn over rocks and look at all the squiggly things underneath, you can either put the rock down, or you can say, ‘My job is to turn over rocks and look at the squiggly things,’ even if what you see can scare the hell out of you.” So Pitney Bowes created a long-standing tradition of forums where people could stand up and tell senior executives what the company was doing wrong, shoving rocks with squiggly things in their faces and saying, “Look! You’d better pay attention to this.”

Fierce leaders create a culture where people turn over the rocks and look at all the squiggly things underneath, not one where people put the rocks down and keep quiet for fear of what the leader would say. When people are more concerned about pleasing the leader than about interrogating reality, it is a tell that there are bad times ahead. If you suspect that essential bits and pieces of reality are being edited out of your conversations with people essential to your organization’s success, you may be the problem. The question is, “How can I become the kind of person to whom people will speak the truth?”

This requires fierce resolve, passion for your work, passion for your customers’ success, depth of understanding of both context and content, the ability to engage both head and heart, lots of practice, and authenticity. And all of this requires radical transparency. We cannot be “authentic” when we legislate optimism, shielding ourselves from challenging, unpalatable truths.

The question is, “How can I become the kind of person to whom people will speak the truth?”

A word about authenticity. You simply cannot fake “fierce,” fake “real.” I remember attending a wake for a man, Jac, who had been very important to me and many others, who had died suddenly at fifty of a brain aneurysm.

At the wake, one of his supposed best friends put on a dramatic display of mourning that was so over the top and inauthentic that it left many of us sickened. There’s a difference between uncontrollable grief and a show of uncontrollable grief. I thought back to other times I’d been in the same room with this man. He was always “onstage,” posing as if for the best camera angle. I wondered what it would be like when he died and, bereft of any pretense, God might greet him with puzzlement, saying, “I’ve never seen this man before in my life.” But I digress.

The point is, because no one can be everywhere and see everything that’s going on in a company and be aware firsthand of every broken or limping segment of an organization, as a fierce leader, you need to ask yourself, What don’t I know? And who does know?

A good way to answer these questions is to gather together the people whose realities deserve interrogating and ask them to share their perspectives. Don’t just ask for the truth, really ask for the truth. Our radar informs us when someone is not really asking, doesn’t really want to know. And when that happens, we don’t really answer.

If you want people to tell you the truth, you’ll need to be on your best behavior. Your accomplishments are due as much to how you facilitate people, ideas, and situations as to your education and skill set. You must become a highly skilled facilitator, one who is able to engineer epiphanies for each individual in the room, one to whom people listen closely and who listens closely yourself, one who knows how to advocate a position, while inviting others to push back on your thinking and that of others and, in doing so, to expand the possibilities.

As I said earlier, a Beach Ball meeting is radical transparency at its best, because everyone comes out from behind themselves, into the conversation, and interrogates multiple, competing realities and perspectives.

So, if the goal of the Beach Ball meeting is to interrogate reality and achieve radical transparency, whom should you invite? I have found that it is important to look for the people with the best vantage point on the topic at hand. Who is standing right at the juncture where things are happening? Who has the fifty-yard-line seat on the action? That person isn’t always the designated leader. Be creative in your thinking about whom to invite. Err on the side of including people, rather than leaving them out.

Once everyone is assembled, how this meeting will go is really up to you. Your primary responsibilities are as follows:

· Act in a way that is consistent with your objective of honesty. In other words, model it yourself. Say things, confess things that scare you.

· Set a tone and an atmosphere in which competing ideas, opinions, and styles are not just encouraged, but expected.

· Engage people intellectually and emotionally.

· Ask people for specifics regarding context (meaning), as well as content.

· Involve attendees in two-way discussions—rather than coming across as a “presenter” who is merely a talking head.

· Moderate interactions to avoid inappropriate comments, nonconstructive criticism, and grandstanding. Blunt honesty is useful; offensive comments are not.

· Make needed adjustments in pacing and participation to ensure that you involve and hear from everyone present.

· As always, start and end the meeting on time.

These kinds of meetings help organizations surface and resolve mokitas, so let everyone know that you expect everyone to step up to the plate in terms of the degree of intelligence, creativity, energy, and candor they bring to the table.

Acknowledge that you don’t have all the answers. Tell those assembled that you are willing to be wrong, that you hope to be different when the conversation is over. Tell people that you want them to …

· Surface mokitas. Explain what a mokita is and provide some common workplace examples, such as these, courtesy of Howard Rheingold:

1. A sizable percentage of our marketing doesn’t work.

2. Most departments have people who have retired on the job and at least one or two who are crazy.

3. The boost from last year’s motivational speaker evaporated by the time he reached the parking lot.

4. The CEO tells everyone how important training is and then quietly slips out the door.

5. People who are unreliable are rewarded with less work.

6. The first-line supervisors know more about employment law than the folks in the executive suites.

7. The HR department is frequently regarded as more of an adversary than an ally.

8. Middle managers are afraid to fire people.

9. Frequent reorganizations are used to disguise poor management.

10.Our strategic plan is not working.

Resist the desire to print out a list of mokitas and staple it to a colleague’s forehead. Instead, declare a mokita amnesty day and then extend it indefinitely. Let people know you want to bring to the surface anything that isn’t being talked about that needs to be talked about relative to whatever topic is on the table (and also topics that aren’t on the table because they’re mokitas!), so that you can work on resolving them!

A careful conversation is a failed conversation, because it merely postpones the conversation that wants and needs to take place.

Remember, a careful conversation is a failed conversation, because it merely postpones the conversation that wants and needs to take place. Tell people that you don’t value careful. You value honest. Tell them that you define honesty as full disclosure, to oneself and others, with good intent. Name-calling and blaming doesn’t have a place here. Naming the issues and focusing on solutions does.

Thinking further is a practice.

· Think further. To see truth as it really is, to see all the options and arrive at the best choices, we must think further. Thinking further is a practice. To do this, first we must truly want to. Then we must ask another question, and another, and another, until we lead ourselves out of our normal, limited range of thoughts and ideas. We will see new things; consequently, we will have more to choose from.

· Be contrarians. Dave Daly, the CEO of Evergreen-Washelli, the largest cemetery in the state of Washington, was my favorite contrarian. During nice weather, we would talk while walking the winding paths of the cemetery. While everything looked meticulous and beautiful to me, Dave always spotted something that needed to be fixed or done and made notes to talk with people when we got back to his office.

During his thirteen years as a member of one of the CEO groups I chaired, Dave could always be depended on to throw a wrench into our conversations, just as we were about to concur on a recommendation. We were initially irritated when Dave, after listening quietly for a long time, would say things like “What if instead of rearranging the furniture, you moved it to a different floor?” or “What if it’s not the cat that needs skinning?” But eventually we had to acknowledge one thing—the man was brilliant.

Though Dave’s ideas usually involved rethinking and reworking existing plans—and often starting from square one—they were always worth exploring. Had he not been there, we would rarely have discovered ourselves capable of original thought. (Several years ago, he died of the heart attack even he expected and is buried on the grounds we walked so many times.)

So if the debate in your company is between those who believe the company should turn right or left, be a contrarian like Dave and suggest a route off the beaten path.

· Understand the place of consensus. Consensus has a place, but in my view, it’s a small one. I’ve seen teams committed to consensus, consense (is that a word?) themselves into a coma. Or confusion. Think about the stock market. If past experience is any guide, the consensus opinion is not even right about the direction of the market, let alone the scale of change.

In a truly fierce company, people know they won’t get their way all of the time. They know that sometimes they’ll be asked to implement plans and strategies with which they’re not in complete agreement. But they’ll do it anyway and put their backs into it if they feel they’ve been heard.

STEP 3. DO IT.

Now it’s time to turn your team into an internal think tank. Like all things fierce, radically transparent Beach Ball meetings are straightforward. You don’t have to pick up a burning cauldron with your forearms and sear the image of a dragon into your flesh. You just have to get your own head on straight and put a few guidelines in place, such as:

The answers are in the room. We have them.

1. We need contradiction to get to the truth. Let’s surface and use it rather than push it out and pretend it doesn’t exist.

2. The answers are in the room. We have them.

3. Surface mokitas; no more battling what we’re not saying.

4. Think further.

5. Ask questions! Ask more questions!

6. Don’t ask a question to which you already know the answer.

7. Replace but with and.

Call a meeting and have a fierce conversation with your team about a truth you’ve been avoiding or a mokita that needs surfacing. Make it clear that you yourself are on a quest for genuinely new conclusions rather than persuading people of foregone ones.

You could ask people to come to the meeting having thought about their answers to open-ended questions such as the following:

What’s the most important thing we should be talking about today?

What do we believe is impossible for us to do that if it were possible, would change everything?

Are there integrity outages that need correcting?

If you could give me just one piece of advice, what would you advise me?

What do you need from this team that you’re not getting?

What could you contribute to this team that you’re not contributing?

Or put a specific topic on the table and ask:

Given our current reality, if nothing changes, what are the implications?

Given this current situation with X, what would you advise?

Life at Fierce Inc. feels like an extended Beach Ball meeting, since we schedule them whenever there are decisions to make, goals to set, or strategies to design. Sometimes the question we aren’t eager to hear answered yields the most value.

STEP 4. DEBRIEF.

At the end of the meeting, ask everyone at the table to briefly comment first on “What could we do better the next time we meet?” And then go back around and learn “What did we do well?”

End on what you did well, anchoring the value of how people interacted and contributed. Comments are often emotional, heartfelt, and directed at specific individuals, which reinforces those individuals’ desire to behave similarly in future meetings. Everyone leaves hoping for more of the same and with a clearer picture of reality than when he or she walked in.

STEP 5. DO IT AGAIN.

Your meeting may suggest the need for additional meetings on a topic that surfaced but had to be “parked” for lack of time. Don’t despair. You won’t get caught in meeting hell. Beach Ball meetings can be impromptu and brief—just grab those who can spare you a few minutes and several of their brain cells.

Taking It to the Organization

Remember that the most powerful way to introduce any practice to your organization is not to talk about it, but to live it, so as always, I recommend that you quietly model the fierce practice of radical transparency at all times. Remember, no matter your rank or role in the organization, you can see to it that several of the following suggestions are taken.

1. Hire for raw ideas. Don’t always hire in the company’s image or you’ll struggle to get to new “truths” and innovation.

2. Allow for experimentation, mistakes, dead ends. If every idea adopted, every decision made, every step you and others take is right on, start to worry. You’re not stretching, not reaching enough. And people will get lulled into thinking that they can’t make a mistake or that if they do, heads will roll.

3. Get at least one blog up and running that actively solicits and acts on complaints, compliments, and suggestions from employees, customers, and management. The top dog should weigh in from time to time.

4. Tell the ground truth, especially during tough times. When people are given official truths, they know it and lose trust.

5. Declare a “mokita amnesty” day and thank everyone who named a mokita. Consider publicly honoring the person who named the mother of all mokitas. Serve him or her a mokita cocktail, which I discovered online actually exists.

Looks a bit sweet for my taste, and the alcohol content is seriously low, but what the heck! Why not create your own recipe!

MOKITA

GLASSWARE

Double cocktail glass

INGREDIENTS

2 centiliters amaretto

1 centiliter strawberry syrup

1 centiliter gomme (sugar) syrup

4 centiliters coffee

2 centiliters cream

PREPARATION Shake together amaretto, strawberry syrup, gomme syrup, and coffee. Pour into chilled cocktail glass. Float the cream on top.

Personal Action Plan

Radical transparency is not only a fierce leadership practice. For me, it’s a way of life. Even for personal decisions that require no one else’s input, I find that if I let even one person in on my private thinking, I end up thinking further, deeper. Remember that if there is a problem, it exists whether you cop to it or not. And only once you accept a problem can you be open to the fix. As my friend Paul Lindbergh says, “A car will run with one flat tire, but you won’t enjoy the slow, bumpy ride, and at some point, with even a slightly broken part, your vehicle will stop. I can live life with a flat tire, or I can fix it. You see people metaphorically running on their rims and thinking it’s totally cool. And it may be, for them. Not for me.”

So here are a few tips to help you practice radical transparency in all situations, at all times:

1. Find the courage to speak truth to power, to get in trouble with the king or queen if you have a genuine concern. In The Horse Whisperer, Robert Redford’s character says, “Knowing something’s easy. Saying it out loud is the hard part.”

2. If what you say publicly is different from what you say privately or different from what you tell yourself, vow to tell the truth from this moment on—at work and at home. This one will change your life.

3. Press for the truth from others. When you hear something that just doesn’t sit well, doesn’t seem entirely truthful, ask about it. Respect requires candor—both ways. Be bold.

4. Capture first thoughts. In writing courses, instructors often use timed stream-of-consciousness exercises to get at first thoughts, unfiltered, unedited, where the good stuff resides in us, stuff we can’t get at by sitting and pondering. Write down whatever comes up—no crossing out, no pauses, no worry about punctuation or spelling.

First thoughts are far more interesting than second and third thoughts, unobstructed as they are by our internal censor or by political correctness or by cultural norms about who can say what to whom. First thoughts neither edit nor cover up what we are really thinking and feeling; therefore, they contain tremendous intelligence and often result in that elusive thing most companies seek: real innovation—the kind of innovation that moves us into blue ocean territory, where there is little, if any, competition.

First thoughts are far more interesting than second and third thoughts, unobstructed as they are by our internal censor or by political correctness or by cultural norms about who can say what to whom.

Typical brainstorming doesn’t always get at the truly brilliant idea, because we’re still simply water-skiing on the surface of the same pond in which our competitors are swimming. We cannot jump from the pond into the ocean until we have accurately named the problem we wish to solve or the opportunity we wish to evaluate, including underlying issues that aren’t always readily apparent. Fierce leaders are scuba divers, not water-skiers.

Here’s an exercise for you. Write down whatever pops up for you in response to the following question:

If you could give your boss (or spouse or sister or best friend or son) one piece of advice, what would you advise him or her?

Pick a person and write for two minutes without stopping. If you run out of space, write in the margins. If you want to write longer than two minutes, go for it. Don’t lift your pen from the page. Don’t think. Don’t get logical. GO!

What do you feel right now? Are you startled by the truthfulness and wisdom (stop being modest) of what you wrote? Do you want to write more, knowing that there is more to surface? If so, put this book down, find some paper, and keep writing.

What has prevented you from surfacing and disclosing these thoughts before? If you chose your boss, what would prevent you from going to him or her as soon as is humanly possible and sharing these thoughts? I know that not every boss (or spouse or sister or best friend or son) has indicated that input like this would be valued, but I also know that fierce leaders speak first thoughts and encourage others to do so, as well. In fact, they won’t stand for anything less.

Conclusion

Many would say that it’s the day-to-day grinding it out that moves the dial. The ruthless execution. Rallying people around results like stock prices, quarterly revenues, profits and losses. Yeah, yeah, yeah …

A leader—let’s call him Charles—told me he thought his division had achieved “RUP”—rational, unified process. More jargon! But there was a discrepancy between official truth and ground truth. Behind the green on the corporate dashboard was lots of red. People were burned out, unaligned on objectives, having implementation and control issues because of reporting structures. Trust was a scarce commodity. In other words, there was nothing unified about their progress at all. As one “kingdom” within the company grew, others shrank. The word productivity caused eyes to roll. The vision of becoming the “vendor of choice” was not inspiring anyone. They were ethical but incompetent. Why? There was a bad leader in the group: Charles.

Charles’s fatal flaw was that after years and years of rubbing shoulders with those who practiced the dark arts—those who said, “GROWTH IS THE MANDATE, NO MATTER WHAT IT TAKES”—he wasn’t looking for conversations or answers. He was looking for facts to support his case for growth; consequently, new revelations by his staff were ignored, and because his modus operandi was to lob ideas over the transom for others to implement while he came up with more ideas, people were desperate to get anything done and felt like failures because so many of Charles’s ideas were only partially implemented.

Charles couldn’t conceive of questioning his ideas, much less starting from scratch. Though he had traveled the globe, he didn’t seem to have gone very far. He may have tasted exotic meals in different countries, but his soul remained the same flavor. His mission was to change everyone around him, but he saw himself as in no need of change. Therefore, he was unable to journey with his employees and colleagues, even though I believe he sincerely wanted to. In fact, he told me that his goal was to become the chief executive within two years, which required a cheering section from his direct reports. They were not cheering.

The board of directors let him go one costly, painful year later, when no one could deny that his only utility to the culture was as a caricature. The moment he left, employees donned T-shirts that read, “Chaos, panic, disorder. My work is done here.”

Don’t be this man.

Become bored with puffery and posturing, ducks and dodges. Recognize legislated optimism when you hear it, and decline to play that game. Lobby for getting to ground truths early in the game, so that your challenge becomes how to respond to opportunities, not how to fix problems.

Think about the day you move on—and you will someday. What would you like the T-shirts to say? Behave accordingly.