Why honesty at work is more valuable than a brave face
When you're at the top of a business, you might be tempted to say to your employees that everything is fine because you have all the answers.
Dennis Carey is Vice Chairman of Korn Ferry, where he recruits board directors, CEOs, and their direct reports. He has published five books, including Boards That Lead, co-authored with Ram Charan and Michael Useem, and more than fifty refereed journal articles covering topics ranging from CEO succession and corporate strategy to M&A, corporate governance, and human capital.
Dennis Carey: I think the most important part of any CEO running a major global corporation is to be on the ground in those geographies—to the extent that he or she is able to do so—and also to build a team, a trusted advisory team which is having ongoing communications.
A good case in point would be Alan Mulally at Ford when he took over in a very, very tumultuous time in the auto industry. He established his own War Room. Everyone on deck around the globe on screens around the world to weigh in on challenges, opportunities, and he had a grading system: green light, yellow light, red light. Not too difficult to understand in concept.
But he would go around and ask each one of the leaders around the world whether things were going really well, if there was a yellow light if there was some caution and a red light indicating that there were problems that needed to be addressed.
If someone, especially during the calamitous period of time that Ford was going through, if someone gave a green light, which we’re all prone to try to do especially near performance appraisal time, he would typically ding them by saying, “Wait a minute. We all need help. Nothing is ever perfect, so tell us how we can help you in a collaborative way around the world to support you.”
And by the fifth or sixth meeting, virtually everyone was giving yellow and red lights. And what that did was it forced employees, the senior executives from every corner of the globe to not be afraid to ask for help and to acknowledge that they needed help.
And the fear factor of the next performance evaluation went away because they recognized that if they were asking for help they would get rewarded.
And in fact over a period of time, this cross-cultural collaboration began to develop and grow.
And people, whether it be from China or Singapore or Malaysia, London, Hong Kong, Buenos Aires, Mexico City or New York City, they began to speak effectively with the same tone.
Now clearly, language is interpreted differently around the world so there typically would be at least a second or third translation of what was actually implied or meant in those discussions, but over time that team developed a sense, a bonded collaborative spirit and they were rewarded economically for working together.
When you're at the top of a business, you might be tempted to say to your employees that everything is fine because you're in charge and have all the solutions to all the problems. Dennis Carey, author and Vice Chairman of the incredibly influential corporate recruiting agency Korn/Ferry International, thinks that is the wrong approach. He tells us here about how Ford's CEO Alan Mulally turned Ford's financial futures around just by finding a novel way to get his employees to be more honest about how they were doing. Ego can often stand in the way of asking for help, and if your ego is hurting your business, you'd better put that ego aside and be truthful. Dennis Carey's new book is a Talent Wins: The New Playbook for Putting People First.