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Open Communication Can Guide You Through Rough Waters

Many years ago, as a young man, I learned an important lesson. At the time I did not appreciate it as much as I do today. I started at a fast-growing company at the age of 25 and moved up rapidly. As I moved up, many of my former colleagues who I socialized with and were my work peers became my direct reports. I was proud that ‘I did not change’ as my position changed. We were able to work with each other, talk openly with each other, and still keep our social lives unchanged…or so I thought.

I left the company right before my 30th birthday. After leaving it became apparent these co-workers and friends might not have been in complete agreement on how I saw things, and in a few cases, disagreed. I didn’t find this out until I left, and at the time it hurt my feelings – a lot. Initially I was mad at all of them for not being honest with me. However, a great lesson was learned from this. And that lesson is of huge importance to me today.

Before I tell you the lesson, let me first share three quick stories.

  1. I was having a meeting with a tremendous employee benefits advisor the other day when he mentioned his wife thought he needed to buy hearing aids. He joked he could hear just fine, he probably really just needed listening aids.
  2. I was in a meeting of the senior leadership at a company and noticed the person next to meeting kept looking down at his notepad every time it seemed he was about to speak, and then said nothing. After the meeting I asked him what was written on his notepad. He showed it to me. It had just two words written on it – “Shut Up.”
  3. The first time I was named CEO, a person asked me what is was like being CEO. I responded that upon being named CEO I either became the smartest man in the world or people stopped telling me things!

So what is the lesson?

We all say we want input from others. Collaboration is a great way to tackle problems and plan for the future. The more information or data I have, the higher the likelihood I will make a good decision. However, positional power has a tendency to squelch the sharing of ideas.

As CEO I am incredibly dependent on the team around me sharing their thoughts, opinions, ideas, and warnings. However, due to my position I have to set the stage the best I can to make sure as many people as possible feel comfortable sharing things with me. I have to listen to body language, to whispers, hints, or maybe what is not being said. I have to be vigilant in listening closer than I ever have. Additionally, I have to monitor how I react, what I say, and what my own body language says when others do share their thoughts and concerns.

There will always be some things withheld with any positional difference within companies, but as CEO, my job is to make that difference as small as possible.

WHAT’S THE RISK?

No one is infallible. No one has all the right answers or knows all the right moves to make. It is the leader’s job to make decisions, take the blame when they go wrong, and openly share the credit when things go right. However, a leader needs input to help make the right decision or to identify, as early as possible, when things are not going as expected and appropriately change course.

There is a wonderful quote that comes to mind – “Calm seas do not make great sailors.”

Business can often be like sailing in troubled waters. It takes a team to identify what is going well, what is going wrong, and what is coming up in front of us. Great companies have great leadership teams whose expertise is forged through tough times and challenges that are overcome through open communication. Sometimes being open is not calming, and in fact, it can stir the pot. However, it is through these trying times that real breakthroughs are made and crucial actions are taken.

A great leader has a team that can openly communicate about the goal. The communication in rough seas is entirely about the objective of making it through, not on what others might think about what you say. The leader who establishes a firm foundation of sharing, listening, and recognizing will have the best information at all times to make the best decisions possible - which sometimes is the decision to reverse a prior decision.

As the quote above says, great leaders, just like sailors, are made through the ability to handle some of the rougher issues that come with open communication toward a mutual goal of success or maybe just survival. As the CEO of a health insurance company dealing with the Affordable Care Act and all the political and legislative posturing and upheaval, it feels like rough seas these days. I can use all the open communication I can get. I think I may just go shopping for some listening aids!

 

Original article written for and published by Gibson: Strength Against Risk