The CEO of a local startup reached out to me recently and asked for help talking through a big problem. We scheduled lunch and met at a cool place near the water in Seattle.

Here was his problem: it turns out that he had over-estimated this year’s growth expectations and made a big mistake – specifically around the number of people he hired in anticipation of exciting growth. 

You can imagine how he was feeling.  I empathized with him, and asked him a lot of questions to better understand his situation.  A key moment in our conversation went like this: 

Me: “How does your team feel and how have you been communicating this issue to the rest of the company?”  

Startup CEO:  (Silence and a long pause) “My CFO and I are the only ones that know and I haven’t shared the details with anyone else.”       

Me: “Why not?” 

Startup CEO: (Very fast response) “Are you crazy?!  They’ll all leave and then I’m really screwed!”      

Me:  “Would you abandon someone you believe in if they were transparent and told you they’ve messed up, and then asked for your help? Or would you be more upset knowing they withheld critical information that you should’ve known sooner?” 

From his answers, I knew right away that he had a second problem more crucial than what we came together to discuss.

Lack of transparency is a culture-killing problem

We’re taught as children that we should tell someone when something bad happens and we should always tell the truth.  Why do we tend to forget or ignore that lesson as adults?

Great leaders tell their teams what they need to hear – good and bad – not just what they want to hear.

Here are 3 simple (not easy) behaviors that every leader can control:

1 – Create Transparency
Does your company know the biggest topics you and your leadership team are working on?  

2 – Talk Straight
How are you delivering your most important messages to your team?

3 – Ask for their trust and feedback
What are you doing to give them a seat at the table?

I knew that the startup CEO had two problems: yes, he’d overestimated his company’s growth, but he also had a culture-killing lack of transparency brewing in his company. I asked him a few more questions to help him think through how he impacts transparency as a leader: 

  • How often do you communicate mistakes or failures to your team?
  • What are the biggest mistakes you’ve made and does your company know about them?
  • How do you want your people to feel when they make a mistake? 

He quickly realized he had an opportunity to circumvent the negative impact withholding his mistake would have on his employees and the culture. Shortly after we spoke, he chose to act in a way that only great leaders do. He gathered his employees, told them the truth and shared his mistake, and humbly asked for their help. Although there would be some difficult decisions ahead, they came together and got through the tough time as a team. 

Can you imagine what would’ve happened if he hadn’t shared his mistake and tried to solve this problem alone?  A problem we don’t talk about can very quickly turn into bigger problems. 

The best cultures applaud candor and walk right into it. 

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