It’s Your Job to Tell the Hard Truths

Rashid,* the CEO of a high-tech company and a client of mine for nearly a decade, called to tell me we had a major issue with some of the newer members of his leadership team.

What comes to mind when you think of what might constitute a “major issue” with some senior leaders? Maybe they’re in a fight? Maybe they’re making poor strategic decisions? Perhaps they’re not following through on commitments they made about the business? Maybe they’re being abusive to their employees? Maybe they’re stealing?

I’ve seen all of those problems in the past at various companies. But none of that was happening at Rashid’s firm. The major issue he was talking about was far more subtle — and in most places even acceptable.

Rashid had heard, through the grapevine, that two new team members were quietly questioning whether they should be honest about the gaps they saw in the business.

Is that really such a big deal? How many of us would prefer to keep the peace and avoid being the naysayer? Or prioritize being seen as a team player over identifying problems that may lie in someone else’s department? Or downplay an issue of our own team, hoping we’ll be able to fix it before anyone notices?

The truth is that it’s hard to speak up about potentially sensitive issues. But Rashid’s company’s fast growth and strong results were based, more than anything, on one underlying requirement for anyone in a leadership role: courage.

Courage underlies all smart risk taking. And no company can grow without leaders who are willing to take risks. If we don’t speak the truth about what we see and what we think, then it’s unlikely that we’ll take the smart risks necessary to lead.

So, yes, it’s a major issue if direct reports to the CEO aren’t willing to say what they really think. In fact, I’d say that there’s little value to having senior leaders in an organization who don’t speak their minds.

It’s worth asking if Rashid is creating a safe enough environment for people to speak up. That’s a good thing to consider and, in part, it’s my job to help him do that.

It’s also worth asking if the leaders have the skills to talk about sensitive topics with care and competence. This is important because it does take tremendous skill to raise hard-to-talk-about issues in a way that convinces others to address them. But, I would argue, at this point in their careers, they should have that ability. And, if they don’t, it’s easily trainable.

Ultimately, those are not the most important questions. Rashid is not running a training program or a kindergarten. He’s running a company with highly compensated leaders who are running large and complicated businesses of their own, and it’s fair for him to expect them to be brave enough to tell him what they are thinking.

How could people who have been so successful in their careers not be courageous about communicating the problems they see in a business for which they are responsible? I think that the bar for leadership in most organizations is too low. We allow politics to supersede performance. And it’s hurting good organizations.

The biggest challenge we face as leaders is rarely about discovering the perfect strategy or developing a smarter product or figuring out the gaps in the business. It’s about being courageous enough and willing to take the risks necessary to talk about the difficult, sometimes scary truth and do something about it.

That’s been the secret to Rashid’s company’s growth and the success of his leadership team. Good leaders almost always know what needs to be done. Great leaders actually do it.

So, Rashid asked, what should I do?

You have to talk to them, I said. Be direct about how you believe they’re hurting the business. Lead by example — it’s the only way.

*I’ve changed his name to protect his privacy.

Originally posted at Harvard Business Review.