Friday, October 30, 2009

Playing a Straight Bat

We always like bosses who say it how it is. Or do we? I count myself as a heart-on-sleeve CEO. One who is happy to have an open conversation. To this end, I have been sharing my fairly unedited thoughts on the future environment with my staff through our newsletter.

In the last one I basically told people that I thought the game was up in terms of doing things the way we have this last ten years. The money I believe won't be there in anything like the same amount from 2011. I asked people for a conversation. About changes in working practices. About using volunteers. About working only with those in the most dire need. Stuff that needs to be considered, at least.

It's interesting what power does. Being CEO, my words were taken not as an invitation to a conversation but a pronouncement. A decree that we would do all these things. Quite a few people were genuinely worried that now going to happen an my announcement was simply my way of telling them.

I haven't yet responded to the staff who wrote to me, which include some of our key people. I think I will firstly apologise for scaring them. I know that often CEOs only say ANYTHING when the hammer is just about to fall. And even then dress nasty stuff in nice-sounding language.

But, in my response, I will also highlight that I was actually seeking dialogue. The truth is that we do have time. About 18 months to rethink things. Enough time. And that we need them to help us to do this.

The learning for me is that it maybe isn't always possible as a CEO to say it just how it is. People bring their own fears to the table, understandably so given the previous experiences of many people. A CEO friend of mine winced when I shared the story. She did the same thing once and people thought she was announcing the end of the organisation!

Two conclusions. One is that the CEO role brings a responsibility to take extreme care with one's communication. You are seen as all-powerful and anything you say on paper has an atmosphere of diktat about it.

The second is that people don't always prefer bosses to tell it how it is, whatever they might say. Enjoying Alan Sugar is one thing. In one's own workplace I suspect it might be a different matter.


Rob Harris said...

Wow, how poignant; it was only yesterday i shared some thoughts with a fairly new member of staff (on the future of advocacy, changes to the way we justify our existence etc)and i came away from teh conversation feeling the same way you did - that i was TELLING or ORDERING even; not entering into a dialogue or looking for "staff buy-in". I jumped the gun because the detail of what i am saying will happen at our staff day just prior to our usually raucous binge drinking fuelled xmas do - i am re-jigging my presentation as we speak cos i realised the impact my communication, coming from my position, has.
Having said all of that, the avoidance of direct and business like communication is endemic within the public and third sectors and must change. The gravity of the 3rd sector situation requires more direct and focussed discussion and resultant pressure. Something the private sector would not heistate in doing and they get far better results in respect of output from staff (dont ask me for data i dont have any).
Funnily enough i am meeting Alan Sugar on Monday at a Business Link event in Manchester so i will construct a question on this and post his reply here!

Andy Hickey said...

The other option to consider, aside from the "it's because I'm the CEO" is that maybe it's because of ongoing behaviour (and forgive if this comes across as a criticism, it's just a thought).

My experience is that it tends to be one's ongoing behaviour as a leader or manager that people respond to, rather than a specific request at a given moment in time (which is often more likely to arouse suspicion). You are clearly a heart-on-sleeve CEO (and it's great that you share this even wider than your own team) and you say that you're happy to have an open conversation. But maybe your team don't actually see this as a standard part of your relationship with them, otherwise why, on this occasion, did you "ask people for a conversation" and were "actually seeking dialogue". This would suggest that you normally don't?

There is, of course, conflicting evidence here, but maybe the fact that you particularly asked them for the conversation elicited a response that is DIFFERENT to the one you would normally get, or is actually the sort you would get in the conversations that maybe happen less than they should?

Craig Dearden-Phillips said...

You raise an interesting point Andy. You are right that people base their reactions on your actions rather than your words and, perhaps, people saw something else, based on their experience of me before. As time goes on I am becoming more aware of both the positive power of the CEO role(to energise, insprire and galvanise intention into action) and its negative aspects. My sense is that the direct use of power is something occasionally necessary but best avoided where a more devolved approach would work better. Talent, I believe, migrates to organisations where senior people listen, involve and delegate as much down the line. There is definitely a moment for Stalinism (in a turnaround sitation for example) but it should never be a modus operandi. Thanks for your thoughts again, Andy.

Rob Harris said...

I have mulled over this one for a few days, and whilst i agree with the analysis of this dynamic i am also of the opinion that it is all too easy to over analyse every aspect of our communication.

I guess this was my point regarding the avoidance of direct communication in the 3rd sector. You can still be fair and even nice whilst making it very clear what is expected to ensure the business successful and achieve goals. Surely this type of a straight bat suits most adults? Life is usually full of detail we dont neccessarily like, but we cope; work is no different in my view, apart from the fact that at work we get paid to absorb the detail.