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The not so apparent issue of transparency – Globe and Mail

Publication Date: 7/2/2008 7:39:47 PM

HARVEY SCHACHTER

Special to The Globe and Mail; [email protected]

July 2, 2008

TRANSPARENCY

By Warren Bennis, Daniel Goleman and James O’Toolewith Patricia Ward BiedermanJossey-Bass, 130 pages, $24.99

Print Edition – Section Front

In organizations, the flow of information functions like a central nervous system. It links all the parts, allowing for effective, healthy operations. That flow of information requires candour and a culture of openness. Followers must feel free to speak, and leaders must welcome such openness.

Most companies claim they have such transparency. But some leadership experts insist that’s nonsense. “No matter the official line, true transparency is rare,” Warren Bennis, Daniel Goleman, and Patricia Ward Biederman write in Transparency, a short book of interrelated essays that feature their ideas and those of University of Denver ethics professor James O’Toole.

Transparency, Mr. Bennis argues in the preface, has become an urgent issue because of the emergence in the past decade of ubiquitous digital technology that makes transparency all but inevitable. “The leaders who will thrive and whose organizations will flourish in this era of electronic tattle-tales are the ones who strive to make their organizations as transparent as possible. Despite legitimate moral and legal limits on disclosure, leaders should at least aspire to a policy of ‘no secrets,’ ” Mr. Bennis, Mr. Goleman, and Ms. Biederman write in their joint essay.

But the reality is, some leaders will fight against transparency. Prof. O’Toole, in his essay on Speaking Truth to Power, recalls challenging the factual basis of an assertion made by Donald Rumsfeld in the 1990s, when he was an executive before being named U.S. defence secretary. Mr. O’Toole says Mr. Rumsfeld came after him with bone-chilling intensity: “No one questions me! Do you understand that?” And he added, apparently with total conviction: “I am never wrong.”

Speaking your mind to the powerful is, Prof. O’Toole writes, one of the oldest ethical challenges. It can be terrifying because the punishment can be brutal, whether you’re an opposition figure in Zimbabwe or a middle manager in a modern, supposedly humane North American corporation.

He tells of the time in the 1980s when he was invited to meet with top executives of Cowles Media Corp. to discuss the corporate culture. He started by asking the management team for short, descriptive phrases that best described its culture, only to be greeted by silence. He asked again. More silence.

Finally, he was passed an unsigned note that read: “Dummy, can’t you see that we can’t speak our minds? Ask for our input anonymously, in writing.” So for the next two hours, he would ask them questions about their culture, the answers would be written on slips of paper, and he would read them back to the cowering Cowles executives. He found the meeting pathetic, but was later told by some it was the best session they had experienced under the chief executive officer at the time.

By comparison, in the late 1970s Prof. O’Toole addressed the management team of then-startup Federal Express Corp. on the subject of worker productivity. He was about 10 minutes into his presentation when a young manager interrupted to pose a challenge to his colleagues: “The professor has made an interesting point that runs counter to a major decision management made a couple of weeks ago. I suggest we re-examine that decision now in light of what we have just learned.”

That interjection was amazing enough. Even more mind-boggling was that the group then began a no-holds-barred debate of the issue, in which lower-level managers forced those at the top to defend their decision. When it became clear the policy couldn’t be defended, the younger managers asked their bosses to change it – which they did.

At the end, they all went to lunch without a trace of hard feelings, or a sign that anyone had won or lost face, power or status. The openness and willingness to raise tough questions and challenge accepted wisdom was simply part of the culture. He seemed to be the only one in the room who found the exchange unusual.

Cowles went down the tubes. FedEx soared.

“The lesson I drew at the time from these experiences was that managers in companies with healthy cultures are constantly willing to rethink even their most basic assumptions through a process of constructive dissent,” Prof. O’Toole says. “And my experience over the next 30 years confirms in my mind that companies get into moral and competitive hot water when their leaders are unwilling to test their operating premises about such often-taboo subjects as the nature of the working conditions they offer employees, the purposes of their corporation, and their responsibilities to various stakeholders.”

The essays are well constructed, and the arguments compelling. But the readers drawn to it will be in agreement and those who need to be converted to transparency will be unlikely to pick up the book. While the arguments are strong, and the anecdotes often striking, candour starts at the top and there’s not a lot of advice readers can take away from the book on how to prevail against bosses who resist transparency.

In addition: In Outsmart (Financial Times, 188 pages, $24.99) James Champy, chairman of Perot Systems’ consulting practice, starts with Darwin’s survival of the fittest and argues that corporations will only continue to exist if they outsmart their competition. To find out how to do that, he profiles a number of fascinating companies – mostly startups, but also Smith & Wesson, the gun company that was near death at 155 years of age before a savvy chief executive officer turned it around. Mr. Campy pulls out from them some lessons we can apply to our own company. The problem is that the lessons are disparate, and although at the end he tries to bring them together into some general rules, those are already well known. But the profiles are excellent, of companies whose experiences are not regularly recounted in business books, and they will offer inspiration and no doubt the occasional idea you can import to your own situation.

Just In: Love ‘Em Or Leave ‘Em (Berrett-Koehler, 306 pages, $27.95), the bestseller by Beverly Kaye and Sharon Jordan-Evans on engaging and retaining talent, is out in an updated fourth edition.

Consultant Jill Lublin show
s how to build a client base by making a name for yourself in
Get Noticed … Get Referrals (McGraw-Hill, 217 pages, $18.95)

In Microsoft 2.0, (John Wiley, 285 pages, $30.95), journalist Mary Jo Foley looks at Microsoft in the coming post-Gates era.

*****

Piece of mind …

with peace of mind

Speaking your mind to the powerful can be virtuous, but James O’Toole, a professor of ethics at the University of Denver’s Daniels College of Ethics, says the act must meet several criteria:

It must be truthful.

It must do no harm to innocents.

It must not be self-interested. The benefits must go to others, or the organization.

It must be a product of moral reflection.

It must come from a messenger who is willing to pay the price.

It must have at least a chance of bringing about positive change (there is no virtue in tilting at windmills).

It must not be done in spite or anger.

Harvey