Son Jack and Google Agree on Transparency

Maybe the greatest moments in parenting are those threshold moments – the firsts: first smile, word, step, word read out loud, or first day of school.  But those first adult thoughts are especially cool.  Not just the unconscious brilliance of a four-year old, but the moments of self- and other-consciousness that happen before the teen years bring on defiant challenge.  On Saturday, during one of those great car rides, with the distractions of TV and Blackberry gone, Jack started to tell me about what really rankles him.  It really annoys him, he told me, when the adults in his life tell him “no” and won’t give him a reason.  “I just don’t understand why they can’t give their reasons,” he said.
It made me think about when – if ever – authority is justified in answering the “why?” that all kids and followers ask, by saying “because I said so; that’s why.”  I told him there may be times when his babysitter, or his teacher, or Jennifer or I are under so much time pressure that we won’t give a reason.  Or, maybe his teacher or sitter can’t give an explanation at a moment in time, because there are hidden reasons: For example, they don’t want to embarrass someone else, or there is something in their personal needs that they just shouldn’t have to divulge.  But Jack and I also agreed that followers lose respect for managers who can’t or won’t say why.  Trust grows when management explains their reasons.  And trust really grows when management – in explaining their reasons – actually listens to what you’re saying, sees your point of view and even changes course as a result.  Those of us who have authority have work here: We have to cultivate patience to hear people out, and we have to cultivate open-mindedness to listen fully.  Perhaps most of all, we have to develop the self-confidence to overcome our fear that those who challenge us may show us up, embarrass us, or stump us. 
Shannon Deegan, Director of People Operations for Google, spoke at our Next Great Companies conference this past week.  During the Q & A , a man pointed out that Google and the other renowned companies* at the conference had great cultures.  He asked what is the central prescription Shannon would give for those Michigan companies who are not yet so enlightened. Shannon said: Focus on being transparent.  The Google founders have a happy hour every Friday where all employees can attend – live or online – and anyone can ask anything of them.  Employees get access to all the reports the chairman makes to the board.  Anyone can ask any manager anything about the business strategy and decisions.  Openness abounds.
So, guess what people feel like?  The same thing Jack is striving for: They feel like respected adults.
At work and at home – leading your staff, your children, and your aging parents – you gain insight, trust and buy-in by being intellectually open,
Leading with your best self!

  • Good point, Dan The success of any leader, organization or economy owes much more to the fact that the culture considers trust and fairness to be important social norms.

    And as new technologies wire us ever more tightly together, you can go to the bank on the fact that consumers and businesses alike will become even more trustworthy and transparent in their dealings with others. Connectivity means untrustworthy business will be quickly and efficiently outed, making it far more financially risky to take short-term advantage of a customer, employee, supplier or some other stakeholder.

    Generation Y Millennials have their own ideas about what leadership is…and…it’s not their father’s leadership style.

    Today’s generation of employees grew up with direct, instantaneous access to information. They will search online to verify your message, as you speak, and challenge you with any contradictory information they find–no matter who you are. They’ve been conditioned by society to respond in this way. All their lives, they’ve been bombarded with trickery in advertising, media slants and political persuasions. And they can name many top-level managers who’ve gone to prison for unethical behavior–so titles and positions don’t impress them.

    And this new generation doesn’t buy into the old idea of leadership as “the ability to get others to do what you want them to do.” In fact, they don’t buy into any popular leadership theories because they have their own. They want leaders who they can form a relationship with and if they don’t respect and trust a leader, they won’t follow him or her.

  • Dan,

    I am so happy you wrote about this issue. My father was not an explainer. While we grew up at home, he often reminded us that there were three ways to do things: the right way, the wrong way, and his way. While in his house, we had to do things his way. When I reached those questioning, doubting, and rebelling late-teen years, (back when I knew everything) I had a low opinion of his knowledge and capabilities. Later, as I grew older, he seemed to grow smarter. I came to understand the reasons for his unexplained (and seemingly unwarranted) decisions, because I was making the same decisions for my own children.

    I cannot help but believe that we might have grown closer had he been a bit more forthcoming about his reasons for his decisions (usually limits and refusals). With my own children, I opted to “full-face listen” and to explain my decisions, a course of actions that had an odd result. Initially, they resented my “long-winded” explanations, considering Dad’s let’s talk sessions a form of cruel and unusual punishment. I was confused and chagrined, but persisted.

    I note that my kids now explain their decisions to my grandchildren. They stop what they are doing and listen to their children. I also noted that their explanations are more succinct than mine. Therefore I add one caveat to the need for transparency: be quick about it or your followers may consider your explanation to be cruel and unusual punishment…

    • Nice one, Mick. Your “full face listen” remains one of the great RFL lessons – and a testament to the power of blogs, I might add: often people write better stuff than the original blogger has offered.

      I have had a similar experience with the rolling of eyes, and “there goes dad again.” But there is NOTHING like real-time explanation, based upon the unfolding stories of the moment. And I agree: they may complain now, but thank you later – as we do with almost all great teachers!

  • Good article. I think you might want to check back on “Our Leaders, Our Selves”, your August 11 blog, and review Michael Montgomery’s comments. State government management would do well to better follow your son’s advice.

    • Clif,

      It’s a real challenge in state government. I am so happy that many of our leaders have taken the opportunity to attend orientation sessions at Quicken Loans. At QL, they have their “isms” – their philosophies of work, like “it doesn’t matter who’s right, only what’s right.” Such a mentality promotes openness.

      Keep doing your part to support and encourage those leaders who open the doors!


  • Dan,

    I’m still not sure how I happened on to you but I subscribed right away to your e-mail edition of Reading for Leading a year or long ago. I don’t always take the time to read your column but lately I have made time. This post was very enlightening to me and between the lines, I think is connection. Your compassion for family, passion for leading, and retrospect for questioning the deeper self is something I found here.

    Thank you.

    • Karla,
      Thanks so much for the kind words. I’m glad you’ve stumbled on RFL and hope you will continue to read and comment to improve our shared discussions.

  • Great column, Dan.
    I think one of the things that has rankled me most about our current President is his “Because I said so!” attitude. He seems genuinely shocked when the American people won’t take his decision as The Only Way. I am happily looking forward to a new, non-paternalistic Administration!

  • Bravo Jack,

    Jack is an example of our future! I often tell my students that they represent our future. He is also very thoughtful and reflective. I had an opportunity to talk to him at an Obama rally. I asked him what he thought about the Senator. His reponse was “I think he’s the one.”

    Let’s teach them how to LEAD! They certainly can’t make things any worse than we have.

    The TIP Lady

  • Dan,

    I couldn’t agree more with the importance of transparency in an organization. I am trying my best to be as transparent as possible with my faculty and staff. However I have run into a situation or two where my attempt at transparencey seems to have opened up a small Pandora’s box. A relatively simple decision, such as where we will be holding the faculty/staff chirstmas party, seems to have brought out a few naysayers etc. Even though I gave full disclosure as to how we were paying for such an event (about as transparent as possible) there still are those who aren’t happy. I know that I can’t make everyone happy, nor should that be my goal. However my attempt at transparency does have a bit of a downside to it. There is a slight inclination to say, “Well the next time I won’t be as open with you and Iwill just tell you what we are doing”. I know better than to make that type of statement, but I do have my moments!

    • John,

      This is a GREAT comment. Two thoughts in response:

      First, you point out one of the challenges of leading-with-authority, and with transparency: It’s hard! People don’t agree. They carp. They second-guess. They don’t take the time to read all the facts you’ve transparently laid out. In short, they’re human. We don’t train our leaders to see that leading with transparency takes two major qualities in the leader: patience and a thick skin. You have to expect that you will take shots, and feel just the way you described: “ok, next time I won’t be so open, you little so-and-so’s cuz I didn’t need to ASK you anything or share any of this information.” You are ahead of the game, John, to notice those feelings in yourself. And you have to suck it up for a while. With transparency, it’s hard to go halfway. I remember a CEO who opened up the process, but then it got hot on a retreat, and he tried to shut it down. He almost made things worse, although in the end, he listened. Patience matters, because if you can wade through the dissent you WILL get a more informed staff, and you may well find win-win situations. And if you’ve been open, you lead them to be open about the things they are disgruntled about – and would be disgruntled about – whether they tell you or not. I would much rather know what’s p-ssing them off and be able to manage it or at least engage it, than have it operating against me without my knowledge.

      Second point: transparence requires time, structure, and a good process. You have to take care in setting up the environment for success. You can’t just throw the information out there, but need to structure space for people to say “I like that,” “I don’t get that,” “why are we doing that,” etc. And shape it towards consensus and involve them in the decision, finishing with: “I want to manage openly and run the risk that our disagreements are in the open, but I think it’s important for us to come to conclusions and move forward, whether each of us “wins” or not.” Especially if they see you going with their flow once in a while – even when you’re not sure it’s the best course – you create legitimacy for the process as a whole.
      Hope this makes sense.

      Sure appreciate your raising a real-world concern about the hard work of the doing the great job of transparent leadership!


  • I agree with transparency in an organization, however, we have started to raise a generation of people who feel everything is negotiable. As leaders, “why” MUST be answered and it can never be because “I said so.” Well, I have a problem with this concept. There is a general lack of respect for all levels of authority and I am aware that with understanding comes respect but with the younger generation, this is not necessarily true. Many of these individuals feel that explanations are owed to them at all times because they asked, when they ask. I work in education. I am nearly always willing to explain nearly everything. However, some things aren’t negotiable. Some things are final. There must be balance, transparency and trust. SB

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