Posts

Real People Real Trust: Transforming a Business from the Inside Out

Ron Prater has worked in government consulting firms for almost 20 years, including three years with Arthur Andersen LLP. In 2007, he set out with partner Alan Pentz to create a company that would apply real entrepreneurial curiosity to find new ways to solve the U.S. government’s biggest problems. The result is Corner Alliance. Find out how this organization, triggered by a crisis in its formative years, applied the principle of collaboration to devise a new and different kind of corporate culture.

Leadership Lessons

Ron and I have known each other through other people for years. A few months ago I was talking with Corner Alliance Director Sarah Agan, a mutual colleague and veteran consultant. I was intrigued by the unusual ways she described a recent all-hands meeting. “We practice ‘inner voice’ all the time,” she said. “And we have an explicit value to eat our own dog food.” Needless to say, I was intrigued by Sarah’s word choice and even more so by her animation. I wanted to find out more. So I set up some time to talk with Ron and Sarah together.

Ron explained it to me, “‘Eating our own dog food’ means we operate the way we advise our clients to—we follow the same processes and approaches we recommend to them.” “Essentially, we practice what we preach. It can be harder than it sounds when you’re trying to balance helping clients succeed while also trying to grow a sustainable business. And it hasn’t always been that way, even in our company’s short life.”

Learning the Hard Way

Corner Alliance had some growing pains in its early years. “We had a really tough time a few years ago when we lost a project that led to a serious financial struggle,” Ron confided. “I, along with my partner, Alan, and our Director of Operations, Brandi Greygor, responded in typical ways. Privately, we talked daily about how much money we had left in the company’s line of credit and what to do if we maxed out what the bank would loan us. Publicly, we sent a general message to staff that we all needed to ‘increase billability’ but we were afraid to state the full reason.

“We thought we were doing the right thing by keeping the true stress from our staff. The MBA books say it’s important to protect the people from the stress of running the business. And the HR consultants told us we had to follow proper procedures to avoid lawsuits if we did have to lay people off. So we kept things hidden.”

Going contrary to conventional business wisdom, Ron and the other principals listened to their own inner wisdom. “It’s not how our guts said to handle it. We faced a real inner conflict every day for months. How do you form a company of trust and transparency when it seems like all the advice you get—from grad school, friends, lawyers, and more—says to withhold information?

“Looking back,” Ron said, “I grew more personally from that very tough time than from every great year I had. While it was hard, the learning from those six months led to one of the most positive and significant turning points for Corner Alliance.”

Eat Your Own Dog Food

Out of the crisis came a big transformation for the company. “With cost-cutting, along with full transparency with our staff, we managed to stabilize our operations,” Ron said, “And we realized that, on the heels of such a hard and painful time, we had a real opportunity to fundamentally re-think and re-vision.

“So Alan and I announced to our staff that he and I would map out a new company strategy,” Ron elaborated, “including our top three strategic priorities. We told people at an all-hands meeting that we’d start by focusing on which clients to talk to and what to offer them. That message landed with a thud. Within the first few minutes of the meeting it was clear we had made a huge mistake and needed to rethink the approach.

“Our people said, ‘That’s not how we advise our clients to develop strategy. So why are we doing it that way?’”

That uh-oh moment led to a dramatically different plan to create the company’s strategy. “We realized we’d be stronger if we engaged the whole company in the company,” Ron continued. “And instead of starting with what we do and where we want to go, we started with who we are and what we wanted to stand for as a company,” Ron explained.


Put Values First

The group put first things first. “We focused first on our values, and to do that we created a conversation rather than creating a task,” Ron said. “We also found a way to make it a truly collaborative process, not just a collaborative process led by one person. We’ve never been about one-person trust—not at our core—so we found a way to define our values that would reflect that we all have to trust everyone else in the company.

“Since we’re a virtual company with staff in five different states, we selected an on-line tool to help us create the conversation. Everyone could contribute real-time, see each other’s inputs, make comments, and vote.”

Take Your Time

The process of defining yourself takes time Ron learned. “We allowed three weeks to generate ideas, and it took us about four months to solidify our values. If we had tried to get results in a one-day strategy session, our output would have been more generic—even with everyone participating,” Ron added. “People needed time to digest and think through what they stood for and then internalize that in relation to the company. The elapsed time allowed people to contribute at their best, and allowed the most important things to materialize organically.”

They ended up with 10 explicitly stated corporate values that are the foundation on which Corner Alliance continues to be built. Not surprisingly, “Eat our own dog food” was on the short list.

It’s a value that Sarah especially endorses. “We live that value even beyond our approach to strategy development,” she added. “Everyone takes turns running our internal meetings—everyone. We share leadership that way, and expand our capacity as leaders and facilitators at the same time. People get to experiment, practice, and learn in a safe environment, and they get real-time feedback. Just like the leaders we serve, we have to be willing to take risks and make mistakes to learn.”

Sarah continued, “It’s okay for things not to go well. What’s not okay is not learning from it. One of the greatest gifts we give each other is feedback. We are deliberate about creating a culture where we all recognize we’re both perfect and imperfect, where we can bring our whole selves—who we are and who we aren’t.”

Tell It Like It Is

Financial transparency is another key value that emerged from Corner Alliance’s collaborative strategy process. “Alan was instrumental in moving us to open-books management,” Ron said. “We now share just about everything with all employees every quarter, the exception being salary information. We have bi-weekly company-wide calls where everyone sees each other’s billability, our revenue, where we are exceeding or falling short of revenue projections.  We don’t hide anything bad or anything good.”

Ron is clear that the effect is palpable. “It has made a massive difference in everyone understanding the business impact of their decisions,” he stated. “It also supports one of our other corporate values, which is sustainability. I believe the whole firm really understands the state of Corner Alliance and can see that we have a really strong foundation for growth right now.”

Be Bold with Clients

That kind of transparency also now extends to Corner Alliance clients—in a bold and differentiated way. The stated value “inner voice” is about people sharing their internal dialog as much as possible, recognizing that’s often where the truth lies. Corner Alliance staff is encouraged to not leave important things unsaid.

“This is definitely not easy,” Ron emphasized. “It takes a commitment to practice over time with our clients and with each other. We actually label it, as in, ‘Using my inner voice, I’d like to say I think there are serious organizational risks associated with what you are considering.’ This makes it easier to do and hear as the person listening now knows that the person speaking is taking a risk.

“Our people know they’ve got the organization behind them every time they venture into inner voice territory,” Ron affirmed. “As Alan points out about using inner voice, ‘It’s a personal risk to reveal what you’re thinking but not saying. It’s a risk to the organization if you don’t.’ But we all also recognize it’s important to apply this value wisely, appropriately, and thoughtfully.”

Perhaps the most unexpected result from this dedication to speaking the truth is that clients have begun to pick up both the practice and the lingo. Ron explained, “When our clients started saying to us, ‘My inner voice is saying xyz,’ we knew we were onto something bigger.”

Reap the Rewards

The list of indicators that Corner Alliance is onto something is long, and now includes growing staff, secure multi-year prime contracts in place, and work with key government executives who have budgets in the billions. “Corner Alliance is poised for an incredible year in 2012,” Ron said with pride. “Not only are we making a difference in the business of government, but we get emails from clients saying, ‘You’ve changed my life.’”

The focus for 2012? “Helping people thrive by doing creative, meaningful work, and living the life they want—not just the work life they want,” said Ron.

The Bottom Line

Ron feels very strongly that what Corner Alliance has created was not led by or done by one person. “Featuring me for this article is actually counter to our culture,” Ron stressed. “Corner Alliance has been led by a collaborative approach using values as our core, and that’s precisely what will lead us into the future.”

And a promising future it is.

Connect with Ron on LinkedIn.

——–

The Real People, Real Trust series offers an insider view into the challenges, successes, and make-it-or-break-it moments of people from all corners of the world who are leading with trust. Check out our prior posts: read about Chip Grizzard: A CEO You Should Know; Ralph Catillo: How One Account Executive Stands Apart; Anna Dutton: A Fresh Perspective on Sales Operations; Heber Sambucetti: A Learning Consultant’s Approach to Leadership; Janet Andrews: What Trust-based Strategy Consulting Looks, Feels, and Sounds Like, and John Dunn: An Entrepreneur Wins with Partnership.

 

Disclosure Is Not Transparency

Most people see transparency as a good thing, and disclosure an obvious way to get there.  Often, we don’t distinguish between them.

But they’re not the same thing. And confusing them just lets bad behavior sneak back in through the back door.

What’s the difference between disclosure and transparency?

Transparency and Trust

Besides “able to transmit light,” the dictionary defines transparent as:

  • easily seen through, recognized, or detected: transparent excuses.
  • manifest; obvious: a story with a transparent plot.

In the simplest business terms, “transparent” means you can tell what’s going on.

If the link between transparency and trust isn’t self-evident, here are a few citations to help clarify it:

If I can see what’s going on, I know that I am not being misled. Motives become clear. Credibility is affirmed. Transparency is indeed a trust virtue.

Disclosure

Disclosure is a time-honored tool of regulators to achieve transparency. Food and pharmaceutical manufacturers are required to disclose ingredients, medical authors are required to reveal payment sources, the SEC frequently proposes disclosure as a tool, and so on.

Certainly you can’t find out what’s going on if information is actually hidden.  So disclosure is a necessary condition for transparency. But it’s hardly a sufficient one.

I don’t have much to say about the cost/benefit trade-off of greater disclosure in pursuit of transparency. Sometimes the benefit is obvious, other times not so much, sometimes not at all.

What’s more interesting to me is how the blind pursuit of disclosure can actually reduce transparency – even reduce people’s awareness of the distinction.

Over-Disclosure

Is it possible to have too much disclosure? So much disclosure that information gets lost in the blizzard of data?

On the face of it, disclosure is the handmaiden of transparency. But if disclosure becomes the end rather than the means, if regulators and consumer advocates become fixated on indicators rather than on what they indicate, then disclosure can actually become self-defeating.

Lawyers know that massive responses to discovery requests can overwhelm opposing counsel. Cheating spouses know that the best lies are those that disclose the most truth. Consumer lenders know to fast-talk the disclaimers at the end of radio ads, much like the small print on the ads and loan statements.

If disclosure isn’t accompanied by an ethos of transparency, it can be positively harmful. It is like crossing your fingers behind your back, taking movie reviews out of context, or word parsing a la “it depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.”

A trustworthy person, team or company will not settle for disclosure, but seek to offer transparency. A competent regulator will always remember that disclosure is just evidence. And a wise buyer will always look for the transparency that may, or may not, underlie the disclosure.

Trust relies on both data and intent.

——————————————————————————————–

Many Trusted Advisor programs now offer CPE credits.  Please call Tracey DelCamp for more information at 856-981-5268–or drop us a note @ info@trustedadvisor.com.

Real People, Real Trust: A Fresh Perspective on Sales Operations

Anna Dutton is a Sales Operations Director for Blackboard, a company that brings technology to the world of education. Find out what Anna sees as the distinguishing traits of a trusted advisor, and learn two concrete steps she recommends for anyone who wants to bring more transparency and trust to their business relationships.

In a Word: Genuine

Anna (pronounced “Ahna”) and I met in 2009 when she was leading a team of 10 inside salespeople and wanted to share the principles of Trust-Based Selling with the group. In our exploratory conversations, Anna’s thoughtfulness, poise, authenticity, and commitment to people being the best they can be really shined through. Anna has the world at her fingertips— she has 15 years of business experience in roles as diverse as banking, tourism, and human resources, and she speaks three languages fluently. Yet she is as down-to-earth as they come.

I began my Real People, Real Trust interview with Anna the same way I began my conversation with others I’ve featured, by asking a simple question: What does it take to be a trusted advisor? Without a moment of hesitation, Anna said, “Being genuine.”

“Genuine for me means not being afraid to tell the truth, to say what you think, to say something that others may not agree with. It’s about really having integrity with the people you have relationships with.

“Most of my colleagues and former team members would probably tell you that I will always say the truth and not hide from it.  I want them to know they can rely on me, they can be honest with me, and that I always have their back. This extends into my personal life, too. It’s important for people to know where I’m coming from and that I will always meet them halfway.”

Delivery Matters

Anna emphasized the difference that delivery makes.

“Of course, I always consider how to say things. Delivery makes a difference. People have come to count on an expression I often use: ‘I’m sorry I just have to be blunt.’ They laugh now when they hear it, which brings some levity to what might otherwise be a tense conversation.

“Here’s what I’ve noticed over the years: I have never had someone say, ‘I wish you hadn’t told me that.’ I will apologize for being so transparent, but I will never need to apologize for saying the truth.

“I changed roles a few months ago, and had an exit dinner with my team. They said, ‘We trusted you; we knew you always had our back.’ The irony was that they further created that trust amongst themselves and strengthened their ties so much that they could focus on helping each other excel and succeed.  Projects and deliveries and tasks aside, this is what matters in life.”

The Courage to Stay the Course

Anna spoke to me in her characteristically frank way about the courage it takes to live from the principle of transparency.

“When you’re committed to telling the truth, you have to accept that some people won’t like it, and that not everyone will be willing to take the journey with you. Courage is being willing to take the risk and accept the consequences. Ironically, when you do that, you realize the consequences aren’t so bad. Truth-telling not only forges stronger relationships, but people respect you more, and ultimately, they thank you.

“I’m not saying it’s easy. I always have to remind myself that the benefits outweigh the negatives, and remind myself that I won’t stand for anything less. I definitely have my share of vulnerable moments. When I can remember what’s lost by not being genuine in this way, I know it’s worth the risk.”

The Journey

Anna attributes the learning of these important lessons to her own personal experiences, as well as people in her life who have served as role models, like one boss who stands out as a real trusted advisor. “I was so sad when he retired last year, but I take his lessons with me every day,” she says. Anna has also learned a lot from living and traveling all over the world.

“I had an atypical upbringing: being a first generation American and growing up in Italy, Spain, and the States.  I often related to different cultures, different people, and different perspectives.  I had to take risks to create relationships and to connect with my changing world. Life taught me many lessons, and I went from child afraid to say what she thought to someone who can, as a direct result of facing life’s challenges.”

Anna continues, “I also think that being great at relationships requires being a dedicated student of relationships. I’ve read a lot, learned a lot from experts, and I’m friends with people who are psychologist and organizational development experts. Our dinner parties are often marked by spirited and thoughtful conversations about human dynamics.”

(By the way, two books Anna highly recommends are A Fortune-Teller Told Me: Earthbound Travels in the Far East by Tiziano Terzani—a book that reinforces how just changing how you do things can cause dramatic changes in the world around you—and Type Talk at Work: How the 16 Personality Types Determine Your Success on the Job by Otto Kroeger with Janet M. Thuesen and Hile Rutledge, which emphasizes the importance of knowing your audience and how you communicate.)

Best Advice in Two Steps

I asked Anna what advice she had for anyone wanting to bring more transparency and trust to their business relationships. She suggested two concrete steps:

1.      Write down what you’re afraid of and really be honest with yourself. “Understand why you’re afraid of these things. Do whatever work you need to figure it out and address it—talk with friends, go to therapy, whatever. You have to understand what’s underneath it first.  You can’t create trust if you have fear.”

2.      While you’re figuring it out, just tell the truth for a week without coloring or altering and see what happens. “Worst case: you may annoy some folks, and see that they will not join you. I’m not suggesting you tell someone ‘You’re a horrid person’; you might say something like, ‘This situation is not working and this is why’ or ‘I’m nervous about this engagement and this is why.”

Anna says, “Being a trusted advisor is a process; it’s not like you learn it and then—boom—you do it every day. Plus as you evolve as a person, as you develop and grow, your approach may change. You’ll have bad weeks, and good weeks.  But more than anything, it’s a philosophy, an approach to life.”

Connect with Anna on LinkedIn.

—————————————————

The Real People, Real Trust series offers an insider view into the challenges, successes, and make-it-or-break-it moments of people from all corners of the world who are leading with trust. Check out our prior posts: read about Chip Grizzard, a CEO You Should Know and Ralph Catillo: How One Account Executive Stands Apart.

Creating a Culture of Trust: Virtues and Values

This post comes from our upcoming book, The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook: A Comprehensive Toolkit for Leading With Trust, from the chapter on Implementing a Culture of Trust. Tools for trust initiatives include principles, or values, at the organizational level, and personal attributes, or virtues, at the individual level. The chapter explores five tools for implementing trust change initiatives: leading by example, stories, vocabulary, and managing with wisdom. This post explores two diagnostic tools: the Trust Temperament™ and the Trust Roadmap.

We will be sharing selected portions of the book with our readers leading up to the publication date. The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook will be available from Wiley Books on October 31, 2011, or you can pre-order The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook today.

What Is a High-trust Organization?

Our definition: an organization of people who are trustworthy, and appropriately trusting, working together in an environment that actively encourages those behaviors in employees as well as stakeholders.

Creating a culture of trust requires a different emphasis than do most change initiatives. What works to reduce accident rates, increase customer-centricity, or become ISO-9000 compliant isn’t the same as what’s needed to create a high-trust organization.

Trust is about interpersonal relations. For people to trust and be trusted by others, they must take personal risks and face personal fears in ways that cannot, by their nature, be fully planned and structured in ways that typical change initiatives can rely on.

That suggests a different emphasis: an initiative built around personal change.

Two Keys to Trust Culture Change: Virtues and Values

Creating a high-trust culture boils down to two main thrusts: virtues and values. “Virtues” are the personal qualities that high-trust people embody, and “values” are what guide the organizations they work in. In trust-based organizations, virtues and values are consistent and mutually reinforcing.

We use these words very intentionally, because they’re commonly understood–and common language matters. Each deserves its own word and understanding, and both are required for trust culture change. In our experience, some companies rightly focus on organizational values, but few focus enough on personal virtues.

The virtues of trust are personal, and involve your level of trustworthiness and your ability to trust. The virtues of trust are contained in the trust equation: credibility, reliability, intimacy, and self-orientation.

It is virtuous for someone to tell the truth, to behave dependably, to keep confidences, and to be mindful of the needs of others. Unless people take personal responsibility for their own behavior around trust, the organization will never be a trust-based organization.

The values of trust are institutional, and drive the organization’s external relationships, leadership, structure, rewards, and key processes. The values of a trust-based organization are reflected in the four trust principles: other-focus, collaboration, medium- to long-term perspective, and transparency. An organization that espouses these values treats others with respect, has an inclination to partner, has a bias toward a longer timeframe, and shares information.

Trust-based organizations take values very seriously. If your organization has never fired someone for a values violation, then either you’ve been astoundingly successful in your hiring and development efforts, or you’re not a strongly values-driven organization.

Diagnosing Trust

To improve virtues and values, it’s helpful to know where you’re starting from—to have some kind of diagnostic. For virtues, there is the trust quotient: for values, there is the Trust Roadmap™.

Virtues.

The trust quotient is a self-diagnostic taken at the individual level, based on the four values of the trust equation.   With individual data aggregated anonymously at the group level, you can profile the organization in terms of Trust Temperaments (the pair of highest-scoring values in the trust equation for an individual), as follows:

Trust Temperament™ Highest Ranked Attributes Motto
The Expert C, R “Lead, follow, or get out of the way.”– Anonymous
The Doer R, I “As for accomplishments, I just did what I had to do as things came along.”– Eleanor Roosevelt
The Catalyst C, I “A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus.”– Martin Luther King, Jr.
The Professor C, S “The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.”– Albert Einstein
The Steward R, S “My goal wasn’t to make a ton of money. It was to build good computers.” – Steve Wozniak
The Connector I, S “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.”– Anonymous

 

Values.

The Trust Roadmap is a diagnostic tool that surveys the Trust Values across components of organizations, as below:

Collaboration Medium- to Long-Term Perspective Transparency Other Focus
External Relationships
Leadership
Structure
Rewards
Processes

 

Generic and organization-specific questions are developed for each of the 20 cells, and the survey administered to groups of stakeholders: customers, employees, managers, for example.   For example, the question for Leadership and Medium-to-Long Term Perspective might be “Your leaders are willing to sacrifice short-term gains for the long-term benefit of the organization.”

The survey results allow a management team to assess, in a structured manner, where the organizational values that drive trust are being implemented, and where they’re not; how those patterns vary across constituencies; and what they feel the priority should be in addressing the issues.  In short, a Trust Roadmap.


The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook: A Comprehensive Toolkit for Leading With Trust will be published by Wiley Books on October 31, 2011.  Pre-order your copy of The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook today.

Asking for Fees and Root Canals

When my coaching client Craig returned from the dentist following his unexpected root canal, he didn’t complain about the pain. It was the sign in the reception area that got him: “Payment Expected at the Time Services are Provided.”

“I was wondering why the dentist doesn’t have any trouble insisting I pay him now,” he told me. What he didn’t understand is why some lawyers and consultants, including him, feel they have to tip-toe around the issue of discussing and collecting fees.

There are plenty of other professionals who don’t have trouble asking for fees. Think about those in medicine, and people like the snow plower, your car mechanic, real estate broker, plumber and your electrician.

What’s So Hard About Asking?

Why is it that lawyers, consultants and others often have so much difficulty talking about fees? Why is it that with us, we act like we’d rather get a root canal than discuss fees? Clients expect us to be assertive when helping them – so why do we dance around when it comes to talking about fees?

How To Make it Easier

Here are three tips that just might help you ask for and collect client fees:

  • Believe in yourself. Acknowledge that you are good at what you do, and that your fees reflect the value of your work in the marketplace in which you are working. If they are not, you’ll find out soon enough. And if you want some ideas on pricing your services, here’s a great compendium of short articles, thanks to Rain Today via Michael McLaughlin.
  • Deal with the topic sooner rather than later. Transparency helps. Don’t hesitate early on in the conversation to discuss your fees with a prospective client. Waiting too long may appear as if you’re hiding something, and certainly makes it more awkward. Try saying something like: “I’m delighted to talk more about this. Let me give you an idea of costs so we’re on the same page.”
  • Get personal. When you send a bill, don’t hide behind your firm’s invoicing systems. If the bill seems higher than expected, let the client know in a separate note or call – that reduces surprises and increases your reliability. If it’s lower than expected, that’s worth a call as well. Good news is appreciated. And, the personal touch will go a long way toward growing trust in the relationship.

Meanwhile, Back in the Dentist’s Chair

We all need to take our cue from those who don’t mind asking for fees. As for Craig, he’ll get another lesson when his dentist, without hesitation, tells him the cost for the cap to cover that root canal.

To Tell or Not To Tell: The Three-Question Transparency Test

We’ve all had those moments when we realized we knew something that someone else didn’t know and it was awkward. Think of the last time you were at lunch and you noticed your tablemate’s big, toothy grin adorned by a piece of big, leafy spinach—yep, that’s the kind of awkward we’re talking about. Even though most of us probably ascribe to a principle of Transparency—being honest, open, candid except when illegal or injurious to others—we’ve all made the choice at some point to say nothing.

The question is: did we do the right thing?

Use the Three Question Transparency Test to find out.

When a Lie by Omission Seems Like a Pretty Good Option

On the surface, it’s easy to say “Honesty’s the best policy!” Dig a little deeper and it’s not so clear.

Let’s look at some client examples to make this real—cases where you know something that he or she doesn’t (or might not), and you wonder “to tell or not to tell?”

– Imagine you’ve discovered a mistake in your work. The impact is relatively minor. Does it help or hurt the customer relationship to call attention to it?

– Or…you’ve discovered a mistake in your client’s work. The impact is significant. So is the likelihood of embarrassment (or worse) for them. Are you honoring or dishonoring the relationship by saying nothing?

– What if you learn something unfavorable about a competitor—one your customer is currently engaged with. Are you the hero or the jerk if you bring it up?

– And—maybe the worst of all—what do you do when you notice your client has spinach in her teeth?

End the Debate with the Three-Question Transparency Test

The next time you’re debating “to tell or not to tell,” ask yourself three questions:

1. Is my reason for not telling actually for my benefit, rather than theirs? Let’s face it: we human beings have a natural tendency to avoid scary, uncomfortable stuff—and that includes not telling things when telling is precisely what will honor the relationship. Is it really in the other person’s best interest to say nothing or is your desire to avoid your own discomfort creating a platform for a nice, juicy rationalization?

2. If I don’t tell and he finds out later, will he feel misled? This question invites you to see the situation from the other person’s vantage point—always a good practice when it comes to relationship-building. (By the way, if you’re banking on the fact that he won’t find out later, check your probabilities…and your motives.)

3. Would I tell her if she were my friend? This is my favorite question because it really cuts to the chase and invites us to set aside the arms-length decorum (often masked as “professionalism”) that defines most business relationships.

If at any point your answer is yes, do not pass Go, do not collect $200. Say what needs to be said (with compassion and diplomacy, of course – caveats help immensely.)

An Even Simpler Test

If three questions seem like too many, here’s the ultimate litmus test. Thanks go to Chip Grizzard, CEO of Grizzard Communications Group, who recently shared these words of wisdom. Chip says, “If you’re expending any energy on the debate, then it probably means you should say something.”

It doesn’t get much simpler than that.

In Theory and In Practice

While the principle of Transparency sounds good in theory, it’s actually very hard to live by. It takes courage. It takes a willingness to get comfortable being uncomfortable. It takes a commitment to removing yourself from the equation. And it takes a certain level of discernment to figure out when it’s hurting versus helping to sidestep the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

Use the Three-Question Transparency Test—or the simpler “Grizzard Gut Check”—the next time you wonder whether to tell or not to tell.

Doing the Right Thing May Be Easier Than You Think

We all know the hard stories of corporate whistleblowers. Sharon Watkins at Enron, Cynthia Cooper at Worldcom, for example. We view such people—quite rightly—as having not just the courage of their convictions, but courage enough to put their social and economic lives at risk for the sake of what they see as right. We all live in a better world because of the risks taken by such people.

Most of us think that such whistleblowers are rare, and perhaps they are. But we also think the cards are stacked against them—that the reason they are so rare is the likelihood of retaliation against someone going up against ‘the system.’

What if that’s not true? What if the risk of doing the right thing is in fact vastly overstated? That virtue is in fact appreciated more than we think? If that’s true, then what excuse do we all have for not doing the right thing more often?

Examples of Ethical Behavior that Evoke Admiration

Twice in the past two weeks I have heard stories that make me think we underestimate the power of good behavior. Briefly:

Story One. I was brought in to manage a main stream of a major contract we had with the government. To my horror, I quickly realized it was over budget, behind schedule, and we were not in a position to attest otherwise. Yet we had a major meeting upcoming at which I would be asked to do just that.

My boss and my boss’s boss had a lot riding on this. The government client had a lot riding on this. It was clear everyone wanted me to sign off and just deal with it, somehow, later. As I entered the headquarters building that day, I had this horrible feeling I was about to lose my job.

The moment came, and I was asked to publicly attest to our progress against milestones. “I simply cannot do that,” I said. “We are not in compliance on a number of those items, and I can’t claim otherwise.” I went home that night prepared to clear out my desk the next day.

But when I went to work the following day, it was as if little had happened. “Good job,” said one superior, “we had no business signing off.” The client appeared relieved too. I later was promoted; we also got more client work. In both cases, this moment was cited as a positive example of my performance.

Story Two. I was a manager of a large client project, which involved a presentation to the client’s Board of Directors. The CEO suggested that if our work turned out a certain way, we would receive a lot of business. I said I could not in good conscience bend the work the way he wanted it.

The next day, in front of the Board, the CEO put me on the spot, saying I was prepared to comment on my findings in a way that would have favored his request. I gulped. I didn’t confront him head on; but I did say that the data and analysis that we had performed unfortunately did not, in fact, support the CEO’s hoped-for outcome, but rather another.

I thought I would be in serious trouble with my boss. Instead, he told me that’s why they hired me in the first place, to stand up to tough situations. A few weeks later, a board member—a director in half a dozen other, larger companies—came to me with invitations to present at those companies. He said he did so because he could read between the lines and knew what I had done.

We Underestimate the Attraction of Ethical Behavior

I have no idea how common these stories are. They could be the exception rather than the rule (though I rather think there are more than we hear about).

The real point, however, is how easily the two organizations fell in behind these two people to support them in doing the right thing. As it turned out, their fears were unfounded. 

This I suspect is true: that we overstate the threat posed by ‘them.’ We overestimate the likelihood that no one would stand behind us, and that there is no support in our organizations for doing the right thing.

I suspect this too is true: that we understate the ability of people to appreciate the obviousness of the right thing. We under-state their hunger and willingness to follow someone who does the right thing, that there is in fact a reservoir of great good will and support.

Believing this doesn’t take anything away from the true courage it takes to be a whistleblower. On the contrary, it may suggest that the truly unethical and anti-social organizations are fewer than we think.

The bigger problem may lie not in unethical leaders, but in managers and future leaders who are too afraid to try on ethical leadership for size.

Where’s your whistle? What are you waiting for?

The Wrong Elevator Speech: Disaster and Recovery

This is week three for me of a four-week road trip. I’m getting a little loopy, but am collecting some wonderful client experiences, lessons and stories. Here’s one from a British account executive.

“I was going to see a potential client for what could have been an important piece of business for us. Unfortunately for me, I missed the scheduled plane by minutes, and thus was delayed by an hour. I called, and they agreed to reschedule the meeting to accommodate me.

“When I arrived, a bit flustered, the team of a half-dozen clients execs had gathered downstairs, and we all then went to the lift to go upstairs to the designated conference room.

“Unfortunately the lift was made for about four people. We all crammed into the lift, and it slowly began to climb. At that point someone—how shall I put this—well, as we English say—passed gas. The lift continued its crawling pace upward. No one, of course, said a word, nor even altered their expression. There was dead silence.

“As the doors finally opened, we all rushed to get out—all at once. And all 7 of us thereby tumbled onto each other on the floor. We all picked ourselves up, even more embarrassed, and again without saying a word to each other, made our way into the conference room.

“As I set up at the head of the room, I could feel the weight of this triple discomfort: I was late, the tumbling all over each other—and of course the ‘gas’ incident in the middle. It was all contrived to create a mutual sense of misery.

“What to do? I stood in the front of the room and said, ‘Gentlemen, little did I know this morning what a fine level of intimate relationship we should all achieve in so little time here this afternoon. I am honored indeed.”

“Well fortunately, everyone fell all over each other laughing; I had somehow managed to prick the balloon of the unspoken that hung over us like a cloud, and the rest of the day went marvelously. And oh yes, we got the sale.”

What this gentleman had done, in our nomenclature, was to Name It and Claim It; that is, to speak aloud the one thing that no one could figure out how to talk about. He did it with humor—an excellent tool—and was rewarded for the relief he caused by an appreciative relationship, and even a sale.

How many of us waste moments like that, buried in our own fear of speaking the truth? And how many sales do we leave on the table because of it?

 

Making a Referral By Transferring Trust

I provide a lot of referrals to clients and colleagues and have built my own business development and executive coaching business through referrals from others to me. What makes those referrals so powerful?

Here’s an example of a referral I made. A few years ago, in my in-house legal role, I had a working relationship with a lawyer I liked and trusted. I introduced that lawyer to a colleague in another company who I thought could benefit from working with this lawyer as well. As a result of my introduction, the colleague retained the lawyer, and that relationship is still going strong after several years.

The Trust Transfer Process

Referring someone we know to another person we know happens all the time. On the personal side, think blind dates or babysitters or doctors. It’s part of the networking process. What makes it work? Something I call “Transferred Trust.” The Trust Equation gives us the formula to enhance our own trustworthiness. But what happens when we make or receive a referral? How do we transfer that trust to another, and if we’re on the receiving end, for what do we look or listen?

Here are the steps from my example, simplified:

  1. I trust a lawyer.
  2. I have a colleague who trusts me.
  3. My colleague needs a lawyer.
  4. I describe the lawyer I trust to my colleague, and shared why I trusted him and made the referral.
  5. My colleague trusts the lawyer I trust, enough to engage him based on my introduction.

Trust Transfer and the Trust Equation

Let’s dissect this referral in terms of the Trust Equation (from The Trusted Advisor by Charles H. Green, David H. Maister, and Robert M. Galford, Free Press, 2000):

Trustworthiness = Credibility + Reliability + Intimacy
Self-Orientation

The quality and degree of trust transferred will directly depend on:

  • The depth of the referrer’s trustworthiness
  • The trustworthiness factors shared with the person receiving the referral

If I shared that the lawyer always got back to me quickly, I transferred reliability. If I gave an example of how the lawyer showed that he cared more about doing the right thing for me as his client than getting more work for himself, I transferred that he had low self orientation. If I described something the lawyer did that helped my company save money and time, I transferred credibility.

And while it’s up to the referrer to transfer trustworthiness, it’s up to the person referred to retain that trustworthiness through his/her own interactions.

How Transparency Works with Referrals

Be careful. You put your own trustworthiness on the line when you transfer trust. How often do we get referrals with transferred trust and are disappointed? If you think there is a good match, but you don’t know much about the person you are referring, be sure to be transparent. It’s ok to say “I know this person to be honest and forthright, and she’s really smart but I’ve never worked with her, so you’ll probably want to talk to her yourself.”

This models transparency, together with low self-orientation, while transferring some intimacy (safety) and some general credibility.

Try this out yourself in a business or social setting. Think of how you refer doctors or contractors, business colleagues and professionals. Pay attention to both referrals shared with you, and to those you give. And practice transferring trust.

The Power of I’m Sorry: the Four R’s of a Trustworthy Apology

Do you remember the last time you felt like you deserved an apology but didn’t get one?  Maybe…

  • The waiter forgot about your table
  • They shipped you the wrong product
  • Your significant other embarrassed you in a group setting

Fill in your own blank.   What impact did that have on your level of trust?

As sure as death and taxes, we will mess up.  How we respond, regardless of fault, can have a monumental effect on our relationships, yet apologizing is rarely discussed in business development circles.  

I recall an audience member asking a sales trainer, “What do we do when we make a mistake”?  The trainer responded, “Be careful about apologizing.   If you admit to the mistake, you could have legal liabilities”.  While technically correct, that advice somehow didn’t feel right to me.

Shifts in thinking on this topic appear hopeful.  Even state governments, hospitals and insurance companies have abandoned legal posturing in favor of an apology approach.  “I’m sorry” legislation has been approved in 29 states and is gaining momentum.  To reduce the risk of litigation, New Jersey recently started the Sorry Works! Coalition.

Gaffes, slip-ups, and blunders present a fork in the road to relationship depth.  The proper apology, even in the most egregious circumstances, has the ability to strengthen relationships.   Even seemingly insignificant faux pas like arriving late for a meeting, mispronouncing someone’s name, or failing to include someone, present a moment of truth to building trust. 

We’re a “fix it” society.   Somehow, we convince ourselves that if we just correct the problem – without an apology – we’re back to our original balance in the trust bank account.  That’s a myth. 

So how do we build a worthy apology?

Experts like Aaron Lazare and Nick Smith, in their book On Apology, point to four essential parts of the apology, and we can remember them as the 4 R’s: Recognition, Responsibility, Remorse, and Reparation.

1.    Recognize – First, the offender must show they recognize their misbehavior by restating the offense as objectively and specifically as possible.   Repeating what happened and why will show that the offender understands not only where and how they went wrong, but why the offended is hurt.  Be direct, i.e., "I apologize for whatever I did to hurt you" won’t cut it!

2.    Responsibility – Second, the offender must accept responsibility for the action that caused offense.   No excuses here!  He can’t blame the beer or the bad mood.   The apology is all about THEM and how they feel.   It doesn’t matter if the actions were intentional or not, the end result is the same.

3.    Remorse – Third, the apology must show, sincerely, remorse for the misbehavior. Sincerity can’t be faked: we know it when we hear it.  We’ve all heard non-apology apologies.   Include a statement of apology along with a promise not to repeat the behavior.  Remember Don Imus (see  Imussed Up: Anatomy of a Failed Apology)?

4.    Reparation -The fourth essential component may be the trickiest: reparation. The offender has to give something back, atone in some way for his offense. This is easily said, but hard to do. How, indeed, do we mend a broken heart?

“The apology represents a common frailty –we are all human, we all make mistakes, perhaps even hurt someone, intentionally or not, then face the dilemma of where to go from there?” states Susan Morrison Hebble.  “For starters, the offender needs to listen, openly and earnestly.  They need to hear what the person has to say; let them talk; let them suggest what might be done to restore harmony to the relationship”. 

As Martha Beck writes, "The knowledge that one is heard and valued has incredible healing power; it can mend even seemingly irreparable wounds."

Here’s a hard truth: we must first admit that our own pride poses the biggest obstacle to apologizing.   I would propose, then, that the apology requires us to shift our focus from ourselves–our own discomfort, our own embarrassment, our own sense of guilt–to the person or people we’ve offended–his hurt, his sense of betrayal.   It requires us to act selflessly rather than selfishly. 

It is a daunting task, one that forces us to look at ourselves, at our own flaws, and then look beyond them to the person we’ve hurt.  But anyone who has offered up a real, solid, true apology will attest that in doing so they released themselves from the very pain, discomfort, and shame they’d been avoiding all along!

The 4 R’s aren’t rocket science, yet like most risk – reward propositions, they take practice.

Who do you need to apologize to?