Thursday, February 21, 2013

Breaking the Silence

In the first of many Harvard Alumni Entrepreneurs events I plan to attend Michael Beer discussed on The Silent Killers to Strategy Execution.  The foundation of the talk was that there are insidious issues that pervade organizations of any type and prevent sustained success.  In order to create an enduring business executives need to continually bring these issues to the surface and face them head on.

  • Create trust based relationships.  Start by creating the culture with your employees and it will flow through to your customers and investors. 
    • This makes me wonder if quarterly volatility is an indication of a stock’s quality (are people trusting in the people or trading on quarterly results).
  • Expose misalignments and make them discussable.  Learning and governance is the structure that should be designed to surface performance and psychological alignment issues.  “Trust can speak to power about leadership and organizational effectiveness”.  This is why many companies hire consultants.  But do you really want to outsource something that should be your core competency?
  • People at the top are the biggest champions of the status quo. If you’re currently in change any change is all downside risk.
  • Silent Killers
    • Unclear strategy values, and conflicting priorities
    • Extreme leadership style – top down or laissez faire
    • Poor coordination
      • Often seen as the hub and spoke systems – relying on one point of management and communications
    • Inadequate leadership skills/development
    • Closed vertical communication resulting in low trust and problem solving

So, how do we get a productive conversation going?  Honest collective and public conversations.  Have this conversation on a regular basis and explicitly call out discussions for any historically known silent killers in your organizations.  Have an intermediary fitness task force that connects senior leadership team to the broader organization.

Helpful rules for great feedback and bring out the unvarnished truth

  • Perception is fact.  Don’t argue about veracity.  If employees are saying it you need to deal with it.
  • You can’t ask for sources.
  • Management can choose the taskforce – they need to choose people they trust.
  • Task force members need to follow up with the organizational members they spoke with to let them know that the message was delivered.
  • Feedback session layout – this physical layout offers a sense of communal security (together in the center) with management as observers on the outside. 


The taskforce provides the dialog and open feedback. Surveys don’t surface issues – they measure them.  And, as an added benefit – this will help you to develop talent.

While much of this is from the perspective of larger organizations, however, it is all applicable to startups.  Startups are intensely political and personality driven organizations powered by faith in the mission.  This often clouds management’s ability to collected feedback (despite having a flat organizations).  Consistently having honest collective and public conversations will ensure that you keep learning and continue to grow a healthy organization at any stage.

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