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CEO Advisory: Speaking Truth to Power in Reverse

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A number of years ago, I developed a presentation for a Seton Hall University symposium.  It covered a familiar, yet important topic for the mid-to-senior level executives in attendance. The title: Speaking Truth to Power.  It included a brief history of speaking truth to power, which as you may imagine, included everything from “kill the messenger” to sage guidance from Warren Bennis.  That said, for many employees, sharing information with a CEO that may not be well received isn’t easy. They don’t want to be killed, fired, or feel diminished because they cared enough to communicate their point of view.  Let me share the topline recommendations I offered to employees about speaking to truth power, and then I’ll share some thoughts for you as the CEO, in reverse, if you will.

In speaking of followership, the late Warren Bennis wrote: “The most important characteristic may be a willingness to tell the truth. In a world of growing complexity, leaders are increasingly dependent on their subordinates for good information, whether the leaders want to hear it or not. Followers who tell the truth, and leaders who listen to it, are an unbeatable combination.”

Bennis continued by telling this story, “Movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn seems to have had a gut-level awareness of the importance of what I call “effective backtalk” from subordinates. After a string of box-office flops, Mr. Goldwyn called his staff together and told them: ‘I want you to tell me exactly what’s wrong with me and MGM, even if it means losing your job.’”

As the CEO, let’s see if you can frame this in a slightly more inviting way than Mr. Goldwyn did. To start, here’s the short version of what I advised employees at the symposium:

  1. Trust yourself. Have confidence in your expertise, your understanding of the situation, and the recommendations you’re providing.
  2. Consider it your responsibility to share your professional judgment.  It’s what you’re being paid to do.
  3. Know your audience.  Organize and frame the information in a fashion that you believe will be compelling and has the best chance of being heard.
  4. Be prepared. Anticipate any and all questions. If you’re going to present an idea or action be prepared to defend it.
  5. Make your point succinctly.  Don’t bury the lead.  Offer the headline and provide the supporting evidence.  Not the other way around.
  6. Do so in the broader interest, not self-interest.  Consider speaking truth to power as an organizational imperative, never a personal one.
  7. Persuade.  It’s not just about being able to defend your position, it’s about believing in it and asserting it.  Deliver your message with passion and be sure you are clearly understood.
  8. Be patient. You may not get an immediate response, so allow your CEO to chew on what you said for a while.
  9. Understand that bad news is better coming from you than from the outside.
  10. Trust your leadership.  If the CEO doesn’t take your recommendation, know that he/she recognizes your lens on the situation and you should trust theirs.

My hope now is to offer some guidance that will pave the way for you as the CEO to make this process easier for your employees.  Let’s start by assuming your door as always open and consider the following 10 points:

  1. Trust your people.  Trust that when they come to you, they are giving you their best judgment based on their expertise and vantage point. Recognize this as the act of generosity and courage that it is and thank them.
  2. You hired them for a reason.  Chances are, they have expertise in an area where you may not.  Staying quiet is not what you hired them to do. You need their best thinking to be vocalized in real time.  This is something to applaud, not discourage.
  3. Know your employee.  Be mindful of who that person is and why he/she is coming to you.
  4. Be patient.  Speaking truth to the CEO is tough enough without making them feel that they have 10 seconds to capture your attention.
  5. Be open to listening. Take time to fully understand the point of view they are sharing and why they feel so strongly about it.
  6. After you’ve listened, use appreciative inquiry to learn more.  By all means, pressure test their position, but do so in a fashion that its supportive, as opposed to putting them on the defensive.
  7. Consider it your default position that their motives are in the broader interest and not personal.  It’s critical to give them the benefit of the doubt here.  If they are operating in their self-interest, it won’t take a rocket scientist to figure it out.
  8. Don’t feel the need to respond in the moment. Thank your employee for coming to you.  If you need to give it more thought and gather more information, by all means do so.  That said, be sure to follow up with the employee directly.
  9. If it’s bad news, thank your employee for sharing it with you.  Better you hear it from the inside first, before it comes at you from the outside.  Again, this is something to applaud rather than discourage.
  10. Since I advised your employee to trust you, keep their unique vantage point in mind.  They are giving you the best recommendation they can based on the information they have.  Again, this is a gift and your employee should feel appreciated for it.

While writing The Power of Peers (2016), I interviewed iHeart Media Chairman and CEO Bob Pittman who talked to me extensively about the value of embracing the dissenters, who in the context of this article, I’ll call the earnest contributors.  Embracing them will involve inviting them to speak truth to power. Doing so will make your company the big winner!


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Leo Bottary
Leo Bottary is the founder and managing partner of Peernovation, LLC. He is a sought-after thought leader on peer advantage, an emerging discipline dedicated to strategically engaging peers to realize your business and life goals. A popular author, educator, keynote speaker and workshop facilitator, he advises both individuals and organizations and co-hosts the What Anyone Can Do podcast. Leo's first book, which he coauthored with former Vistage CEO Leon Shapiro, is titled The Power of Peers: How the Company You Keep Drives Leadership Growth & Success. His new book, What Anyone Can Do: How Surrounding Yourself with the Right People Will Drive Change, Opportunity, and Personal Growth, was released in September 2018. Leo is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine.
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